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movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Ali

Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx
Director: Michael Mann
Rated: R
RunTime: 147 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genres: Drama, Sports

*Also starring: Jon Voight, Michael Bentt, Albert Hall, Nona Gaye, Mario Van Peebles, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ron Silver

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

At the sneak preview for "Ali," two distinct waves of excited whispering swept the packed house early in the film. As best as I could tell, one came primarily from the older people in the crowd when they first heard the champ begin one of his legendary rhymes. The second came mostly from the younger viewers when they got their initial look at a buffed up Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. The split between generations was confirmed in the lobby after the screening. Exiting groups with more years under their belts discussed the triumphs and scandals of Ali, with some assessing how comprehensive a picture the movie painted. Meanwhile, the kids talked about Smith, Jamie Foxx and other younger, familiar performers. The only comment I heard about Ali from their ranks came when a woman in her late teens tell a friend, "The only thing I knew about him was that he was kinda obnoxious, but I guess he was really pretty cool."

Hopefully, those who enjoy this film will check out "When We Were Kings," Don Gast's superb 1996 documentary chronicling 1974's "Rumble In The Jungle" between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. In great detail, it captures the mesmerizing, often surreal, circus atmosphere surrounding the event while providing a revealing portrait of the man in the center of the frenzy. As opposed to Gast's film, director Michael Mann's 154-minute biography struggles hard, but fails to provide any real insight into the man. Instead, we get a greatest hits package "Now That's What I Call Ali" if you will depicting one high profile moment after another.

The film does present some scenes that are more personal, such as the depiction of the friendship between Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, buried under make-up while doing a dandy impression of the broadcast icon). I don't know how close Ali and Cosell were in real life, or if they really manipulated others as shown here, but the affectionate glances between them as they play out their little conspiracies is a pleasure to watch. Would that the relationships between Ali and women were portrayed as clearly. Here comes a wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), whoops, there she goes and here comes another one (Nona Gaye), but wait, who is that he's cheating with? Don't expect any clarification.

While the film glosses over too much of Ali's life, both professional and personal, it offers a variety of engaging performances. Mario Van Peebles does a sturdy Malcolm X, Ron Silver is very good as mentor Angelo Dundee and Jamie Foxx manages to portray the missteps of Ali trainer Drew "Bundini" without making him look like a buffoon. As Muhammad Ali, Will Smith gives absolutely everything he's got. His physical transformation is remarkable and his acting equally impressive. Listen as he captures the great man's inflections and vocal cadence. Clearly, Smith's goal is to do right by his hero and friend, and his devotion shows.

Underscoring the players is a strong score by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, mixing gospel music and African chorale melodies with more traditional sounds.

That "Ali" fails to do more than colorfully skim the surface of its subject's life may be less about the filmmakers and more about the man. Some people live so large that a movie is insufficient to capture them and I'd wager that Muhammad Ali is one of those people.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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