It is one more irony that no one much listened to Muhammad Ali when he had something important to say (about Vietnam) but now, when he is little more than an unremitting bore, he is everywhere to be heard. His tired old act, as worn out as his fists, drags on: all the doggerel, the braggadocio, the cruel personal insults and the tasteless public prayer chants (which no Christian or Jewish athlete would dare inflict upon a captive TV audience). Bad enough we must continue to suffer all this, but now we must endure Ali on the silver screen, competing with Ali in real life, drivel for drivel.
The Greatest, starring Ali in the self-proclaimed title role, is barely more than a freshman survey course on the subject. Without any point of view but unadulterated adulation, it merely traces the career of the champion, remaining faithful to all his verbal tedium, while distilling from the product any of the real essence of this extraordinary and complex man.
Because the film is so inconsequential, its dreary passage can be relieved only by an isolated study of the star himself, playing himself. It is a pleasure to report here what a magnificent success Ali is as an actor. For this we may be grateful, because the other characters do not possess any definition whatsoever. The women are dichotomized—either utterly chaste or wantonly debauched. All white people are greedy bigots...well, except the kindly, befuddled Angelo Dundee character. What an incredibly intriguing figure Dundee has truly been, this honored white speck in the eye of the black hurricane. But in The Greatest, Dundee (as portrayed by Ernest Borgnine, above) comes off rather like a white version of the old plantation black retainer, shuffling about handling mouthpieces instead of finger bowls. Of the lesser characters—and an awful lot of good actors have been sucker-punched by their agents here—only Roger E. Mosley, as Sonny Liston, commends himself.
When Mosley is scowling about, the film crackles. Otherwise, it plods along, episodically linear, like a comic strip. Sadly, both Ali's conversion to Islam and his refusal to be drafted—crucial milestones in his life—are treated no differently, it seems, from another couple of bouts with Jerry Quarry. The whole film—the script, the directing, the photography—never strives to create drama by itself. The thing simply lies back, in a rope-a-dope, if you will, and obliges us to remember the real events, to conjure up drama for ourselves. If the only purpose of The Greatest was to re-create Ali's career, it should have been done as a documentary. As it is, this film gives us the worst of both worlds: it is shallower than what we really saw happen, while also failing to add the greater perception that comes with time and distance.
And then, to the simple end of hero worship, the film advances Ali well along the path to beatification. His hard, brave—and real—defeat by Joe Frazier is passed off as a result of his not being in shape. He is portrayed without qualification as a sensitive and devoted husband to one woman, Belinda, who was in fact his second wife and whom he publicly humiliated in the Philippines before siring a celebrated love child with his mistress. The saddest defeat comes when Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager, tells yet another bad white guy, "Almost every black fighter in the history of boxing ended up broke. This is not going to happen to Ali." So why does he go on. scratching for paydays against stiffs?
Of all our sports personalities, Ali needs least to be sanitized. But The Greatest is just a big vapid valentine; it took a dive. A genuine film about this unique man and his times must wait until Ali can no longer indulge himself as star and censor alike.