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The Greatest, Joyless

January 1, 2002

The career 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 Mann’s Ali. It manages to make Ali’s story drab and dull.

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 Ali’s fire, humor, and edge are just not there. To anyone who remembers the constant surprise of the young Ali, Smith’s 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, Ali’s 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 Ali’s, and Voight catches the man’s arrogance, voice, and rugged warmth so well I would never have guessed that it was Voight playing the role. It’s a very witty portrait.

The fight scenes are well done, but they are too brief and too few. Ali’s 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 Ali’s 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.

[Breaker quote: Taking the fun 
out of Muhammad Ali]This is an intelligent film, and it deals with Ali’s 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 Ali’s cruelty to his opponents, particularly the insults — “ugly,” “gorilla” — that would have been condemned as crude race-baiting if they’d come from a white man. The darker his opponent’s 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 Ali’s most disputed victories is also falsified. In his 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston, from whom he’d 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 Ali’s 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. It’s 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 — don’t seem to understand: that Muhammad Ali was about the most fun this country ever had.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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