Ali is the most recent film by Michael Mann, responsible for two brilliant films, 1995’s Heat and 1999’s The Insider. Released on December 25th, 2001 the film stars Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, the legandary world heavyweight boxing champion and follows his life from his fight against Sonny Liston in 1964 to his famous 1974 fight against George Forman in Zaire.
The first half hour of the film completely had me engrossed and transported to another world, a sure sign of a great film. It had everything going for it: great set design, energizing soundtrack, Mann’s unique directing style and a wonderful performance by Will Smith. Most importantly, it had subject matter. Inarguably, the life and times of Muhammad Ali are nothing short of fascinating. The movie, however, completely fails.
It was about an hour into the movie that I realized that it wasn’t going anywhere. The film weaves and wanders throughout several important events in Ali’s career without proper transition. For this reason it doesn’t work as a collage either; it is simply too erratic and superficial. There are many scenes that seem to have no place in the movie like that of two CIA agents in Accra, Ghana watching over a conversation between Ali and Malcolm X. Although this scene serves to demonstrate the political tightrope that Ali was unwittingly walking, Mann just drops it and moves on.
It felt as though, Mann couldn’t decide what aspect of Ali, the man to focus on. He gives us Ali, the boxer, trades him in for Ali, the Muslim, drops that in favor of Ali, the draft dodger and at some point at the very end throws in a bit of Ali, the lover of women as if this was his intended focus from the start. This makes watching Ali quite unsatisfactory and it lacks the storytelling ability Mann brilliantly displayed in his previous two films.
Will Smith, who impressed me in his first film role in 6 Degrees of Separation, proves again that he is capable of more than the fluff action roles he has taken since then. Smith’s physical transformation is astounding and his accuracy with taking on Ali’s voice is impressive. Again, however, I felt that his performance would have been Oscar worthy had the script been better. As much as is possible, Smith is one of the redeming features and along with Jon Voight, who plays Howard Cossel, makes the film bearable.
It might be best to wait for Ali to come to video, which I believe it will do sooner than planned. For those interested in Muhammad Ali, I highly recommend When We Were Kings, possibly one of the best documentary films ever made. It recounts 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and Foreman and it has something that the makers of Ali could have used: a coherant story.