Year of Release: 2001
Date Viewed: July 11th, 2010
MPAA Rating: R
The always charismatic Will Smith gets the chance to portray an icon in the Michael Mann-directed and simply titled Ali. Whether the material has promise or not, Smith can always be counted on to bring his A-game to the studio. Fortunately for us, Smith is not the only one with their A-game intact. The supporting cast and direction also do an admirable job of bringing history to life in this admirable film.
Muhammad Ali's early life is passed over in favor of focusing on the time when Ali's stock rises to its highest level. The movie opens with a montage where we see Smith as Ali (known then as Cassius Clay) preparing his body and mind for a big heavyweight boxing bout. In the background, we see speeches from Malcolm X (played here by Mario Van Peebles) and Martin Luther King Jr (LeVar Burton). This video package is effective in playing up to how Ali fits with the rest of the inspirational African American icons and its setup for the title fight taking place of a prologue. It also could be an artistic reference to the personality of Ali himself. Talk a big game then let your fists finish the conversation. Indeed, Ali was known for his words just as much as his fights.
After the impressive opening, we are given a glimpse of Ali away from the spotlight. He is devoted to the nation of Islam and is friends with Malcolm X. He is also quite the ladies man. Mann saw fit to give Will Smith a long love scene with his real wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Perhaps it's an overly generous contract deal but at least it stays true with its title character.
Ali's invincible image takes a hit after the assassination of Malcolm X. Distraught and bitter over the ongoing civil rights battle, Ali refuses induction into the US military, using his Islamic background as a case for the conscientious objector clause. His other reasoning is that he should not have to fight against the Vietnamese when his real enemy is right at home within US borders. While awaiting trial, Ali's title is stripped away and later won by rising star "Smokin" Joe Frazier. After winning the lengthy case, Ali is then given a chance to regain his title by challenging the man who defeated Frazier; George Foreman. This fight closes the film in the same manner as it opened; a dramatic battle for supremacy.
We are not really given a chance to explore the mind of Ali. Rather the movie operates as a fly-on-the-wall perspective of his finest moments. It should also be noted that the movie doesn't really humanize its protagonist either. His followers are in awe of his presence yet Ali is also a bit of an enigma. Case in point: for a long time in reality, his Islamic background was placed in doubt over the possibility of it being nothing more than a ploy to escape the military draft. We also do not see why he and Malcolm X have such a strong bond or why he took such joy at using announcer Howard Cosell (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) as comedic material. These unexplored areas work to the film's advantage since it's real goal was to present a moving tribute to the legend of Muhammad Ali instead of just the man himself.
Visually, the film is impressive. Mann uses a variety of camera angles, still shots and moving shots to bring this tale to life. In the past, I have criticized Mann for relying too much on style over substance. The same methods apply here but it feels much more at home this time. A ton of credit should also be given to all responsible for setting up the fight scenes; the movie's bread-and-butter. This is no Rocky Balboa picture. The scenes are presented with the purest detail of realism and Smith imitates Ali's fighting style flawlessly. If it were not for these scenes, the movie would fail to be memorable.
The scenes that illustrate Ali's journey from man to legend may seem to drag too long for some viewers. I give Mann credit for marching to the beat of his own drum and avoiding some of the usual cliches that accompany sports-related biopics. The outline is unorthodox but it works fine.
Much like the man himself, Ali packs a solid punch. Those looking for a more complete examination of the legendary boxer will be disappointed in what Mann has to offer. Those that want to see the impact of what this legend had on so many will probably find satisfaction.