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Review: 'Ali' not the greatest

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Michael Mann's "Ali," starring Will Smith as the legendary boxer/civil rights figure, Muhammad Ali, accurately recreates several key events in the life of a 20th century icon. It's a committed attempt at an important film, but the winds of change that punctuated the 1960s continually overwhelm Mann's narrative.

Ali's decision to loudly proclaim his -- and, in effect, his race's -- sense of pride made him both a hero and a target during his rise to fame. That much we understand. What Mann repeatedly misses is the joy and anguish that, one assumes, informed Ali's private journey. The script contains too many public declarations, and not enough probing exchanges in the champ's living room.

CNN's Charles Feldman reports on how the new Will Smith movie shows Muhammad Ali's transformation from a sports figure into an American icon (December 25)

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It would take three or four movies to properly convey the width of Ali's life; his growth from an underprivileged Louisville, Kentucky, schoolboy to the most-famous person on Earth is loaded with astonishing peaks and valleys. But you won't see him angrily tossing his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River in this movie. And there's no mention of the "Thrilla in Manila" against Joe Frazier, which is widely considered to be the greatest boxing match of all time.

Time constraints, and the necessity of avoiding a different climax every 15 minutes, forces a lot of paring down. Mann chooses to focus on Ali's refusal to serve in the Vietnam War for both religious and racial reasons, his subsequent (and, as it turned out, illegal) three year suspension from boxing, and his shocking 1974 victory over George Foreman in Zaire.

The movie opens in February 1964, as Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) is training to fight Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight crown. From there, Clay converts to the Black Muslim religion, is given his new name, and develops a close relationship with the soon-to-be-assassinated Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles, who's unexpectedly effective).

Both Malcolm and Martin Luther King were public figures at the time of Ali's rise, though Ali was the popular conduit who brought forward-looking black culture to the masses. Once again, though, there's no mention of how aware Ali was of the particulars of his situation. Smith is encouraged to just furrow his brow and stare into the middle distance when things grow tense, a pose that, more often than not, is accompanied by a great soul tune from the period. The inordinate number of music-laden montages points up just how much information has to be conveyed, even in a "Reader's Digest" version of the Ali myth.

Mann is oddly leery of meaningful interpersonal exchanges between Ali, his wives and his handlers. If you're not already familiar with the members of his inner circle, you'll basically still be guessing about them when the movie is over. Jamie Foxx, as Ali's confidant, Drew "Bundini" Brown, is the only actor outside of Smith who's given a chance to develop a complex character, and even he gets shortchanged. Trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright), and the wives (Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, and Michael Michele, in succession) basically stand around like window dressing. And the less said about Jon Voight's bizarre turn as Howard Cosell, the better. He gets the voice right, as most of us do, but he looks like his head has been dipped in sealing wax.

Just as Robert Downey Jr. did when he portrayed the equally iconic Charlie Chaplin, Smith understands the power of reproducing the small, unconscious signifiers of an immediately recognizable personality. He put on 30 pounds of muscle in preparation for the role, and flawlessly duplicates Ali's vocal and physical rhythms. But every time it seems like he's ready to let fly in a scene, Mann cuts away and proceeds with the next earth-shaking event. The immensity of Ali's unconquerable spirit becomes more a subtext than the actual point of the movie, and that's a real shame. This isn't a failed picture, but it's an exceptionally curious missed opportunity. A story as amazing as Ali's should generate awe, not light applause.

If you have any interest at all in the subject, "Ali" is worth your time. The events are a pivotal part of latter day American history, and they're beautifully photographed. There's some minor sex, and the violence in the ring (Smith takes some honest-to-goodness shots to both the body and the head) is pretty rough.

"Ali" opens Christmas Day and is rated R.




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