Polish up the Oscar and put Will Smith's name on it. With "Ali," Smith has gone to a place Jim Carrey only dreams about.
On beyond TV's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" or such lightweight (albeit successful) films as "Independence Day," "Men in Black" and "Enemy of the State." Not to mention "Wild Wild West" . . . oops, I mentioned it. (Hey, every major movie star deserves at least one big-budget turkey on his résumé.)
Smith is a big star, but that's not the same as being a respected actor (although anyone who saw "Six Degrees of Separation" knows he has the chops).
But "Ali" catapults Smith into the ranks of superstars who also deserve to be taken seriously as actors.
Oscar nominations won't be announced until Feb. 12, but Smith's toughest competition will probably be Denzel Washington for "Training Day" and Gene Hackman for "The Royal Tenenbaums."
Other possible nominees are Russell Crowe for "A Beautiful Mind," Billy Bob Thornton for "Monster's Ball" and/or Kevin Spacey for "The Shipping News." (The latter two films have not yet opened locally; "The Royal Tenenbaums" begins its Salt Lake run today.)
Obviously, I have not yet seen some of these films, but Smith's is the only recent performance that has really knocked me out (no pun intended). His amazing attention to detail, the way he manages to embody Muhammad Ali without ever letting the character slip into caricature — there is dignity and fearlessness here that takes Smith's work beyond most modern movie acting.
Working against him, however, is the film itself, which may be somewhat off-putting to Oscar voters.
"Ali" is a flawed epic that loses sight of its own best interest in several places. Self-indulgent director/co-writer Michael Mann ("The Insider," "Heat") lets way too many scenes play out way too long (booorrring).
And Mann treats significant but on-the-sidelines characters and historical events so superficially that many in the audience — especially younger viewers to whom the history here may be a bit foreign — will have trouble keeping up.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with the re-creation of the assassination of Martin Luther King (played by a vastly underused LeVar Burton). The event onscreen is so oblique that some audience members may not even realize what has happened.
Mann also spends too much time on Malcolm X in the film's early scenes — so much that the film is initially thrown off-balance. The first quarter or so feels like "Ali and Malcolm X" rather than "Ali."
Having said that, however, Mario Van Peebles is great as Malcolm X — which is no small feat when you consider that Denzel Washington owns the part after a superlative performance in Spike Lee's biographical "Malcolm X" film of a decade ago. Nevertheless, Van Peebles is commanding and demonstrates that he can really act when he wants to.
Clearly, Van Peebles will not get an Oscar nomination out of this, but maybe "Ali" will open up some work worthy of his talent, so he can let go of the straight-to-video junk he's been relegated to for so many years.
"Ali" also features strong performances from a couple of other character actors we don't see much in mainstream films these days — Giancarlo Esposito as Ali's father and Joe Morton as Ali's lawyer. Both are excellent in underwritten parts. (Trivia Alert: Morton played Malcolm X in a Fox TV movie just two years ago, "Ali: An American Hero.")
However, Jon Voight's portrayal of Howard Cosell didn't really do it for me (contrary to what many other critics are saying). He was good, but I never forgot I was looking at an actor in contrived makeup (despite my enjoyment of the relationship portrayed between Ali and Cosell).
There's no comparison between Voight and Smith. Smith's Ali is so enthralling that it made me forget I was watching an actor. (And this is coming from someone who grew up watching and reading all about Ali.)
That's what Oscars are made for.