Floats, not like a Butterfly ...

Hollywood honors our heroes by making them, and those around them, look like buffoons, clowns, cartoon characters. The entertainment industry, which never tires of retelling stories long after they've become clichés, never gets it right, because they don't know or don't care. In its rush to "tell the truth," it offers up nothing but bland, silly fabrication--the hero as dopey, dull zero. Filmmakers, even the best-intentioned of them, reduce icons until they fit on the screen; they demand unknowns fill the shoes of gods, rewrite history until a legendary lifetime can be recounted in two hours, and ask audiences to swallow the horseshit and insist it tastes mmm-mmm-good. Better to watch two hours of porn or Martha Stewart than suffer through the actions of nostalgia rapists who loot the history books to sell some ad time.

Fox-TV's Ali: An American Hero is such a cinematic shame, recounting the tale of the former Cassius Clay with so little interest in fact that it might as well be offered up as a work of fiction--or as a pilot for a Fox hour-long drama, to begin airing as a midseason replacement when the network dumps The $treet. It's the work of pedestrian filmmakers who treat "the truth" the way Muhammad Ali treated George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Worse, it turns history into myth into mush until the film all but digs Ali a grave and dances on it. Maybe that's what happens when you recreate a legend on a movie-of-the-week budget.

Foolishly, the film begins with Ali training for the "Rumble in the Jungle," mimicking scenes familiar to anyone who has seen Leon Gast's superior, loving 1996 documentary When We Were Kings or, for that matter, has read David Remnick's biography King of the World. But it does nothing to tarnish the memory, if only because David Ramsey, an extra in such films as The Nutty Professor and Con Air, looks so little like Ali he might as well be playing Tatyana Ali; he floats like a boulder and stings like a ladybug. He plays Ali as though he were Mr. T's Clubber Lang in Rocky III, reciting Ali's most famous rhymes ("Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right--look at young Cassius carry the fight") as though he were a student delivering a monologue on a high-school stage. He possesses none of the fighter's grace, none of his rage, none of his beauty; not since Anthony Hopkins played Nixon has an actor been so miscast.

Actually, that's not quite true: That honor goes instead to the man cast in the role of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Antonio Fargas--yup, Huggy Bear, speaking in a clipped whisper that suggests a man reading off cue cards. Offering hints this might well be a comedy, Malcolm X (a restrained, wasted Joe Morton) delivers a speech in a Miami mosque standing in front of a smirking, wall-sized portrait of Muhammad, which is distracting and unintentionally hilarious. No doubt, the blond-haired, blue-eyed devil of which Malcolm speaks is none other than David Soul. Turns out the worst thing about being a legend is having a movie made about your life, only to be cast with history's bit players.