By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Midway through Michael Mann's new biopic "Ali," the title character bursts from a U.S. courtroom, flanked by reporters and lawyers, a musical score swelling ominously in the background to capture the moment. Already Ali has been stripped of his heavyweight title (for refusing to fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs), and now the government is threatening to send him to prison. It's a pivotal scene.

Will Smith as Ali
Will Smith became Muhammad Ali in some scenes, but then he quickly went back to being Will Smith.

Frustrated and defiant, Ali rages against the powers that be, shouting at the top of his lungs, playing to the crowd, walking as he's talking, saying nothing and saying everything. You can feel his resolve hardening as the words keep coming, almost as if he's convincing himself, as if he's saying, "They keep thinking they're gonna break me, but they are not gonna break me!"

It's a magical, magical scene. For 45 seconds, Will Smith nails it. He transforms into Muhammad Ali, quite simply the most famous and charismatic athlete of the 20th century.

Alas.

That's the catch. Smith spends the movie vacillating between playing "Ali" and playing "Will Smith made up to look like Ali," and it's not even really his fault. A daunting task for any biographer, Ali showed so many sides over the years -- soft-spoken and thoughtful; boisterous and obnoxious; frustrated and defiant; charismatic and playful; naive and trusting; inspired and hysterical; sweet and forgiving; cunning and instigating; handsome and cunning; mean-spirited and vicious -- and doubled as (arguably) the greatest heavyweight of all-time. No modern actor could capture Ali completely and totally.

So when Smith falls short, it shouldn't come as a surprise ... and yet I found myself disappointed after the movie, precisely because of four or five scenes like the aforementioned courtoom scene, when Smith nailed The Moment and had me thinking, "Hot damn, he's gonna pull this freaking thing off!"

Nope.

Will Smith
One of the biggest problems with "Ali" is that we have so many vivid real-life memories of the title character.

Good movie? Yes. Exceedingly watchable? Absolutely. Great movie? No way.

If so much video of Ali didn't exist, if our memories of him weren't so distinct and vibrant, maybe I wouldn't have left "Ali" shaking my head. Let's face it ... we didn't really need a full-fledged Hollywood treatment of Ali. We can watch his memorable fights on ESPN Classic, sift through copious features and books (written by many of the finest journalists and writers of his generation, no less), soak in an infinite number of documentaries, and treasure his electric performance in the wondrous "When We Were Kings" (which I will definitely show my grandchildren some day).

So why compete with those things? Why try? Why reconstruct something that was already constructed ideally the first time around?

Actually, I can answer that question.

Here's Michael Mann -- one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, the man who created "Miami Vice" and spearheaded "Jericho Mile," "Heat" and "The Insider," for God's sake -- nearing middle age and thinking to himself, "If I pull this baby off, it becomes my legacy."

Michael Mann
Director Michael Mann focused on even the smallest of details in making "Ali."

At the same time, here's Will Smith -- a true superstar, a mega-celebrity, probably the only African-American actor younger than 40 who can open a big-budget movie by himself, nearing his absolute prime -- and he's thinking to himself, "Deep down, I know I haven't made a worthwhile movie since 'Six Degrees of Separation.' "

So, they both throw themselves into this project, devoting two full years making it spring to life. Smith spends an entire year preparing for the role, learning how to box, absorbing Ali's speech patterns, adding nearly 35 pounds of muscle to his frame. Mann spends his time setting up the movie locations, diagramming the boxing scenes punch by punch, hiring the actors and the crew, navigating all the potential red flags and red tape, overseeing Smith's progress and doing everything else you can imagine (he's a legendary perfectionist).

And they almost pulled it off.

Mann smartly concentrates on 10 years of Ali's life -- 1964-1974, Ali's prime, which extends from the first Liston fight in Miami to the "Rumble in the Jungle" against Foreman in Zaire. Very savvy. Suddenly you had a real narrative arc: Ali shocks the world and defeats the unbeatable champion, then his title gets unfairly taken away, then he can't regain it, and just as his skills are starting to erode, he has to defeat another unbeatable champion -- in Africa, of all places -- and he does. The end.

Will Smith as Ali
The movie opens with Ali stunning Sonny Liston to gain the heavyweight title.

Perfect. No moviegoer wants to watch Ali slowly deteriorate after the third Frazier fight again; it was haunting enough the first time. But even with that narrowed focus, the film runs too long and meanders all over the place. At the screening I attended three weeks ago, "Ali" surpassed the 170-minute mark, and that was without opening and closing credits. Yikes. As I've mentioned many times in this space, nothing (and I mean, NOTHING) should surpass the 150-minute mark unless there's a really good reason (movies, games, car rides, whatever). Keep anyone sitting in a movie theater for that long, and they'll get restless (save for an unequivocal classic like "The Godfather").

