Punch Junk
A review of Ali.

Mr. Podhoretz is a columnist for the New York Post.
January 12-13, 2002


he pop-culture fallout from Sept. 11 has included postponements of several movie thrillers involving hijackings and assassinations, several drippy country-and-western songs about America's triumph, the endless playing of the wind-chimy music of Enya — and the failures of several major motion pictures whose themes clashed with the patriotic public mood.

The most obvious of these failures were two Robert Redford vehicles — one about the evil military (The Last Castle) and the other about the evil CIA (Spy Game). But by far the biggest loser in the Sept. 11 sweepstakes is a movie about a famous real-life sports figure. Ali, the 2-1/2 hour biopic starring super-duper-star Will Smith, cost $105 million to make and another $30 million to market, and it's now basically dead in the water — having earned about $50 million on its way to a total U.S. gross of $60 million. Next to Jim Carrey's disastrous The Majestic, Ali is the biggest flop of the Christmas season.

The movie is a major misstep by writer-director Michael Mann, who demonstrated his ability to bring seemingly impossible material to vivid life in his 1999 anti-tobacco melodrama The Insider. Whatever you might think of the politics of this lionization of greedy trial lawyers and the suggestion that CBS is a right-wing organization, The Insider is a superb piece of filmmaking.

Ali, by contrast, is a peculiar dud. I didn't think it would be possible, but Mann manages to take the most supercharged, vivid, and obnoxious sports celebrity of our lifetimes and turn him into a total drag. In the place of the glittering-eyed, loud-mouthed man-mountain who could not and would not shut up, Mann presents a mostly mute Muhammad Ali — a spectator, not a whirling dervish.

Will Smith's Ali is so silent and sullen largely because Michael Mann wants to be the star of this movie. It's not the story of Muhammad Ali so much as it is a white liberal director's effort to use Ali as a way to tell the story of black America in the 1960s. Mann keeps relegating his central character to the sidelines as he moves the focus first to Malcolm X, then (briefly) to the assassination of Martin Luther King, then to the rise of boxing promoter Don King. Even Howard Cosell is more vividly drawn than Muhammad Ali, who was far more vivid than Howard Cosell.

Mann fails at the most rudimentary tasks of directing this movie. We never learn the names of Ali's first two wives, for example, even though they're both prominently featured in the movie. More screen time is given to an actor lip-synching a song by Sam Cooke than to Angelo Dundee, Ali's manager — and Paul Rodriguez, who plays Ali's doctor Ferdie Pacheco, doesn't even speak a single line.

It's conceivable that the movie has failed because it's a stiff. But moviegoers wouldn't have known that in the first weekend of its release, and with Will Smith's name above the title, it should have made at least $30 million. It made half that. Why?

Simple. Ali is a mostly worshipful movie about an American icon who converted to Islam — or rather, Elijah Muhammad's bizarre riff on Islam — and then proceeded to dodge the draft while making speeches about how he had no argument with the people who were killing tens of thousands of young Americans in Southeast Asia.

You can perhaps see how uncomfortable this story would make American audiences these days. In 1975, Ali himself starred in a fictionalized version of his own life called The Greatest. Ali was charming and funny in The Greatest in a warts-and-all portrait that showed him being a selfish jerk with at least one of his wives. What The Greatest did not do was turn Ali into a political icon.

A wise move. As a political icon, Muhammad Ali is as much of a dud as the movie about him.

A movie that dwelled on the comic aspects of his life — that would have used Will Smith's own natural energy and likability to its utmost — might have been a triumph. But such a movie wouldn't have satisfied Michael Mann's hunger to Be Important.

Memo to Hollywood: Draft-dodging Muslims are out. A movie with a Muslim war hero — now that might make a fortune.