A sharp right

In When We Were Kings, Ali delivers the performance of a lifetime

Throughout When We Were Kings, Ali comes on like--in Gast's words--the Original Rapper. He successfully bleaches Foreman with his patter; he milks the press, the trainers, the camera crew. He says, "I'm not fighting for me, I'm fighting for black people who have no future." Ali is not only a boxer of genius, he's a politician of genius. I remembered being baffled by how wooden he was playing himself in The Greatest. But Ali--who has as much charisma as any movie star who ever lived--can come alive only by his own wit and instinct. To play a role in a movie, even if the role is himself, would mummify his genie.

When Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta and we saw up close the effects of his Parkinson's disease, the press covered the moment as if it were an unalloyed triumph. The commentators didn't allow for our mixed emotions, our rage even, for what Ali had become--possibly owing in large measure to his having taken so many blows to the head from such fighters as George Foreman while we cheered him on. Ali is a hero still, but in a more complicated way. His presence is both an inspiration and an admonition. When We Were Kings brings back the unimpeded joy we once felt in Ali's presence. It's a movie in a state of denial--magnificent, unapologetic denial.

When We Were Kings.
Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Thomas Hauser, James Brown, B.B. King. Directed by Leon Gast. Opens Friday.

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