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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Like people in most of the rest of the world, Americans are sports-crazy. We watch football, basketball, tennis, baseball, even golf, tennis and water polo. Yet ask the average American to name quickly the most colorful people in the industry and you'll hear just a few, including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Sammy Sosa, and if the age is right, Muhammad Ali. Though Joe Louis might have been the most important and celebrated boxer of his century, Ali was the most colorful. The poet-laureate of pugilism, Ali was known for his big mouth at least as much as his famous fists, his contentious refusal to accept induction into the armed forces for Vietnam combat, the casting aside of his given name in favor of one given to him by the leader of the Nation of Islam and, in fact, his snap-judgment in accepting the Muslim religion as his true faith.

Michael Mann's 154-minute film is not long enough to do this momentous hero justice. Unfortunately shifting from major event to significant change without sufficient exposition orf connective tissue, "Ali" nonetheless does a superb job of punctuating the boxer's rise to greatness, the flouting of the draft laws which cost him the crown, and his subsequent and persistent climb back to the top. Intercutting frequently between events that are not usually seen as related--such as Mann's focus on singer Sam Cooke's crooning to an adoring crowd and then to Ali's jogging on the dismal, snow-cluttered Chicago streets--Mann portrays the man as one whose achievements easily compensate for his flaws, his persistence counteracting his imperfections.

Played by a firmed-up Will Smith--who does not look at all like the large, broad-shouldered title character--"Ali" alternates between some intense, realistic shots in the ring and the man's tumultuous personal life, events which simultaneously depressed and exalted the man. Dancing in his bouts with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, he appears to embrace the strategy of wearing out his opponents and then coming in for the kill in one of the latter rounds--a technique from which his adversaries never seem to learn as they rush toward the hulking figure, getting him on the ropes only to be subjected to frequent clinches as Ali regains his strength and plots his future approaches.

His personal life is highlighted by his marriages, first to the 5'3" Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith, who is Will Smith's real-life wife), the movie treating his frequent womanizing as mere incidentals that do not mar the hero's name in the media or with his fans. The interactions that make the largest impact are those between Ali and his manager, Drew Brown (played by James Foxx in perhaps the film's most complex role) and with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), who unfortunately underplays the fiery black nationalist leader, making him appear like a sleepwalker growing through the motions of stirring up the crowd. Jon Voight turns in a remarkable impersonation of sports announcer Howard Cosell, cheap rug and all, as the guy who you might expect to remain impartial to the people he discusses but who is obviously adoring the exchange of good-natured barbs with the champ.

"Ali" is at times a breathtaking movie, taking off particularly in the ring as his jabs to Joe Frazier, George Forman and Sonny Liston reverberate like the incessant drums that give ambiance to the scenes of Ali's championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire (actually filmed in Mozambique). Will Smith is easily up to the task of showing the guy's greatness, his motormouth barbs at his opponents (whom he regularly calls big and ugly) matching the signature acting of Chris Tucker while his pugilistic appearances afford us front-row seats at a price that is the fraction of what the sporting fans paid to see the world championship bouts. This "Ali" stings like a bee.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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