Sonnenfeld, Smith might team again on Ali biopic

Timing is everything for helmer

NEW YORK — Director Barry Sonnenfeld is weighing in to direct Will Smith in the lead role of “Power and Grace,” the Muhammad Ali biopic that Peters Entertainment is producing for Columbia Pictures, sources said.

Discussions are under way for Sonnenfeld to make the Ali film as soon as he finishes “The Wild Wild West,” which also stars Smith and is produced by Peters Entertainment.

If the deals go through, filming could begin in late fall, 1999. But one major obstacle has to be overcome first: The director’s Sonnenfeld/Josephson Entertainment shingle is based at Disney, and he owes that studio his next picture.

The Ali biopic has become a priority project for Columbia prexy Amy Pascal, but high-level talks are going on for the studios to partner.

Disney would likely offer one of its films as a co-production as well, a scenario the studios followed when SPE and Disney teamed on the Paul Verhoeven-directed “Starship Troopers” and John Hughes’ still-to-be-made Peter Pan film.

If the co-production talks prevail, the Ali film will likely be produced by Jon Peters, Sonnenfeld, Barry Josephson and James Lassiter, who is Smith’s partner.

3rd ring time

Should he star in the boxing biopic, Smith would be getting in the ring for the third time with Sonnenfeld. Their first collaboration, “Men in Black,” which also starred Tommy Lee Jones, cemented Smith’s star status.

On their second film, the currently lensing “Wild Wild West,” Smith presented the director with the script for the Ali story, which was written by Gregory Allen Howard, Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele.

Sonnenfeld sparked to the script, an examination of the fighter’s early days (when he was known as Cassius Clay) and his rise as a defining figure not only in sports but also in politics. Following his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War on religious grounds, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title.

The films also covers Ali’s comeback battles with Joe Frazier and the recapture of his title from the seemingly invincible George Foreman.

Logical extension

While several insiders labeled Sonnenfeld’s possible participation as premature, the team-up seems logical. The charismatic Smith is about as close a physical match for the young Ali as Hollywood could offer, and Sonnenfeld films like “Get Shorty” have shown a keen eye for humor and hipness, both of which were natural to the charismatic young Ali.

The possible Smith-Sonnenfeld pairing leaves boxing fans with several potential knockout fight films. Ving Rhames and director William Friedkin are poised to team for a Shane Salerno-scripted Paramount biopic of Ali’s early ring nemesis Sonny Liston, and Denzel Washington is starring for director Norman Jewison in a biopic of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for Universal.

Penny Marshall is developing a biopic of 1950s heavyweight Jim Braddock, and Showtime just wrapped a Rocky Marciano biopic starring Jon Favreau.

Both Sonnenfeld and Smith are repped by CAA.

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