Sunday, April 28, 2002

 

by David Robinson

Ali

Even Will Smith's stoutest admirers would probably not have been able to predict, a few years back, that he would not only get the title role in Ali (available this week in video) but would also get and deserve an Oscar nomination. But his preparation -- physical and dramatic-- for this daunting characterization paid off. A buffed-up version of the former Fresh Prince occasionally makes us forget we're not watching the real thing, and Smith has studied The Champ's moves assiduously -- especially his all-but-inimitable footwork. Finally, he has the voice down pat, both the mocking, bantering, playful young Cassius Clay and the more bitter, outspoken Black Muslim who used his fame and notoriety as a platform for political pronouncements.

And it's on that famous mouth that director Michael Mann chooses to focus. Oh, there are plenty of fight sequences, and they are expertly realized, conveying both Ali's finesse and his strength. To anyone familiar with the actual fights themselves, it's clear that Mann and Smith have painstakingly studied them, attempting to suggest not only the rhythms of each but the personalities involved, as well. Joe Frazier's bullish truculence, George Foreman's devastating, if stolid, power, Jerry Quarry's game but hopelessly overmatched attempt -- all these come across well and will please fans of "the sweet science." Mann captures the rituals of the sport, too, elevating it beyond two people beating on each other, suggesting the reasons why (especially) the heavyweight champs have attained an almost-mythic aura.

Still, the first hour of the film deals rather more with Ali's growth as a man than as a boxer. In particular, Clay's relationship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), his political and spiritual mentor, receives enough attention so that, when the boxer drops his "slave name" and converts to Islam, it's a logical extension of his earlier life. That concentration comes at the expense of exploring the influence of trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) and, to a lesser degree of friend Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx). Later, though, the relationship with equally egotistical sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voigt, who also received an Oscar nomination) ) emerges in its complexity, their verbal sparring complementing the loyalty and mutual respect of the two wildly different men.

With other people -- especially women -- Ali comes off as less than admirable. He admits to one of his extramarital conquests, a young reporter named Veronica, that women have always been his weakness, a failure in Islam. He can also be abusive to his wives -- one of whom, Sonji, is played by Jada Pinkett Smith, the star's real-life spouse -- even as his love for his own and other children shines through. And his passionate conviction in his own rightness sometimes becomes merely self-righteousness.

In short, Mann and fellow screenwriter Eric Roth have produced a rounded portrait of one of the most electrifying figures of the past century, in sports or out. The director and production designer Jen Myhre concretely establish the American social context of the decade (1964-74) which the movie covers. The soul music, the omnipresent TV, the Vietnam War and the protest movement emerge without becoming cliche.

Ali, as the title implies, catches the spirit of a man at one time thought to be the most recognizable in the world. Smith's tour de force in the title role has gotten the most press, perhaps rightly so. But the movie satisfies and surprises in many ways, not the least of which is that it can't be termed a "boxing movie." Rated "R" primarily for language, it catches and holds the attention more by its intelligence than its spectacle or action. At nearly three hours, it could use more judicious editing and often "plays slow," but it's worth the time and attention.


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