I am not a big boxing fan. Let me first get that out of the way. I will usually watch a boxing match if, say, it’s a championship fight and I happen to be in the room when it comes on. Otherwise I tend to avoid boxing fights and boxing movies. Why? No real reason except my lack of interest in the sport. So it isn’t much of a surprise when Michael Mann’s Ali came out and I found I had no desire to see it. I am not a big fan of Muhammad Ali the man, not for any real reason except, well, I don’t really care about the history of the sport, and thus don’t particularly care about the sport’s biggest icon. It’s nothing personal, just a lack of interest.
Ali stars a pumped up and barely recognizable Will Smith (Men in Black) as the titular character, boxing champ Muhammad Ali. The movie opens with Ali already an adult and preparing for a championship bout with Sonny Liston, who he soundly defeats. The movie then shifts to Ali’s discovery of Islam and his friendship with the controversial Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles, who gives a terrific and doomed performance). Malcolm X’s subsequent assassination leads Ali into a crisis of identity that reaches a boiling point when he refuses to enter the Army when he’s drafted for the Vietnam War. Put on trial for his refusal, Ali is exiled from boxing, and by the time he’s allowed back into the ring he’s in his ’30s and some say past his prime. The second half of the film shifts to Zaire, Africa, where Ali prepares to battle George Foreman to reclaim his title in the famed “Rumble in the Jungle.”
If there is one thing that hampers Ali from becoming a great movie it’s the same thing that hampers all true-life biographies of people who are bigger than life. The same thing that makes them “bigger than life” also makes it difficult to condense their life into the time frame of a movie. This is why biographies are best told in book form, where there is no restriction on length. Ali runs two hours and 30 minutes and in a life as colorful and dominated with big events like Ali’s, another 30 minutes might have been necessary. (Not that I would enjoy sitting through another 30 minutes, mind you.)
In the need to save time, many events that should have been explored are flashed over with brief snippets, like postcards when they should have been letters. The murder of Malcolm X is one; another is the assassination of Martin Luther King, who gets about 10 seconds of screen time. Another casualty of the movie’s length is Ali’s personal life; in order to keep Ali’s private affairs in order, the film glosses over his failed marriages and his clashes with his father over his decision to become a Muslim. Those are the kinds of things that make or break a man, but Ali handles both badly.
Nevertheless, Ali is a good movie with a stunning performance by Will Smith. I remember watching the then-fledging rapper-turned-actor step onto the stage in the TV show “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” at a time when Smith was too tall, too geeky, and much too thin. When I heard he was going to play Ali (and having seen the real Ali on TV) I, and the rest of the world, scoffed at the idea. How wrong we were! Smith is perfect for the role. It’s hard to fathom that the skinny kid from “Fresh Prince” has somehow turned his body into a boxer’s body.
Smith’s Ali is not only physically right, but Smith has grown by leaps and bounds as an actor. There is not a single shred of the Fresh Prince or any of the “wild and loud” characters that Smith has played in the past. As played by Smith, Ali is a self-conscious man with low self-esteem who built the “Ali” persona from the ground up to compensate for his shortcomings. When alone with his own thoughts, the real Ali is nothing like the Ali on TV trading barbs with sportscaster Howard Cosell. Smith brings such a layered and honest performance that you can’t help but root for the man and feel all of his pain.
Despite Smith’s wonderful performance, Ali badly falters as a narrative film. Director Michael Mann’s decision not to give us superimposed time cards makes the movie a muddled mess that’s impossible for anyone not intimately familiar with Ali’s life to follow. As previously mentioned, I have no knowledge of boxing history, and was lost during much of Ali. I had no idea where the movie was or who a lot of people that was around Ali were. The only peripheral characters that I could be sure of were Jon Voight’s Cosell, Jamie Foxx’s Drew Brown, and the real-life Mrs. Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, as Ali’s first wife, Sonji. The rest of Ali’s cast, like the film’s many eras, flashes by without introduction or resonance. If a character didn’t introduce him or herself onscreen, then I had no idea who they were.
Ali is notable for the growth of Will Smith as an actor. His portrayal of Ali the showman and Ali the unsure private person is astounding. The movie works best when Ali interacts with Mario Van Peebles’ Malcolm X and his private friendship with Howard Cosell. It fails when it tries to tell too much in too short of a time. Hampered by a confusing and muddled timeline and faceless (and nameless) characters, Ali isn’t “the greatest of all time,” but it certainly had the potential to be one. Instead, it’s just pretty good.
Michael Mann (director) / Gregory Allen Howard, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann (screenplay)
CAST: Will Smith …. Muhammad Ali
Jamie Foxx …. Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown
Jon Voight …. Howard Cosell
Mario Van Peebles …. Malcolm X
Ron Silver …. Angelo Dundee
Jeffrey Wright …. Howard Bingham
Mykelti Williamson …. Don King