The Greatest, Joyless
January 1, 2002
of Muhammad Ali, the most famous and exciting American athlete since
Babe Ruth, should make a terrific movie. But I fell asleep in the middle of Michael
Manns Ali. It manages to make Alis story drab and
As the Greatest, Will Smith does his best. He
looks a bit like Ali, sometimes sounds strikingly like him, has impressively beefed
up his body, and even does a passable imitation of the champ in the ring. But
Alis fire, humor, and edge are just not there. To anyone who remembers the
constant surprise of the young Ali, Smiths performance will be
disappointing. Even today, a physical wreck who has trouble speaking audibly, Ali
retains the playful personality that Smith never captures.
As Howard Cosell, Alis barbed
champion in the media, Jon Voight is perfect. It was Cosell of whom Jimmy
Cannon wrote, His real name is Howard Cohen, and he wears a toupee, and
he says he tells it like it is. After a putdown like that, most people would
retire, or at least change their name and toupee. But Cosell had an ego to match
Alis, and Voight catches the mans arrogance, voice, and rugged
warmth so well I would never have guessed that it was Voight playing the role.
Its a very witty portrait.
The fight scenes are well done, but they are
too brief and too few. Alis first fight with Joe Frazier in 1971 may have
been the most eagerly expected sports event of the twentieth century two
undefeated heavyweight champs, one of them the most controversial man in
America, and lots of hard feelings to boot. It was Alis first loss in the
ring, and it destroyed his aura of invincibility. But in this film the epic moment
flashes by as if it were a minor incident.
This is an intelligent
film, and it deals with Alis private life without cliché: his
association with Malcolm X (well played by Melvin Van Peebles), the Nation of
Islam, and several wives. It could have been much worse. But it just never comes
to life. One episode dutifully follows another, all the bases are touched, but
without narrative force.
Who would have guessed that a movie about
Ali could be so joyless? Or that the gifted director of The Last of the
Mohicans a beautiful and thrilling movie could produce
such a bore?
At the same time, the film plays down
Alis cruelty to his opponents, particularly the insults
ugly, gorilla that would have been condemned
as crude race-baiting if theyd come from a white man. The darker his
opponents skin, the more biting his ridicule became, yet he got away with
claiming to be not only the Greatest, but the Blackest. A lot of his boasting and
teasing was meant in fun, but some of it was genuinely nasty and has been
permanently damaging to American standards of sportsmanship.
One of Alis most disputed victories is
also falsified. In his 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston, from whom hed won
his title the previous year, Ali won by a one-punch knockout in the first round. It
was the fishiest punch ever thrown, and observers have always suspected that
Liston took a dive (probably without Alis knowledge). In the film the punch
sounds like an axe hitting an oak. In real life nobody heard it and few thought they
had even seen it land. Ali rarely knocked out an opponent with one punch; speed, not
power, was his forte. And the seemingly indestructible Liston, of all people, was
the only man he ever stopped in the first round. (It was also the only time Liston
was stopped early.)
We tend to forget that the young Ali was
widely hated. And the chief reason we forget is that Ali was so fun-loving that
over the years he made people regret and forget that they had ever
disliked him. Its easy to feel, now, that he was always showing us a good
time, even when he was fighting with us. He refused to be gloomy, even when he
was robbed of his title, stripped of his income, and persecuted by the government.
No matter what the adversity, his jokes came as fast as his jabs.
This is what the people who made
Ali with the single exception of Voight dont
seem to understand: that Muhammad Ali was about the most fun this country ever