Fox's "Ali: An American Hero," scheduled to be aired tonight, is a solid, respectable biopic focusing on the religious convictions of the living legend.
Effectively working in and out of the ring, writer Jamal Joseph and director Leon Ichaso open their forthright film as the ever-quotable Ali (David Ramsey) trains for "the Rumble in the Jungle," his famed 1974 championship bout in Zaire against formidable George Foreman.
Instead of simply rehashing the major matches in Ali's career, Joseph concentrates on Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam when he was known to the world as Olympic gold medalist Cassius Clay. The key catalyst is Malcolm X (played with quiet dignity by Joe Morton), who persuades the acclaimed athlete he would be better served by praising Allah. That controversial and unpopular decision nearly cost Ali a bout with Sonny Liston, whom Ali defeated for his first title.
"Hero" covers a wide canvas, grappling with racism, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, Ali's daring draft evasion on religious grounds and his two marriages. Boxing takes a back seat to these significant events, which may disappoint fight fans anticipating extensive action. Eventually, the film comes full circle to the hot, humid early morning in Africa when Ali defeated the younger, stronger Foreman.
The champ's relationships with his brother (Khalil Kain) and father (Clarence Williams III) are also recounted. Williams is fiery and intense as the proud patriarch who resented his son's conversion, but ultimately embraced his second daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
As the film's anchor, Ramsey manages to capture Ali's renowned bravado, if not his innate charisma, without ever stooping to caricature. He's also sharp in the squared circle, flashing his fists in crisply edited sequences, with Ichaso interweaving fleeting clips of the real deal at work.
"Ali: An American Hero" can be seen tonight on Fox. The network has rated it TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence).