As a keepsake depicting the heyday of one of modern sports’ most celebrated figures, The Greatest is priceless, because boxer Muhammad Ali plays himself in a brisk overview of his illustrious career’s most notable moments. As a movie, The Greatest is, well, not the greatest. Setting aside the issue of Ali’s amateurish acting, since he never claimed thespian skills among his gifts, the picture is so flat and oversimplified that it’s more of a tribute reel than an actual film. At its worst, The Greatest is outright ridiculous. For instance, the opening-credits montage features Ali jogging while George Benson croons a maudlin version of “The Greatest Love of All,” which was composed for this movie even though most people know the song as a Whitney Houston hit from the ’80s. The problem is that the main lyric, “Learning to love yourself/is the greatest love of all,” doesn’t really apply to the former Cassius Clay, whose bravado is as famous as his pugilistic skill; for this man, self-love was never in short supply.
Nonetheless, it seems the goal of this picture was to portray Cassius/Muhammad as a simple man trying to find his identity while he clashed with racist white promoters and, during his Vietnam-era battle against being drafted into military service, the U.S. government. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t dig deep enough to feel believable as an examination of the inner man, especially since most of the events depicted in the picture are familiar to everyone, from Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X (James Earl Jones) to his conversion to Islam. The movie’s credibility is damaged further by the filmmakers’ use of actual footage from Ali’s biggest bouts: The movie frequently cuts from shots of a well-fed 1977 Ali to clips of the same man looking leaner in earlier years, even though the disparate shots are supposed to be contiguous.
Accentuating the cheesy approach are distracting cameo appearances by Jones, Robert Duvall, David Huddleston, Ben Johnson, and Paul Winfield, all of whom breeze in and out of the movie very quickly. (Ernest Borgnine has a somewhat more substantial role as trainer Angelo Dundee.) FYI, cult-fave director Monte Hellman provided uncredited assistance during post-production after the death of the film’s credited director, reliable journeyman Tom Gries; Hellman performed similar duties two years later on the misbegotten thriller Avalanche Express, joining that production after director Mark Robson died.
The Greatest: LAME