Ali (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs up on this one.

When I was in high school, Muhammed Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) was a brash, young trash-talkin' fighter who was able to back up his boasts with a surprising thrashing of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, a one round knockout in the rematch, and a subsequent undefeated record. Back then, we never heard trash talk from a major athlete before, and I didn't know how to react to it. I was a kid. I suppose I didn't think much of him then, and I probably rooted for someone to kick his butt. Fat chance of that. The man floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, and kept stingin' until his title was taken from him by executive decree, thereby accomplishing what nobody could do in the ring.

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years. (Famous quote commonly misattributed to Mark Twain)

I guess I could make the same comments about me and Ali. Of course, he was more or less the same guy in 1969 as in 1964, but I was pleased by how much he had grown by the time I got to be a college junior! When I was in college, Mohammed Ali was the dethroned champ. He last defended his title in March of 1967, shortly after his 25th birthday, when I was a freshman, and would not fight again until October, 1970, nearly a year after I graduated. Like any college student, I was breaking away from the sheltered world of my childhood, learning to think for myself, learning to deal with the issues that I had to face without my parents' help. Like Vietnam. My college years, in that best and worst of times, also happened to be the beginning of the counter-cultural revolution. As I've written elsewhere, the 60's, as you picture them, love beads and protest and cultural revolution, actually occured between 1967 and 1974. The "summer of love", the kick-off to the real "60s", occured in 1967, and the campus revolts came shortly thereafter. Ali was stripped of his title at almost the same time.

During my college years, Ali was battling the draft board and the boxing commissions, and was therefore facing some hard times economically because he could not perform in his chosen profession. This didn't do much for his popularity among the older folks, but he suddenly became the darling of our generation. Nothing weighed heavier on our minds than the draft, so he was fighting not just for himself, but for all of us. Nobody could have done it better. He fought with honor and principle, and refused to be inducted even after the U.S. Government offered him a sweetheart deal. ("Just accept induction, and being the champ can be your duty").

Given his economic woes during that period, Ali chose to earn fees by speaking on college campuses. He was the perfect college speaker. He was fighting the establishment in several ways. His wit was famed, his rhetoric was sharp, and his life embodied everything that was on our minds at the time. Many wise men wrote learned treatises attempting to explain why so many students and African-Americans had such strong anti-Vietnam sentiments, but Ali encapsulated it in one sentence, "no Vietcong ever called me nigger".

He came to Fordham in my junior year, I think it was, and it may have been the single greatest speaking engagement in the history of speaking engagements. I suppose that any sensible, average man would have used up the hour he got paid for and gone back to his life. Not Ali. He keep on speaking and bantering with the student audience in the campus center until the management needed to clean up the ballroom for something else. Then he told everybody to reconvene outside on the lawn. And then this man, the single most famous man in the world at the time, walked through the Bronx campus about a half a mile, followed by hundreds or maybe thousands of adoring college students, until he came to the only available area in Rose Hill with enough green space to accommodate the size of our group. And then he talked some more, not from a podium, but just walking and shouting among the crowd. He shadow boxed and jokingly sparred with the wise guys, including me, and he discussed every subject everyone threw at him, with both candid and humorous remarks. By the time he left, I had already gone, but hundreds were still at it. I don't know how many hours he lasted, but I've never seen anything like it in my life, and probably never will again.

Ali promised to be the champ of the people, and that he was. And not just the black people. I don't think there was a single black face there that day except Ali (and members of his entourage), but you have never seen such love between a man and an audience. Even JFK couldn't work an audience like this guy. You see, Ali wasn't a black guy who happened to be a great man. He was a great man who happened to have dark skin. If ever the word "charisma" was meant to apply to only one mortal man, he was the one.



1974 represented the end of the era of revolt, marked by two symbolic moments. Nixon resigned in August, and Ali miraculously regained his world title two months later, not by decree, but in the ring against big George Foreman. The revolution was over. We won. Ali, as our official generational symbol, also won. The movie ends with Howard Cosell's voice ringing in our ears, "Muhammed Ali has done the impossible. He has regained the title which was unfairly taken from him so many years ago." Ol' Howard wasn't too objective, but he was right.