So that was one major problem. Some of the other problems, in order:

1. The Meandering Story
Will Smith
The film spent way too much time focusing on Ali's relationships with his wives.

Just some strange choices of the "What was/wasn't included" variety here. Mann devotes extensive time to Ali's relationships with his three wives. The first one was a sex machine who rebelled against his religious beliefs (she didn't last). The second one was a devoted, dutiful woman of Islam, but he still cheated on her (she lasted a little longer). The third one was a glamorous temptress who couldn't be resisted (the movie ends before he marries her).

Well, you know what? The details weren't that interesting the first time around. I think I speak for everyone here.

Same goes for Ali's relationship with his religion, which was much more complex and dynamic and certainly deserved to be addressed ... but not in excruciating detail. Did we really need another re-enactment of Malcolm X's murder (couldn't we have just had Ali hearing the news on the radio?), or various scenes that kept driving home the "Black Muslim leaders took advantage of Ali and raped him financially" theme? Some of the scenes were extremely well-done, sure ... but they are best-suited for the "Deleted Scenes" section of the DVD in eight months.

Best Moments
The Sports Guy's favorite scenes in "Ali":

  • The opening few minutes are almost indescribable (in a good way), a quick montage of scenes from Ali's pre-Liston years juxtaposed with a spine-chilling 10-minute stage performance by an actor/singer playing the late Sam Cooke. Incredible way to start the movie.

  • Some of the supporting performances are terrific, including Jon Voight as Howard Cosell (who gets better as the movie goes along), Nona Gaye as Ali's second wife, Jamie Foxx as Bundini Brown and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X (underrated). Maybe the only thing that bothered me here was that Cosell came off so sympathetically just because he defended Ali during the Vietnam thing. Talk about Hollywood leeway ...

  • One of the best directors alive from a visual standpoint -- remember, the man created "Miami Vice," for God's sake -- Mann couldn't have possibly filmed the movie any better. Six or seven scenes in here really stand out; whether they deserved to be included in the movie is another story (like Malcolm's assassination).

  • Special kudos to the exquisitely choreographed fight scenes -- re-created almost to the punch and definitely to the point of excess -- which are some of the finest boxing scenes ever captured on film. A number of punches make you think, "How the hell did they film that?" and "Wait a second, that actually landed!" During the climactic Foreman fight, some punches land with such force that you can see the actors' faces crumble and shake. Again, it's amazing to watch.

  • My two favorite scenes were the aforementioned courtroom scene (9.8 on the Chill factor scale) and the scene when Ali enters a packed, rabid stadium in Africa before the Foreman fight, as the camera swings around to capture the look of surprise on his face (9.4 CF). Just for those scenes alone, "Ali" is worth seeing.
  • On the flip side, why was Ali's rivalry with Joe Frazier glossed over, save for three minutes devoted to a prefight scene where Frazier and Ali drive around in Philly, before Ali regains his license, when Joe asks if Ali needs any money (and this scene wasn't even accurate because, in real life, Ali accepted cash from him), plus a brisk, hurried treatment of Ali-Frazier I (only one of the most memorable sporting events of the 20th century).

    Maybe I'm crazy here, but wasn't Ali's contentious relationship with Frazier -- which divided the African-American community, mirrored everything that was happening with Vietnam at the time and forever exposed Ali's vicious side -- much more intriguing and multi-layered than his relationship with his religion or his ex-wives?

    Thirty years later, people keep writing about Ali-Frazier and producing documentaries about their feud ... I don't remember reading or watching anything about Ali and his wives, or Ali's role within the Nation of Islam. Again, nobody cares.

    2. Will Smith
    Please keep in mind, Smith was the best possible choice and his talents were maximized here. (He does yeoman's work in the superb boxing sequences, mimicking Ali's style pretty much to a tee). Charismatic and likable, he handles a difficult role pretty well ... but it's an uneven performance. During the "Frustated/Defiant" scenes and the "Boisterous/Obnoxious" scenes, Smith cruises along wonderfully; in all other scenes, he's simply Will Smith dressed to look like Ali. And that's just not enough, not with these stakes.

    During the press junket I attended last month, Smith maintained that he was submitting an interpretation of Ali, not an imitation. That's a copout. He never nailed Ali's voice, for one thing; Ali practically sang his words, the same way Charles Barkley does, and he turned simple words like "ring" into distinctive, multi-syllable phrases ("rah-eee-ung"). And Smith played the '74 version of Ali exactly like he played the '64 version, which doesn't make sense, because the older Ali toned it down a few decibels and even mumbled his words at times (the first hint that his years in the ring were starting to affect him).

