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IN SHORT: TKO. Ali loses. [Rated R for some language and brief violence. 135 minutes]
How to create the life story of Muhammed Ali, in three easy steps:
Step One: Understand what made Ali "the greatest." See where he came from; the place at which he was the lowest and what he overcame to rise to the top.
Step Two: Understand the inner fortitude of "the greatest." Fight his battles with him. Understand the emotional struggles that came with each and every persecution, professional and personal. Make us understand, if not sympathize or admire his fall from grace.
Step Three: Understand how the Phoenix Rising syndrome applies to the triumph of "the greatest." See step one.
If any of those first two steps had been taken to explain how Cassius Clay became exposed to the brand of Islam preached by Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm X it might help to explain why the first act of Ali is more about Malcolm X than about anything in the early history of the the former Mr. Clay. Michael Mann's Ali may be the first time in movie history that the title character is a supporting player in his own biography! In choosing to start his film in the year 1964, Mann has cavalierly dismissed those formative Wonder Years which would have fleshed out the emotionally vacant character that is left for Will Smith to portray on screen. Don't go running for those eMail programs yet, kidlets, Smith sounds like Ali and his look is close enough for rock 'n' roll. But as for that essence of Ali, what you get from Smith's performance is very much dependent on what you bring into the theater with you.
We haven't paid a lot of attention to the sport of boxing since Muhammed Ali retired. After all, what was the point? It would be entirely appropriate, if not expected, that the greatest biographical film story of all time be made about the life of the self-proclaimed Greatest of all time. We're not disputing or diss'ing that proclamation. We have no problems with it, whatsoever. But, in our humble opinion, a movie about at least part of the life of a real person should inform you of the bare essentials of its subject. The really good ones should make clear all the details that you've always wanted to know more about.
In its desire not to be a boxing movie like Rocky, Ali goes too far in the opposite direction. Director Michael Mann did not want to make a biography, so he didn't. Someone should have told the marketing department, which is advertising it as one. Someone should have done simple calculations when reading the first twenty or so pages of the screenplay, in which we see a young Cassius Clay running the streets of Chicago (we think) preparing for an upcoming title bout with then champion (we think) Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt). A lot of figures appear in the flashback of memories that come to Clay while he's pounding the punching bag: a guy we think is Liston; a guy we think is Malcolm X and a couple of others. If you don't know enough to put offscreen history together with the onscreen actors, you'll be in trouble.
Thirteen minutes in to this montage we finally get a name to associate with the face we see, that of Clay's trainer Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx). Brown, we learn (finally new info!) is the source and inspiration for the rhyming language that Ali will become famous for. The next half hour plus of story belongs to Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed and the battle for control of the PR bonanza that association with the champ brings.
Forget about learning anything about the the historical data of the man's life, because Mann assumes you already know it. Clay's childhood. Where he's from. His Olympic Gold and why it ended up at the bottom of a river. How he managed that 4-F draft board rating. How he was exposed to the Muslim faith. The time frame selected ends with the rope-a-dope win over George Foreman, many years before the triumphant surprise at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where the adulation of the world was focussed and total.
An uninformative script is made worse by an occasionally muddled sound mix. Nor does it present a visual problem to the director that, despite adding forty pounds of muscle to his 185 pound frame, actor Will Smith looks half the size of the boxers he pounds in the ring. We can't cross reference the script against real life dialogue but the chemistry, and the scenes that go with the verbal sparring between Ali and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) sparkle. Even under latex and wig Voight kicks ass as does Foxx' Bundini Brown.
We walked in with high expectations. Not a one of 'em was met.)
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Ali, he would have paid . . .
Honestly? If we'd given the film the "zero" rating, which is what it deserves, none of you would believe us that it was that bad. It is. Now you will know.
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