Screenplay : Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann (story by Gregory Allen Howard)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : 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), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sonji Roi), Nona M. Gaye (Belinda Boyd), Michael Michele (Veronica Porsche), Joe Morton (Chauncey Eskridge), Barry Shabaka Henley (Herbert Muhammad), Giancarlo Esposito (Cassius Clay Sr.)
In Ali, his ambitious biopic of the great boxer Muhammad Ali, director Michael Mann (The Insider) creates a seething texture of American culture in the crucial decade between 1964, when Ali first won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, and 1974, when he won it back from George Forman in the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire. From the soul-stirring music of Sam Cooke, which opens the film, to the multi-million-dollar spectacle of heavyweight boxing, to the tensions surrounding Vietnam and the rise of black radicalism in the inner cities, the film weaves a thick historical tapestry—it gives you the palpable sense of being there.
Mann gives the film a gritty but glorious documentary-cum-epic look, where the heavy emphasis on close-ups and shallow focus is broken from time to time with gorgeous wide compositions that are startling in their sudden expansiveness. It's hard to get a handle on the visual style, as Mann flaunts convention by allowing the image to go out of focus and the camera to wander inscrutably from time to time, giving it a pseudo-documentary texture. At the same time, though, he employs highly stylized devices, such as inner voices and point-of-view shots. The fight sequences are the most telling, as Mann switches between a fastidious mode of recreation with moments of violent disorientation as we are placed in Ali's shoes, the rapid-fire editing and quick bursts of blurred slow motion standing in visually for what it must have been like to be in the ring. It's bravura filmmaking—cunning, yet unconventional—and it gives you much to admire on a visual level.
However, the film's considerable aesthetic achievements cannot mask its greatest flaw: the inability to get at the heart of its subject, Muhammad Ali. Granted, this may simply be the result of making a biopic about somewhat as deeply contradictory and historically inscrutable as the one-time Cassius Clay. His unorthodox behavior was loathed by many in the late 1960s, although his stands for his religious rights and his opposition to the war in Vietnam, once labeled politically radical and even unpatriotic, have since been vindicated by the passage of time.
A follower of the Nation of Islam, Ali was nonetheless a motormouth and reckless womanizer, a deeply flawed national hero who challenged a country in turmoil by being "the people's champion" in his own unique way, consequences be damned. Yet, the movie's greatest problem is that it never gets at how or why Ali did what he did. His most famous statements ("I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong") seem to come from sudden, spur-of-the-moment inspiration, and we rarely get a sense of what Ali is thinking, about both others and himself. Despite all the brooding he does in the film, it seems as if Ali knows himself even less than others do.
Ali is played by Will Smith, who trained for a year both to add weight and muscle to match Ali's physique and to learn Ali's particular fighting style—"float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"—which combined the speed and grace of a lighter-weight boxer with the power of a heavyweight. Like Jim Carrey's similarly tricky portrayal of comedian Andy Kauffman in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon (1999), Smith is given the heavy duty of striking the fine balance between giving an emotionally honest portrayal while also evoking the sounds and mannerisms of a man who has been documented by the media all his life. Smith's performance is a revelation, as he evokes Ali both inside and outside the ring—inside with his fluid, jabbing boxing style and outside with his rhyming taunts and unique vocal cadence. What is most startling, though, is his portrayal of Ali outside the spotlight altogether, where he becomes a brooding, introspective man given to sudden outbursts and frustrations. Smith channels Ali in his eyes, so that, even when he's doing nothing, there is a sense of bottled energy waiting to explode.
Mann and co-screenwriter Eric Roth made a wise choice by focusing in on only one decade in Ali's life (the other two credited screenwriters, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, wrote an original screenplay that covered Ali's entire life from childhood on). The years between 1964 and 1974 were the most turbulent of Ali's career, when he went from being the heavyweight champion of the world, to nearly ending his life as a boxer by taking a principled stand and refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army. His life at this time is a series of conflicts and setbacks, and it is no overstatement to say that Mann turns the film into a triumph for Ali—how else to explain the extraordinary amount of screen time he devotes to the weeks leading up to the Rumble in the Jungle, which is here presented as Ali's great resurrection in the face of all adversity.
However, this triumph is tempered by all that comes before it, particularly the depiction of Ali as the puppet of others. Much has been made of Ali's womanizing, and in the movie he has relationships with three different women, all of whom he married and divorced: Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith), Belinda Boyd (Nona M. Gaye), and Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele). Despite their considerable differences, the one thread that binds all of these women together is that they recognized how Ali was being used by various factions, whether it be the Nation of Islam or opportunistic promoters like Don King (Mykelti Williamson), who Belinda describes as a man who "talks black, lives white, and thinks green." The Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, get the hardest knock here, as Muhammad is portrayed as an opportunist who used Ali the national hero as a way to advance the Nation of Islam in the public eye, unequivocally embracing him when he was successful and dismissing him when he fell on hard times.
There are several other characters who weave in and out of Ali's life, including his troubled corner-man Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx) and Ali's initial mentor in the Muslim faith, Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles). The most unlikely, and yet most affecting, relationship Ali has is with CBS sports commentator Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). Ali and Cosell jovially spar in public, but in private they have a close relationship, with Cosell using his influence and connections to help Ali out at a time when no one would. Voight's performance as Cosell is worth noting, as, like Smith's portrayal of Ali, he nails the impersonation, but not at the expense of emotional depth. One of the most striking moments in the film is when Cosell first confides in Ali, telling him that the whole reason he is being targeted by the government is because of fears of black radicalism in the inner cities.
Yet, for all its power and powerful performances, Ali never lands a knock-out. It is admirably made, but it is never deeply moving. Perhaps in his zeal to meticulously recreate the time and place in which Ali lived, Mann never quite got to the heart of Ali's life, instead letting it play out as dramatic spurts of contradiction and conflict. Even in the intimate moments with confidantes like Malcolm X and Cosell, we are left more with the sense of important historical characters interacting than with human beings confiding in each other. Ali is ultimately a revealing film, particularly for those who don't know much about Ali's life, but it is never truly revelatory.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick