reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, December 24, 2001
The tagline to director Michael Mann's movie "Ali," starring Will Smith as the most famous boxer of all time, is "Forget what you think you know."
You can say that again.
In one of the most frustrating disappointments of recent years, Mann depicts Muhammad Ali - the incomparably extroverted, entertaining, and infuriating celebrity - as a morose introvert, a loner who seems to drag his own personal cloud of gloom around with him.
Dirge-like organ chords ominously underscore much of the action, helpfully letting you know when something heartbreaking is about to happen, such as our hero pounding the thuggish Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1964.
In "When We Were Kings," the delightful Oscar-winning documentary about the storied 1974 Ali - George Foreman fight in Zaire, one of the highlights is footage of a enchanted Ali jogging through the streets of Kinshasa. He is urged on to victory over Foreman by hundreds of ecstatic African boys running with him and chanting "Ali, kill him!"
Yet, Mann restages the jog with poor Smith grimacing in nonstop spiritual agony, as if he could foresee the horrors that his host, President-for-Life Mobutu, would inflict on these children over the next quarter century. In reality, of course, Ali had his eyes on the $5 million that Mobutu was paying him, not on the notorious dictator's monstrousness.
Mann has directed several well-received movies, such as 1999's "The Insider," which electrified Hollywood and the critics (although not the public) with its shocking revelation that cigarettes are bad for you.
Still, Mann remains best known for creating that symbol of all things 1980's: "Miami Vice." Lifting the show above its general aura of stylish ridiculousness and giving it needed tragic heft was the performance of the somber Edward James Olmos as Lt. Castillo, a man permanently weighted down by the life-or-death moral burdens of command.
Now, Michael Mann is probably the only person ever to see Lt. Castillo and Muhammad Ali as psychological twins. Sadly, Mann is also the only person ever to be handed $105 million to make Ali's amazing life into a movie.
The movie runs from Ali's 1964 first triumph over Liston, through his 1967 suspension for draft evasion, his 1971 loss to Joe Frazier, and his 1974 comeback win over Foreman. The script by Mann and three others is a mess. Only boxing fans over 40 with a fair knowledge of 1960's social history will make much sense out of what is happening. And even old crocks like me will be baffled repeatedly by some of the most muffled dialogue since "The Jazz Singer."
Will Smith, however, is terrific whenever Mann lets him portray Ali rather than Lt. Castillo. The rapper-comedian matches Ali's verbal speed and comes close enough to his boxing quickness. Smith doesn't particularly look like Ali, but his flawless face makes plausible his character's loudly proclaimed love affair with his own prettiness.
The movie isn't quite as worshipful as one would expect, given Ali's current saintly image. Its main criticism of Ali is that when his friend Malcolm X stopped preaching racial loathing in 1964 and left the Black Muslims, Ali turned his back on him. Throughout the movie, Ali remained a follower of Elijah Muhammad's hate-driven Nation of Islam, even after Elijah's followers murdered his ex-friend Malcolm in 1965.
Of course, Mann skips over much else about Ali that doesn't fit today's stereotype.
A middle class mulatto, Ali was a brown racist. He not only hated white men (he believed African-Americans who married whites should be killed), but also looked down upon black men like Joe Frazier, an uncomplicated but hugely courageous warrior. Ali repeatedly used the racial slur "gorilla" on the jet-black Frazier, who had earlier given Ali money when he fell on hard times.
Nor does Mann mention that he was illiterate, as Ali openly admitted. Early in his career, his IQ tested at 78. Gerald Early, a prominent black studies professor and editor of the "Muhammad Ali Reader," commented, "He hadn't a single idea in his head, really … I think the score was an honest reflection of Ali's mental abilities "
Yet, Early notes, "He was intuitive, glib, richly gregarious, and intensely creative, like an artist." Ali's vivid personality changed how athletes behave. Before Ali, jocks were expected to act modest, fair, and kind, just like public school boys in Victorian England:
Ali liberated athletes in most sports (other than golf) from the code of the British gentleman. He led them back to the in-your-face braggadocio of Goliath and other ancient warriors. Fans loved Ali's chest-thumping, but few other athletes possess his humor. Ali's charmless children include Barry Bonds, John McEnroe, Allen Iverson, and Randy Moss.
Still, despite Ali's flaws, he didn't deserve Mann's glum treatment. He was brave, hard working, sensationally gifted, triumphant, and, most of all, fun.