- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

There's a scene in the 1996 documentary, "When We Were Kings," about Muhammad Ali's fight against George Foreman in Zaire, where Drew "Bundini" Brown, Ali's confidant and assistant trainer, offered some good insights for Hollywood.
"This is no Hollywood set," Brown said, talking about the life and times of Ali. "This is real. Hollywood come in here and take these scenes, have somebody come in there playing his life. This is real, we don't pick up a script. This is God's act, we're just actors in it."
It wasn't always easy to figure out what Bundini was saying, but here he was pointing out, how could you make a movie that was better than the reality?
Michael Mann didn't. Oh, the "Ali" movie he directed, which premiered Christmas Day, isn't boxing's version of "The Babe Ruth Story." Will Smith is not William Bendix. It's not a bad movie, and Will Smith certainly does turn in an impressive performance.
It's just not a great movie, and it should have been since it is a movie about "The Greatest."
Granted, it is not easy to make a movie about someone who is still so very much in the public consciousness, and about who there is already a library full of video available so much so that ESPN Classic could launch an offshoot cable channel called the Ali Classic Network.
But Mann and his screenwriters simply gave up. They decided that there is nothing we can reveal about this man that hasn't been revealed before, so let's just tell the story everyone knows, a broad, sweeping look at the life of Ali so sweeping that you wouldn't even see or learn anything about the place where Brown made his comments, Ali's training camp in Deer Lake, Pa.
"I had to find a story I wanted to tell," Mann said.
He didn't look far. The story he told could have been found in a couple of afternoons of newspaper research for even the average screenwriter who was clueless about Ali. For anyone with any depth of knowledge of Ali, the story could have been told off the top of his head.
How can you make a movie about Muhammad Ali without dealing with what Ali is going through right now? I know it's fashionable to ignore what has happened to him, but the fact is that here you have a sports icon who talked his way into the American consciousness and now barely can speak. Talk about Hollywood. What about the struggle that this man has had to go through to deal with his Parkinson's?
The body and speech that had served him so well has now betrayed him. Do we think he just woke up one day and said, 'OK, this is how I am don't feel sorry for me?' It took some searching of the soul for him to arrive at where he is today, and that's a story we haven't seen yet.
Did film researchers know that when Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's, he retreated to his old training camp in the Pennsylvania mountains in Deer Lake which had been closed for several months after his final fight, a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981 isolating himself, and actually visiting with neighbors nearby, asking them not to tell anyone he was there or what he was doing. Ali had some epic struggles, both in and out of the ring, but now he was facing his own mortality, and is there any greater personal battle for a man than to come to grips with that?
No. All we get is the continued deification of Ali, although Mann claims his film is not an idealization of Ali. "To idealize Ali is to diminish his humanity," Mann said.
So when we see the relationship between Ali and Brown an integral part of the film why don't we see Ali slapping Brown, in what was a dramatic moment in Ali's dressing room before the Foreman fight? Brown wanted Ali to wear a robe he had designed for him, but Ali was trying on another robe, according to George Plimpton's book, "Shadow Box," when Ali slapped Brown for refusing to look at him in the mirror.
"You look when I tell you," Ali screamed, slapping him again. The film makes the connection between Ali and Bundini an important one, but in the moment of the biggest fight of his life, Ali slaps his soulmate around in the dressing room, and it's not in the movie? Granted, you can't put all the details of Ali's life in a two-hour film, but you look for dramatic moments that will reveal something about the subject that most of us don't know. Instead of scratching the surface, we get the surface.
And then there is the relationship between Ali and trainer Angelo Dundee. Actor Ron Silver said he fought hard for the role of Dundee, but the deal must have been that he would have to play the trainer as a mute. Harpo had more lines in a Marx brothers movie than the Dundee character has in this film.
I'm sure most people will probably enjoy the movie. Michael Mann has made quality films, such as "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat" and "The Insider," and this film has the look and sound of a Michael Mann film, right down to the music video scene of Smith, as Ali, running through the streets in Zaire before the Foreman fight.
But the character study isn't there, and neither is the story. There's still a movie to be made about Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and rent the Leon Gast film, "When We Were Kings." As Bundini Brown said, it's no Hollywood set.

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