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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

The Greatest

AUGUST 4, 1997:  There's some sort of cosmic irony to the timing of the release of When We Were Kings (1996, NR), the spectacular new recounting of the 1974 Muhammed Ali-George Foreman fight.

It's not just that in a summer stocked with thrill-a-minute Hollywood events, the most exciting movie around is a documentary built mostly on 23-year-old film footage.

Or that in an era when boxing is hard to tell apart from pro wrestling--the difference, I guess, is that wrestlers only pretend to bite each other--along comes a film to remind us the beleaguered bloodsport once seemed important, even noble.

Or that the video, with its scenes of a Zaire firmly under the control of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, is hitting shelves just as Mobutu has finally been run off from the country he built and destroyed.

No, what's really striking is that in its central figure--brooding, manic, funny, devastatingly intelligent Muhammed Ali--the movie finds a metaphor for the decline of the American hero. Whether he's talking trash ("I'm so bad, I make medicine sick!"), urging kids to brush their teeth, pleading for unity in the African diaspora, or just dancing around a sparring ring to the music of his own voice, Ali is incandescent. In a film stocked with larger-than-life figures--besides the sullen Foreman (worlds away from the aw-shucks friendly giant we now know), there's Mobutu, James Brown, B.B. King, and a younger but still shock-haired Don King--he is the largest of all. The movie makes you long for just one athlete, or politician, rock star, minister, whatever, who could make you believe anything and everything mattered the way Ali did.

Apart from great source material (including stellar concert footage of Brown and B.B. King), When We Were Kings is wonderfully edited and assembled by director Leon Gast, who spent 20 years trying to finish it. The film's Academy Award as 1996's best documentary was a tribute as much to Gast's perseverance as to Ali's immortal charisma.

If the movie leaves you hungry for more Ali, in the years before Parkinson's Disease took its toll on him, you could check out The Greatest (1977, PG), a biopic starring Ali as himself. It's pretty hokey--the exciting fight scenes are marred by a silly Rocky-style disco score--but it doesn't skirt the controversies that defined the boxer's brash career. Still, watching Ali playing Ali isn't the same as watching him being Ali, so The Greatest falls far short of the heights scaled by When We Were Kings.

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