Blow by blow

Film - <em>Philip Kerr</em> on how a biopic of the legendary boxer and black icon fails to pack a pu

A couple of years ago, I had a meeting with the film director Michael Mann in a penthouse suite at London's Metropolitan Hotel. Soon, I had formed the impression of a cool, dispassionate, almost academic, sort of man, equipped with a very European sensibility - the same "less is more" aesthetic that one sees in excellent films such as Manhunter and Heat. Even then Mann was prepping Ali, and I was surprised by this choice of project, thinking it was the kind of seminal Sixties American story that would have suited Oliver Stone better. Now that I have seen the finished work, I have not changed that early opinion.

Ali is the story of ten years in the life of Muhammad Ali, the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship of the world three times. Apart from the story of his Parkinson's disease, and bookended as Ali is between the boxer's surprise victories over Sonny Liston (1964) and George Foreman (1974), the film includes most of the key events in his life: his conversion to Islam in 1964 ("I ain't prayin' to no blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus"); his refusal on religious grounds to submit, in 1967, to induction into the country's armed forces ("No Vietcong ever called me nigger"); his consequent criminal conviction and sentencing to five years' imprisonment; being stripped of his title and refused a boxing licence; and, after his successful appeal to the US Supreme Court in 1971, Ali winning the title back in the near-legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" - a fight recently documented in the Academy Award-winning film When We Were Kings (1996).

Will Smith (Men in Black) has done a remarkable job of turning his toothpick physique into that of a 210lb heavyweight champion of the world. There are many times in this movie when you can screw up your eyes and forget that this is not the real Ali. His execution of the famous Ali shuffle is as perfect as his Kentucky accent; but looking and sounding like Muhammad Ali are as good as this movie gets. All the same, it feels almost churlish to report that Smith never quite manages to punch at the dramatic weight required for him to convince in the role.

This is mostly the fault of a rather predictable script - there are no real surprises here. And while Smith is very good at conveying Ali's humour, I never really felt that I had got to know the champ any better than I did before when seeing the excellent When We Were Kings, or even repeats of his interview with Michael Parkinson.

I did, however, learn a new respect for Ali and for his courage as a black man who defied the draft at a time when, history teaches us, it was dangerous for any black American to be outspoken in the matter of civil rights; the evidence of this is in the murders of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The white establishment and the FBI tried to destroy Muhammad Ali - or, at best, to silence him - in the same way that it had already neutered Elvis Presley, whose rebellious image never recovered from his being drafted into the army in 1958. Instead of being destroyed, however, Ali's stance on the Vietnam war defined him and helped to make him the most famous black man in the world.

It is only here, in the matter of Ali's defiance of the draft, that at last, after 60 minutes, Mann's spiritless film comes alive. Elsewhere, it is dull and ordinary, with only the performance of an unrecognisable Jon Voight (as the TV sportscaster Howard Cosell) to lift the movie off the canvas. Mann's boxing scenes look choreographed and, even as they seek to duplicate reality, lack the impressionistic detail that distinguished the fight scenes in Scorsese's Raging Bull, still the best film about boxing ever made. Frankly, I could have done with a little less documentary accuracy about what actually happened in the boxing ring and a little more artistic licence.

In the end, Ali's greatest fault is a philosophical one: in attempting to be as true to life as possible, the film forgets to be dramatic. (What drama there is on the screen is often overshadowed by the relentless use of K-Tel's greatest soul hits of the Sixties.) I cannot see the point of making a film about Muhammad Ali if all you do is compile a catalogue of the established facts of the man's life. Making little or no attempt to explore the psychology of one of the greatest sportsmen to have lived, Ali ends up being merely an extended and inferior version of When We Were Kings.

None the less, it is extremely timely. Now that Mike Tyson, who once bit Evander Holyfield, has been refused a licence to box by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, it is worth remembering that Ali merely talked his opponents' ears off.

Ali (15) is on nationwide release from 22 February

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back