Hollywood’s current fascination with pugilism will no doubt result in some glass-jawed efforts like this Fox biopic among the triumphs such as Universal’s “The Hurricane” last year and the moving HBO docu “Ali-Frazier I” that aired just a fortnight prior to “Ali: An American Hero.” This “Ali” effort gets a steady perf out of David Ramsey as the most famous boxer of all, but there’s no sense of his importance or his inner turmoil — these two hours are kept an arm’s distance from landing any emotional punches.
Like practically every biopic, this one is told in flashback, starting with the training sessions in Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against George Foreman. (For the real deal, see the Oscar-winning doc “When We Were Kings”). Flashback goes to a young Cassius Clay seeing his bicycle stolen from the streets of Louisville and his stumbling into a boxing gym. He pledges to put up a fight to get his bike back, which gets a cop to offer a few tips and, within a few minutes, has Clay ready to go to the Rome Olympics in 1960.
Writer Jamal Joseph whips through the Clay/Ali story, introducing his corner men Angelo Dundee (Martin Ferrero), Ferdie Pacheco and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Vondie Curtis-Hall), as well as Malcolm X (Joe Morton) at a maddening speed.
There is a bit of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, driven largely by racism, when Clay is scheduled to fight Sonny Liston in Miami for the heavyweight championship. Nothing is made about their second meeting — and the famous phantom punch — in Lewiston, Maine.
Some care is taken with the scenes in which Clay becomes a Muslim and develops a relationship with Malcolm X, yet there’s never any interrogation into what drove Ali to those personal crossroads nor the impact it had on America when he refused to be drafted into the Army.
He’s married, divorced, married in one fell swoop, yet there’s no sense as to what kind of a family man he was in the 1970s when his popularity was at its peak. Even in its attempts to cover just the facts, biopic doesn’t get to the heart of Ali-Liston, Ali-Joe Frazier or the pending Foreman bout.
The fighter Ali was a gregarious man, one who knew how to surround himself with a crowd of people at all times. “An American Hero” timidly attempts to show the private side of this very public man, and there’s not much there.
Ramsey, despite having the build of a middleweight, has his convincing moments, as does Clarence Williams III as Clay’s father, Marcellus. Morton plays Malcolm as a sedate mind-controller; Earl Boen proves there was only one Howard Cossell.
Leon Ichaso’s direction is sharp, and the use of actual footage gives the telepic some urgency between the ropes. But there’s a scene in which Malcolm tells the newly named Ali “you can change the world”: That was true about Ali, the man, yet it never comes through in “Ali: An American hero.”