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The Opposing Corners in Today's 'Ali' Matchup

Michael Mann's film features a remarkable performance by Will Smith and provides insight into the former boxing champion.

January 07, 2002|SHANE SALERNO

Kenneth Turan, the respected film critic of The Times, has failed to grasp the specific narrative objectives and intentions of Michael Mann's film "Ali." His review ("Floats, and Stings, Like a Butterfly," Dec. 25) would do well to follow the advice of the advertising slogan created for Oscar winner "American Beauty": "Look closer."

Turan's review consists of four major arguments. First, that the film's ad line, "Forget what you think you know," is misleading in that the film presents no new information. Second, that the film's Ali doesn't "give us any real sense of what he's thinking, of where his actions come from." Third, that while Will Smith's performance is "remarkable," the "character's overall aloofness is an odd choice for one of the most across-the-board likable of leading men." Fourth, that "the energy and hold-on-to-your-seat excitement that Muhammad Ali brought to the sports world is oddly absent from this quite accomplished but finally distant film."

Mann's "Ali" presents a wealth of new information and revealing moments and insights into one of the most written-about men in the world. Mann takes you into the beginnings and ends of two of Ali's marriages and the beginning of a third. The film examines those private relationships as well as Ali's complex dealings with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, and his off-camera relationships with Howard Cosell and Drew "Bundini" Brown, his friend, spiritual fireplug and one-man fan club.

Mann accomplishes all this by making you see the world through Ali's eyes as he experiences the adulation, scorn, celebration, heartbreak, disgrace, defeat and ultimate triumph that was his life and the life of a nation from 1964 to 1974--for while that time in our nation's turbulent history defined Ali, Ali's life helped to define a nation.

Turan goes to some effort to backhand compliment the performance Mann elicited from Smith. Turan first hails it as "remarkable," which it no doubt is, but then expresses surprise that the character's aloofness doesn't fit with Smith's heretofore seen strengths.

There can be no question that Smith's portrayal of Ali features only part of the perpetually cool Smith swagger and banter from "Men in Black" and "Independence Day," for just as that is only one side of Smith's abilities, so was Ali's fast-talking, lightening-witted public persona only one side of the man.

Those expecting only to see Smith spout clever, rhyming barbs to the camera no doubt will be disappointed, for those are only part of this epic film. But those wanting to know what Ali felt in the moments that defined his life will get an Oscar-worthy tour in a brilliantly detailed performance.

Finally, Turan asserts that "Ali" the film does not live up to the excitement of Ali the man. I respectfully disagree. The film portrays the public and private moments of Ali's life--the decisions that guide his life, the adversities he encounters and overcomes and, most important, the manner in which he chooses to live his day-to-day existence. As Mann has written, "Ali discovered who he wanted to be and then made himself into that man."

In Mann and Smith's collaboration, the result of that journey is moving and inspiring and, ultimately, a film that will stand the test of time as a record of a man's life and the period in which he lived it.

*

Shane Salerno is the co-creator and executive producer of NBC's crime drama "UC: Undercover."

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