Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Jada Pinkett Smith
MPAA Rating: (for some language and brief violence)
Running Time: 2:38
Release Date: 12/25/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
For a man as influential and well-known and who lived through such radical times as he did, you would think a film about the life of Muhammad Ali would feel a bit more special than this. Ali is an episodic biopic that spans ten years of the boxer’s life. The scenes don’t always feel connected—there’s some kind of central drive missing. For as many years as it covers, it certainly doesn’t give the sense of time passing. They were certainly important years in the life of Ali—prosperous and controversial. From 1964 to 1974, he won the heavyweight championship, lost it due to a combination of his political and religious beliefs, and finally and surprisingly won it back in the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman. There was also a lot of turmoil in the backdrop, too. The civil rights movement was in full swing, as was the conflict in Vietnam. There’s great material here, but the end result plays like a highlight reel—an intriguing introduction to a man’s life for people not fully acquainted with it.
The film opens with Cassius Clay (Will Smith) fighting for and winning the heavyweight crown. We’re soon introduced to other significant players in his life. In the beginning, Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) is the significant role as his spiritual advisor. Once Clay is proclaimed the people’s champion, the press hounds him for information regarding his religion. Soon enough, the Nation of Islam gives him an original name: Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X is suspended from the group, and Ali becomes their trophy—their spokesman. After Malcolm’s assassination, the FBI comes after Ali for opposing the draft. He becomes more and more outspoken, saying things without second-thought to their larger implications. More and more people try to help him out. Sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) fakes a continuous feud with him on the air but gives him sound and heartfelt advice in private. His management tells him to keep it down, but he continues his fight. Once everything here has cleared up, the movie progresses to his comeback.
The movie’s structure poses its biggest problem. There’s something missing from these events that make them seem disjointed. The movie has a difficult time focusing in on a specific driving force and instead gives us an assortment of events. The scenes with Malcolm X are there to give establish Ali’s value system, but at one point the movie focuses on Malcolm himself. We gain historical insight but lose the sense of purpose in sequences like this. When the movie focuses on Ali himself, it finds the right steps. His struggle with the draft works, because we understand his motivation and get a sense of accomplishment. The movie is also successful at portraying a growth in Ali from a puppet of different groups and people into an individual. We understand that the likes of the Nation of Islam, the US government, and Don King were simply out to manipulate Ali’s image for their own purposes.
The movie is most successful in its boxing sequences, which are triumphs of style. Instead of simply assaulting the audience with images and impacts, we get a sense of personal technique and strategy. Watching the movie, I could understand how these fighters fight. In the opening fight, we note that Ali mostly dances and dodges, rarely throwing a punch. He’s wearing his opponent out. The final fight, which recreates the "Rumble in the Jungle," is the same. As Ali waits for the right time, trying to wear out his opponent, Foreman goes for brute strength. He punches low, hoping to divert Ali’s attention from his face for a good hit, also wearing down his opponent. Director Michael Mann captures the style of these fighters and finds a style of his own to keep the sequences themselves understandable and fascinating.
The boxing scenes have a bigger impact, too, because we’re watching Will Smith in them. Smith is given a daunting challenge in playing a man so familiar, but he manages to do something special in his performance. He doesn’t simply impersonate Ali—he occupies his charisma and physicality. Ali is not as drawn out as we would expect, though. The screenplay by Mann, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Eric Roth shades over some of Ali’s more imperfect attributes. His ego does not seem as much of a flaw as it should be, and other characteristics such as womanizing are only briefly mentioned when they become essential to the story. This portrayal of Ali almost makes him seem superhuman, and something is lost in this respect. Jon Voight turns in an excellent impersonation of Cosell and gives the role some heart. Comedic actor Jamie Foxx turns in a solid dramatic performance as Drew Brown, one of Ali’s troubled assistants.
Despite its narrative flaws, Ali manages to find the Champ’s spirit. By the end of the movie, we understand why he is considered the "Greatest." In his boxing, he displayed incredible endurance. He fought the good fight, in the ring and in his life, and he held out with an indomitable desire until he succeeded, no matter how long it took. Perhaps one day a film will get this sense across and successfully tell his story, too.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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