Saturday, December 29, 2001

SULLIVAN: 'Greatest' captured in good film




By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The danger in making a movie about Muhammad Ali is that he's easier to document than he is to define.

        You can pin down the dates and the deeds, and you can nail the little details right down to those gruesome green trunks Joe Frazier wore in their first bout. Yet capturing the essential Ali on film is as tricky as catching a floating butterfly with a pair of tweezers.

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        He was the champion of contradictions, an elegant fighter with a clown's facade, and as hard to pigeonhole as he was to punch. Ali was righteous and flawed, highly principled and chronically unfaithful, equally capable of kindness and cruelty.

        His character is, therefore, a little unwieldy for feature films. Hollywood likes its heroes to have an edge, but it doesn't always succeed with complex shadings — particularly when a subject is so well known and so widely beloved.

        This is the triumph of Ali.

        Will Smith's characterization easily could have descended into caricature. He could have portrayed Ali as a consummate showman, a political martyr or an astounding athlete. He could — and did — try to convey all three of these central components of his celebrity.

        Star succeeds

        Yet Smith's Ali extended beyond the Louisville Lip and beneath the familiar surface that made him the most vilified athlete of his age and a flashpoint of Vietnam policy. Most of the movie takes place outside the ring and away from the spotlight, where Ali's poetic play-acting ends and a more contemplative, less consistent character emerges.

        I covered only one of Ali's fights — the last one, a loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas — but Smith's depiction has struck many of those intimately familiar with Ali's career as authentic. Not only did he add 35 pounds of muscle to play the part, and acquire the distinctive cadences of Ali's speech, but Smith also caught many of his moods. His is a full portrait, not a hasty sketch.

        Some boxing experts have quibbled with the quality of Smith's work in the ring, but the film was shot with reasonably uncompromising realism. Though the fight scenes were choreographed, and opponents were forbidden from striking Smith in the head, the body blows were authentic. If Smith could not replicate Ali's speed — that lightning left jab, those incomparable legs — he certainly captured his style.

        “I wasn't interested in telling this story as a docudrama or an idealization of Ali,” director Michael Mann says. “To idealize Ali is to diminish his humanity.”

        No John Goodman

        Sports biographies, as a cinematic genre, rarely aim so high. Babe Ruth has twice been trivialized in motion pictures, first by William Bendix, later by John Goodman. Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig in a variety of wood finishes. Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean and Jim Thorpe have all suffered grievously at the hands of Hollywood.

        If Will Smith's work does not set a new standard for actors playing athletes, it is only because of Tommy Lee Jones' earlier take on Ty Cobb.

        Will Smith can never be The Greatest, however. That title is already taken.

        MEA CULPA:

        My Thursday column mistakenly asserted that the Bengals have lost two games by seven points or fewer this season. The correct number is three.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; fax: 768-8550; e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Sullivan.
       

       



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