- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Much effort and sincere hero worship apparently shaped "Ali," Michael Mann's biographical homage to the boxer Muhammad Ali, but the movie, which casts Will Smith in the lead role, lacks punch. Ali often was a savvy spectacle in his own right while promoting bouts that put his pride and financial well-being on the line. He has proved to be a disappointing subject for movie apotheosis, however. The first time, in "The Greatest" 25 years ago, he played himself.
The main obstacle to "Ali" would appear to be director Mann's tunnel vision. The movie's continuity bobs and sprawls within a relatively brief time frame, encompassing slightly more than a decade of highlights. They begin with the build-up to the 1964 heavyweight championship fight against Sonny Liston at Miami Beach and conclude with the title bout against George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire, in 1974. In other words, we see the famously stunning occasions when Ali frustrated hulking titleholders who were favored heavily.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mann's attention keeps wandering. A Sam Cooke medley, with David Elliott pantomiming as the crooner in a nightclub before throngs of adoring women, is prolonged to such an extent at the outset that you might suspect you have walked into "The Sam Cooke Story" by mistake.
One hour into "Ali," you're still not sure whether the protagonist is Mr. Smith as the title character or Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, who was Ali's mentor when he converted to the Nation of Islam.
During the final hour, Mr. Mann also ignores the existence of Taylor Hackford's authoritative documentary reconstruction of the Zaire fight in "When We Were Kings," released just five years ago.
Not that the Mann re-enactment lacks impressiveness in its own blinkered terms. Mr. Smith's simulation of the Ali rope-a-dope ruse and the emphasis given to body blows by both the star and Charles Shufford, the stand-in for the young Mr. Foreman, acquire a measure of pictorial grandeur as the rounds roll by.
Nevertheless, the movie as a whole remains misshapen and disillusioning. The celebratory note of the finale kind of rubs it in, with the filmmaker exulting in a myth of the victorious Ali as uncrowned king and rainmaker of Africa. Mr. Mann evidently dotes on an enduring fantasy of Third World redemption and triumphalism. Reality begs some blunt questions, such as: How is Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) doing circa 2002?
The more prudent path might have been to start in the present, with a reminder of the beloved figure Ali has become since his retirement and ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease. Then the young and often inflammatory upstart, originally known as Cassius Clay, could have been retrieved in something approximating his Act 1 splendor and strife, but from a perspective that would more or less correspond to the current national outlook.
"Ali" is stuck in an idealized state of mind that reflects attitudes of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Once upon a time, it was fashionable to assume Ali's fitful appetite for being a racial and cultural lightning rod or his strictly professional vicissitudes as a boxer were fraught with portents of global historical magnitude. The past 20 years have humbled such exaggerations, as time has a way of doing. Admitting as much seems unthinkable to Mr. Mann.
Ironically, the small-scale depictions tend to authenticate the movie more than the big sporting events, publicity stunts and controversies for example, the scene in which Ali shares his fascination for a TV documentary on termites, or the winning moment when he and Joe Frazier (James N. Toney) quietly arrange a title fight, or the daintiness of Albert Hall as Elijah Muhammad, nestled on one of the plastic covers that protect his sofas.
The most impassioned portrayals are contributed by Jamie Foxx as the sometimes funny, sometimes pitiful factotum Drew "Bundini" Brown and by Nona Gaye as the second Mrs. Ali, Belinda, upon discovering in Zaire that she has become expendable.
Although Mr. Smith has said it was difficult to find archival footage in which Ali wasn't boisterous or foxy, the movie tends to leave its star sulky and impassive so frequently that I started longing for eruptions of the public, showboating figure.
Mr. Smith and Jon Voight re-enact a few highlights from the odd-couple act that linked Ali to the late Howard Cosell, but the mutually self-promoting amusement value of the original encounters that pretended to match blithe spirit with stuffed shirt elude adequate reincarnation.
Certain elements of "Ali" are so perfunctory and inconclusive that they might as well have been ditched, such as the fleeting wrangles between Cassius Clay Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito) and Junior about the young man's conversion to Islam and insistence on a name change.
A bewildering cut makes Ali's lawyer appear to be at the scene of Martin Luther King's assassination, although such a juxtaposition obviously is crackpot. Similar oddities tend to proliferate.

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