(Not) The Greatest
Boxer Muhammad Ali used to call himself The Greatest. Maybe someday a great, exhilarating drama will be made about the once most famous, motor-mouthed, magnetic, vain, provocative, beloved and reviled man in sports history. The 1977 biopic starring Ali was not that film. Neither is Michael Mann’s Ali starring the game but under-challenged Will Smith.
My father took me to see the young brash boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay win the heavyweight championship from brutish Sonny Liston in a sort of 1964 version of delayed pay-for-view. The fight was billed with Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal at a suburban drive-in theatre. One of the men drinking in the car parked next to us puked out a back-seat window. “Must be here to see The Cardinal,” said pop in defense of fight fans everywhere as we settled in to watch Clay “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
That match, fought the same month the Beatles crossed the Atlantic, was a seminal moment in my appreciation of cocky underdog Clay’s amazing speed, strength and shrewdness. Mann uses it to launch the story of Clay’s transformation into controversial athletic icon Muhammad Ali. Looking for a fractional period emblematic of Ali’s entire life, Mann ends his film at the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s 1974 battle in Zaire against then-champ George Foreman. Against the backdrop of American social and political unrest, Ali becomes involved with Malcolm X, converts to the Nation of Islam, is married twice, has affairs (putting to bed the practice of celibacy while in training), refuses induction into the army and is stripped of and reclaims his title.
Mann gets most of the basics right but doesn’t quite capture Ali’s soul or spiritual growth and commitment. The film lacks incendiary drama and needs more fleshed-out relationships. The film runs 2-1/2 hours but still feels underdeveloped.
I thought the Mann-made drama The Insider was last year’s best movie. Mann’s dramatization of corporate menace and the sacrifice needed to let truth be known is intimate and disturbing. His visionary talent was deceptively invisible as a complex story about inner human struggle, censorship and social conscience develops with passion and clarity. Here Mann’s rather impressionistic approach mutes both character and conflict. It feels like Mann reduces a bigger-than-life personality to common mortal and in the process also reduces the story’s depth and urgency.
Smith beefed and buffed up to star as Ali. The former Fresh Prince looks like the champ, and justly imitates Ali’s speech rhythms and body movements. He just isn’t given enough meaty material on which to gnaw. I couldn’t tell if Ali took an active role in making or merely coasted through history on inertia alone. Standouts in the cast include Jon Voight as Howard Cosell and Jaime Foxx as Ali corner man Drew “Bundini” Brown. Other players are Ron Silver as the all but ignored Angelo Dundee, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, Mykelti Williamson as Don King and Jada Pinkett Smith and Nona Gaye (singer Marvin’s daughter) as Ali’s wives.
The opening sequence in which Ali’s training is intercut with flashbacks and footage of Sam Cooke performing in a small nightclub is an intriguing swirl of music and images. Ali’s impromptu jog through Zaire is atmospheric but overly long. The boxing scenes are accurate but not always exciting, and the film is dotted with such memorable moments as massive Foreman leaving dents in a punching bag, and a trainer readying his tools of the trade before entering the ring. The rift between Elijah Mohammad and Malcolm X is not detailed, but the film does not ignore black militancy issues (“Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger,” says Ali) and includes Ali’s infamous wisecracks (“I’m gonna hit George Foreman so fast that he’s gonna think he’s surrounded”).
“I’m definitely going to be the people’s champion but I’m not going to be the champion the way you want me,” says Ali. Mann dances around that attitude with the same dexterity Ali exhibits in the ring but fails to generate any knockout insight or revelation.