Although having lost the best years of his boxing life, and universally considered too old to take the crown from Foreman in 1974, Ali triumphed that day, and continued to fight for seven more years. He last won a title bout in 1978, when he was rapidly approaching 37 years old.

Here is his Hickok biography

I guess you can tell from my tone that it's hard for me to remain dispassionate about this film, which covers the period from 1964, when Ali first won the heavyweight title, to 1974, when he won it back.

So is it good? Yes. It isn't without flaws, but it is very good.

  • It has some moments which brought me to tears. Director Michael Mann contributed his special sensibility to the emotionally laden moments.
  • I have already ordered the CD of the soundtrack. African music, Sam Cooke, Motown ...
  • You know that I rarely agree with the Oscar nominations, but there is no doubt that Will Smith deserved his nomination. After about a minute, I completely forgot that I was watching Will Smith, because I wasn't. I was watching Muhammed Ali. He had it nailed. The humor, the inflections, the blustering, the body, even the ring movements. And it wasn't some cheap Rich Little impersonation. He handled the emotions and everything else beautifully, all while completely in character. It is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. I had no idea Will had this kind of talent.
  • Some of the supporting performances are nearly as good.

Is it a mass-audience crowd-pleaser? Regrettably not. It is 157 minutes long, artistic, and it tries to cover too much, thus losing focus in the early going. Each of Ali's major lovers is introduced, none of whom had much bearing on the rest of the story, all of whom could have been cut without losing a thing. Short shrift is also given to the strained relationship between Ali and the Nation of Islam, the schism in the Nation itself, and the tension between Ali and his biological father. It's not that there weren't great moments in these sub-plots, but rather that there were too many of them and they didn't always fit well into the pacing of the narrative. I don't have any idea, for example, why they introduced Malcolm X into the story at all. I'm sure his relationship with Ali was probably an interesting story, but it wasn't THIS story, and I sure don't know what was interesting about it after having watched this movie twice.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen 2.40

  • no meaningful features

CD info from Amazon

Did I like the film? Well, read the last word of the previous paragraph. The sucker is more than two and a half hours long, and I watched it twice in a row. And I liked it better the second time. I think that tells you that it had some magnetic moments that drew me back. What more can you ask of a film?

Surprisingly for such a professional movie, it has a very obvious continuity error. See Malcolm X get shot in the lower half of his shirt (left), but the next scene shows him with the wounds much higher, and no holes or blood in the lower half of his shirt.

Tuna's Thoughts

Ali (2001) is a terrific film. It was an interesting choice to slow the pace in act 3, which starts after Ali lost a decision to Frazier in his comeback attempt. I can only assume they did it to build the suspense slowly for the finale, and to show exactly everything he was fighting for. It worked, as the finale is enough to have you off the sofa and shouting Ali ... Ali ... Ali. Act three also showed that his single biggest moral failure was his weakness for women. In the first two acts, there was far too much happening too quickly to grasp in one sitting. For instance, I think they showed us the King assassination, but it was a 20 second segment.

Scoop's review did hit the real primary theme on the head when he quoted: "No Vietcong ever called me nigger." This single statement which so angered the American military/industrial establishment really crystallized the idea that, to understand Ali, you had to look at his life from his frame of reference. Arguably the greatest prize fighter of all time, his greatest battles and victories were not in the ring. I understood this film, and Ali, so much better than I did when I was living through it. Age and perspective really helps. If the film has a failing, I think it is that they crammed way too much into it, and assumed knowledge and intelligence on the part of the audience.

Will Smith, at least for me, usually plays the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, no matter what film he is in. Not this time, He was Ali, from the opening scene where he is jogging and training for his first title fight, to the final victory. Scoop is also correct that this film is a C+, as it is too long and too cerebral for some tastes, but, if I was using the usual stars system, it would be at least 3 1/2. As you remember from Scoop's coverage, there is no nudity, but Jada Pinkett shows cleavage in a bra making love as his first wife. The scene is very hot, even though it is not explicit. This is a case where nudity would not have added anything.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 3/4, BBC 4/5, 2.5/5. The Guardian's summary of the British newspaper reviews averaged out about the same (6.6/100)

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: a disappointment. Made for $107 million, it grossed only $58 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Long, lyrical, complex film about a complex part of history. More of an art film than a mass audience crowd-pleaser, but an excellent film in many, many ways.

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