    Is this nitpicking? Maybe. I'm just not sure Will Smith did much acting in this movie. Buffed-up and alternately boisterous and sensitive, he isn't much different than the cop he played in "Bad Boys," save for the extra muscle and Southern drawl. As a moviegoer, you're always conscious that it's WILL SMITH PLAYING ALI. Compare his performance to DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull" or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in "The Doors," and it's not even close.

    One other note: Ali had a constant twinkle in his eye, whether he was mugging for the cameras after the first Liston fight, leading "Ali, boma ye!" chants, tweaking reporters, poking fun at George Foreman, flirting with females ... even when Joe Frazier tackled him on the "Wide World of Sports" set and genuinely wanted to beat him up, Ali couldn't keep a straight face. That's what made it so jarring during the last few rounds of the first Frazier fight, when Ali couldn't hold Frazier at bay before finally ended up getting knocked down, ultimately losing the fight and leaving the ring with a swelled face and a wounded psyche. Nobody had ever seen Ali demolished before. The twinkle was gone.

    Will Smith as Ali
    Smith is at his best in the scenes where he's playing the boisterous version of Ali.

    Anyway, Smith never fully captured that twinkle. It came, and it went. Much like the movie.

    3. The portrayal of Ali
    This was supposed to be the "No Holds Barred" look at Muhammad Ali, warts and all ... and somehow he still receives a full-scale Hollywood lube job.

    For one thing, Ali wasn't nearly as intelligent as this movie makes him out to be. Believe me, I've read just about everything on Ali -- in my Pantheon of Favorite Athletes, he comes in a close second behind Larry Legend (and that's saying something) -- and Ali wasn't nearly this bright and savvy. The Nation of Islam bossed him around much more than this movie lets on, mainly because he wasn't intelligent enough to stop it. He fell into that whole "Symbol of Protest Against the Vietnam War" thing, which has been spun and re-spun over the years to laughable extremes.

    There were few moments in Ali's prime when he wasn't being playful and trying to make someone laugh (the twinkle thing again); his whole life revolved around performing for people and trying to become the center of attention.

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    Watch "When We Were Kings" some time -- that was Ali. Those moments in "Ali" when he pulls Cosell's toupee or imitates George Foreman as a mummy ... in real life, Ali was doing that stuff 24/7, to the point that his body would tire and suddenly shut down (Ali was known to fall asleep just about anywhere).

    That incessant desire to entertain spawned his least likable quality, a mocking/cruel/vicious/bullying side which kept popping up throughout his career (most notably with Frazier, as Mark Kram fully captures in his book "Ghosts of Manila"). The movie touches on this, but it never fully exposes the damage Ali inflicted on Frazier's reputation, how he labeled Frazier as an "Uncle Tom" and unfairly perpetuated it, how the wounded Frazier's antipathy for Ali ran so deep that he was willing to fight to the death in New York and Manila.

    And the astounding thing about Ali? He never recognized the harm he was doing to Frazier, mainly because he wasn't intelligent enough to realize it. As far as Ali knew, he was selling tickets (for fights that didn't need the hype), trying to shake Frazier's psyche and make people laugh ... he never understood that he was doing this man a disservice, that he was causing irreparable harm. That's what prompted them to dance with death in Manila. Maybe Ali wanted it that way, maybe he wanted to be challenged to that extreme, maybe he wanted to push a worthy opponent to the point of pure hatred for the Ultimate Test ... but I doubt it.

    Muhammad Ali and Will Smith
    Smith, right, says he was doing an "interpretation" of Ali, not an "imitation."

    Anyway, these are the issues that would have made for a much more interesting movie. Don't give me the TV-movie version, that "Here's the scene where Ali falls in love with his second wife" crap. Take me inside the man's head. Help me understand how somebody could be so likable and so vicious at the same time, how somebody could be cunning enough to turn his entire race against another black man, yet stupid enough to make that man truly despise him. Give me more scenes like the one included in the TV trailer, where he tells the little kid to count to three and that he'll punch him six times, and the little kid starts counting and Ali quickly says, "Did I hurt you?"

    When it comes right down to it, I guess I wanted more of Ali being Ali. Thank God for "When We Were Kings."

    Is "Ali" a worthwhile film that deserves to be seen? Absolutely. But given that Mann and Smith devoted two years of their lives to this project, I refuse to believe they were striving for anything less than a masterpiece. So I'm judging them against their own exacting standards ... and the fact remains that this was a good film, not a great one.

    For a movie about "The Greatest," that's not good enough.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.



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