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He packs a punch but Ali's no knockout

CINEMA: From boxing to French Resistance, PAT STACEY and SOPHIE GORMAN review new releases

ALI (15, general release)

Michael Mann's much-anticipated biopic of Muhammed Ali packs a powerful punch in the shape of a beefed-up Will Smith. That the film fails to be a decisive knockout is more down to a slack screenplay, co-written by Mann, than to Smith, who delivers a shimmering star turn as Ali.

Like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Smith offers an interpretation rather than an impersonation. He has captured the cadences of Ali's voice perfectly, without resorting to mimicry. Thanks to some clever editing and choreography, as well as a punishing training regime that brought Smith up to Ali's fighting weight, he has also caught the boxer's grace, speed and power. It's an excellent performance, fully deserving of his Oscar nomination.

Against that, Ali is ultimately unsatisfying. It's 159 minutes long, yet it could have done with being longer still. It has a disjointed, unfinished feel about it, which suggests that some fairly ruthless post-production editing took place. The end credits, for instance, list the actors who play Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, even though neither boxer shows up on screen.

The film opens in 1964, when the then 22-year-old Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight title belt, and closes in Zaire, with Ali reclaiming the title from George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle, organised by the odious Don King (Mykelti Williamson).

This period was unquestionably the key one in Ali's life and career. He converted to the religion of Islam and changed his name, a move which alienated many fans and instantly made him a prime target for the white establishment and the US government.

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he refused to be inducted into the US army and was sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion (the conviction was unanimously overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court in 1971). More crucially, he was stripped of his title and lost what should have been his best years in the ring.

What is so disappointing is how little Mann makes of all this. Apart from the brilliantly shot and conceived fights which, mystifyingly, don't include Ali's second encounter with Joe Frazier, a gruelling 15-rounder that left both men in hospital and put Frazier, who won, out of the ring for 10 months much of the film is muted.

It drifts across the screen like a carefully composed tableau. You keep watching, but you never feel drawn in. You keep waiting for that pivotal scene, that big dramatic left hook, but it never comes. It's like viewing a boxing match from behind the thick, distancing glass of a corporate box.

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Scenes drag on too long, then fizzle out pointlessly. Characters appear, then disappear, without making any impact. LeVar Burton gets prominent billing as Martin Luther King, a crucial figure in Ali's life and times, yet he's on screen for no more than a few seconds.

Ali's beloved trainer, Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), is on screen for much longer, but is little more than an extra. Beyond the dressing room scenes, nothing is revealed of their long professional and personal bond.

The film is at its best when dealing with Ali's relationships with Malcolm X (a low-key Mario Van Peebles) and veteran, toupee-wearing sports broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, unrecognisable under extraordinary make-up), who bravely took Ali's side when the bigots were baying for his blood.

There is an element of hagiography. Ali's marital infidelities, though numerous, are skated over, while the still widely held belief that Sonny Liston took a dive in their second fight is never even broached.

And then there's Norman Mailer's famously awkward question: was Ali simply too scared to go to Vietnam? He had every right to be, but the film never entertains the possibility that his decision was due to anything other than noble conscientious objection, even though some of Ali's entourage at the time have suggested differently.

Michael Mann has said that the DVD release of Ali will feature at least 30 minutes of extra footage, presumably including Norton, Holmes and the missing Frazier fight. Frankly, I would have preferred to see it up there on screen with everything else.

A flawed film, then, and a comparative disappointment. But because of Smith, the scrupulous recreation of the period and the general quality of the performances, I'll score Ali a narrow victory on points. PS

DON'T SAY A WORD (15, general release)

When Michael Douglas puts a little extra effort into his work, the result can be textured performances in films like Falling Down, Wonder Boys and Traffic. When he doesn't, which is more often than not, we get run-of-the-mill dross like this.

Douglas is cast in his familiar guise of the comfortable professional, in this case a hotshot psychiatrist, with a lovely home, a lovely child and a lovely and inevitably younger wife (Famke Janssen), who finds his world turned upside down. Think of his character in Fatal Attraction, minus the moral ambiguity.

On Thanksgiving morning, Brit villain Sean Bean and his cohorts burst into his apartment and kidnap his eight-year-old daughter (Sky McCole Bartusiak). Bean is after a precious jewel he lost 10 years before during a botched bank robbery and he needs a certain six-digit number to retrieve it.

The one person who knows the number is Brittany Murphy, a catatonic former patient of Douglas. Bean, who could snarl for England, gives Douglas until 5pm that day to probe Murphy's memory and unlock the secret number, or else the kid gets it.

As Douglas races against the clock and towards a predictable climax, the implausibilities pile up. Why, for instance, having waited 10 years to put his plan into action, does Bean jeopardise the whole thing by giving Douglas so little time to find the number?

Don't Say a Word is mediocre, shrink-wrapped Hollywood pap enlivened slightly by Douglas, who still does the middle-class-guy-in-peril bit better than anybody else. Still, facelift or no facelift, he's getting a bit old for this running around in a sweat lark. PS

CHARLOTTE GRAY (15, general release)

Nazi-occupied France at the height of the Second World War provides the backdrop for Charlotte Gray.

In a truly radiant performance, Cate Blanchett plays the titular young Scot, flushed with first love and determined to follow her passion to the ends of the earth. This becomes something of a literal resolve when her beloved, British fighter pilot Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry-Jones), is shot down during a surveillance flight over France and is rumoured to be dead.

Dismissing any suggestions of his death and willing to do whatever it takes to be reunited with him, Charlotte's fluent French, picked up at a French college in her childhood, makes her an ideal candidate for a job as an undercover courier for British Intelligence. After an intensive session in spy school, the new cadet is dropped into the French countryside and into the arms of the Resistance.

She is adopted by a young communist leader, Julien Lavarde (Billy Crudup), masquerading as his father's housekeeper. Unexpectedly becoming guardian to two Jewish children whose parents have been exiled to a concentration camp and are taking refuge in the crumbling old manor of the elder Lavarde (a majestically deadpan Michael Gambon), she also unexpectedly discovers her heart may not belong to only one man.

Adapted by Jeremy Brock, he of award-winning Mrs Brown fame, and directed by Gillian Armstrong, the films greatest obstacle is Sebastian Faulks' original source novel, which was filled with gripping suspense and passion. Comparisons are futile and somewhat depressing, and the viewer must approach this film as a separate entity. Sadly, it's not a memorable entity.

Taking liberties with the plotline in order to Hollywoodise it and resolve straggling ethical dilemmas with a terribly weak ending, it loses almost all of the meditative quality and rugged textures so prominent in its Faulks' work.

On screen, the story is much slighter than on paper, but it does manage to maintain a sense of the delicate difficulties of the love triangle, primarily through the performances of Blanchett and Crudup.

There is velvety rich cinematography, an evocative score, beautiful period pieces and some captivating performances, but they fail to unite and do justice to the literary source. SG

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