Ali was the greatest boxer of all time... or so they tell me. More than just the greatest boxer, he was perhaps one of the most dynamic and controversial sports figures in American history. However, unlike that commanding man, Michael Mann’s Ali sputters and falters, where Ali the man never would’ve.
Ali stars Will Smith in the story of the man himself. Ali really only covers a small portion of Cassius Clay/Ali’s life, in a period between winning his first heavy-weight championship, up until he regained it fighting George Foreman in the Don King promoted “Rumble in the Jungle.” Granted, this is probably the most turbulent and exciting era in the life of Ali, however it would seem to me there is much more to this particular boxing great than a scant ten years of struggle against the draft, racism, and Joe Fraser. The man has Parkinson’s for god’s sake! But Mann’s Ali will have none of that. Mann’s Muhammad is invincible, a hero, a god, unstoppable by disease or failure.
Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing, since even as is, the film frequently drags on suffering through long lifeless sequences bereft of dialogue and instead replaced by catchy period specific tunes. Sure, Smith slams home with heretofore unknown acting talent, displaying an almost uncanny mastery of the real Ali’s mannerisms and speech patterns, but there’s never quite enough of it. Mann doesn’t let Smith talk enough. For the most part the film is a series of montages, interspersed with knockdown brawls and some delightfully entertaining banter between Ali and the brilliantly played Howard Cosell (Jon Voight).
It’s a lock that Will Smith is this film’s strength, but Mann seems totally unable to capitalize on it. You’d think a film called Ali would feature a lot of the boxer it’s named for, but the first half spends more time dancing around him than zeroing in on the inner man. It’s not until the film is halfway over that someone in the editing room woke up and realized we needed more than boxing and Malcolm X to legitimize the movie’s title. But even that reverie is short lived once Ali reaches Zaire, the movie once again lapsing into entertaining and irrelevant musical interludes.
Even though Smith, despite bulking up, still looks like a pretty light-weight version of Muhammad, and even though Mann seems totally incapable of truly capturing the character he’s supposed to be analyzing; a bit of Ali still shines through. His glory, his imperfections, his utter failure, all here in little pieces. The real losers here are the Nation of Islam, clearly depicted as villains for brainwashing Ali and stripping him of his money and his life.
The boxing to is brilliant. So well done that Mann doesn’t even bother with the “here comes a hero” musical score so common in modern sports film. While a bit of heroic trumpeting might have been nice, Smith’s heavyweight sparring does just fine on its own.
Ali wasn’t a smart man… most people would have figured out the Nation of Islam was only using them for their cash after they kicked them in the gutter the first time. But that’s ok, because Ali isn’t a particularly smart film. There are little flashes of true directorial brilliance, and consistently amazing acting from Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and John Voight. But, where Muhammad floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, Mann’s Ali trips on a chair, knocks over a case full of very expensive china, and then falls face first into a very large banana cream pie. Chevy Chase would be proud.