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Ali biopic isn’t bad

‘An American Hero’ isn’t great, but it’s watchable

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Here's something you don't read in this column very often — Fox has produced a television movie, and it's pretty good.

"Ali: An American Hero" (7 p.m., Ch. 13) isn't the greatest (pun intended), but it's a decent biopic that recounts part of the life and career of Muhammad Ali.

David Ramsey does a decent job of playing the boxer in the telefilm (even though he doesn't look and isn't built anything like him). He sometimes falls back on an impersonation of the former heavyweight champ at his most outrageous — mugging for the media — but it's only appropriate in those sequences. And it doesn't carry over into the rest of his performance (or the rest of the movie).

The movie concentrates on Ali — a k a Cassius Clay — from his days as a young boxer to his victory at the 1960 Olympics to his taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964 and ends with him regaining his title by beating George Foreman in 1974's "Rumble in the Jungle." But what's more interesting than the boxing is the personal life that accompanied it.

"An American Hero" spends a good deal of its narrative on Ali's disaffection with the country that cheered him for winning an Olympic gold medal but wouldn't let him eat with the white folks at a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. Which led him into a close friendship with Malcolm X (Joe Morton) and a lifelong affiliation with Elijah Muhammad's (Antonio Fargas) Black Muslims.

For younger viewers who know Ali only as a boxer — who may not even be aware of his refusal to be drafted into the Army and the court battle that ensued — this telefilm could be an education.

Of course, given that there's only about 90 minutes of screentime in a two-hour TV movie, it's not surprising that "An American Hero" is less than a comprehensive portrait of Ali. It's a fictionalized highlight reel of a fascinating life.

And it suffers in comparison to other projects, including HBO's Emmy-winning "Don King: Only in America" (which was executive produced by Thomas Carter, who also performed the same function on "An American Hero.") And this new TV movie can't hold a candle to HBO's recent documentary "Ali-Frazier 1: One Nation Divisible."

But, given its format, "An American Hero" can't help being somewhat shallow — which it is. But, here in the dog days of summer, this isn't a half bad little TV movie. (And, given that it's on Fox, it's almost shockingly good.)

The strangest thing about this movie is its scheduling. Originally set to air in January, Fox programmers yanked it off the air until now — something that usually happens with shows that are so bad they're unwatchable.

OK, the fact that Fox was beaten to the punch (pun intended) by ABC and its movie "Muhammad Ali: King of the World" had something to do with what happened to Fox's movie.

But maybe the fact that "An American Hero" is decent TV scared them at Fox. They probably thought it would be too great a shock to their regular viewers.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com