Ali: Muhammad Ali Biopic, Directed by Michael Mann, Starring Will Smith

The challenge of how to present dramatically the life of Muhammad Ali, arguably the most recognizable and flamboyant celeb of the twentieth century, is only partially met in Michael Mann’s Ali, an ambitious but flawed film that narrowly focuses on one decade in the prizefighter’s existence, 1964-1974, while gliding over his private life and neglecting other aspects of his turbulent yet always fascinating career.

Physically transformed to match Ali’s figure at his prime, Will Smith, who gained over 35 pounds for the role, gives a commanding performance as a man who became extremely controversial due to his conversion to Islam and draft resistance during Vietnam, before winning the championship title in the much publicized Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire.

Though Columbia’s Christmas release will be heartedly embraced by black patrons and sports fans, Ali is also likely to appeal to wide demographics, due to its “big event” nature, Ali’s celeb status, and Smith’s star power among both black and white moviegoers. However, with a production budget estimated at over $100 million, and an extremely expensive marketing campaign, Ali the movie may not be the box-office greatest Sony was hoping for–unless it garners major Oscar nominations and awards.

It’s easier to respect than to like Ali, a movie that’s more noteworthy for its ambition and intent than execution and overall result. In various interviews, director Mann has said that Ali is “categorically not a biopic,” and that what he and star Smith were trying to do was “something more extreme.” Judging by what’s onscreen, that “something more extreme” registers as notes or observations on the life of Ali as a great man, rather than a fully realized dramatization of a unique figure that began as a product of his surrounding but quickly turned, as a result of talent, charisma, and sheer chutzpa, into a master of his fate, conquering in the process both the sports and media worlds.

For weeks, there have been rumors in town of how the cut that Mann had presented to Columbia was not only longer but also more substantial and dramatically involving. In a season in which most Hollywood films run over two hours, and Harry Potter, which, after all, is no more than a children’s fantasy, boasts a running time (152 minutes) that’s only minutes shorter than Ali, Mann should have been given the right to show a three-hour-picture, justified by the rich, dense, and heroic life of his subject. Fortunately, fans of the greatest–and of director Mann–will have a chance to see some additional exciting footage in the upcoming DVD version.

But the problem is not just length–it’s also what the filmmakers have chosen to show–and not to show–about a man whose power and fame extended way beyond the boxing ring. The strategy of the screenplay, co-written by Rivele, Wilkinson, Roth, and Mann, is to locate quintessential moments in Ali’s life that are illuminating and emblematic of his whole existence. Indeed, Ali is a movie of many great moments (and scenes), though, ultimately, it lacks the narrative coherence and political resonance of The Insider, Mann’s previous, far superior effort, which won critical kudos but was a commercial failure.

In the early episodes, after an overly long montage of images accompanied by Sam Cooke’s music, the film depicts Cassius Clay (Ali’s name before he converted) as a young and aggressive fighter, who wrests the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964, at the age of 22.

Arguably, the most intriguing chapters are those dealing with Ali’s problematic approach to religion and politics, covering the same territory and controversial figures, albeit from a different angle, previously seen in such films as Spike Lee’s intriguing Malcolm X and the simplistic Panther, directed by Mario Van Peebles, who plays Malcolm X in Ali. The country is shocked when the newly named Ali declares his conversion to Islam, and, later, finds himself torn between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, when the latter is suspended from the Nation of Islam. Interesting segments show the wrathful reaction of Ali’s father (Esposito) to his son’s religious alteration, as well as the vicious murder of Martin Luther King Jr. (Burton) and its impact on the still politically evolving Ali. According to Mann’s fair, balanced view, Ali emerges as a man, who, despite rebellious streak, was not too militant in his attitudes toward dominant white America, whose support and love he sought, or other ethnic minorities, such as Jews.

Ali’s refusal to enlist during the height of the Vietnam War–and the stripping of his title due to his draft evasion–offer the film’s most dramatically involving chapters, framed as the battle of one conscientious individual against the US Army. It’s around this time that Ali became famous for his one-liners, such as “ain’t let no Vietcong ever call me nigger,” and began to assume heroic stature due to his stamina during a tough court battle that took three long years, resulting in a unanimous acquittal by the Supreme Court.

For sheer entertainment, the movie offers half a dozen priceless scenes that chronicle Ali’s relationship with Howard Cosell, TV’s sports announcer. Playing the story’s flashiest character, the unrecognizable Jon Voight does a pitch-perfect impersonation of the sportscaster, whose career was greatly assisted by Ali granting him exclusive interviews, replete with bombastic statements and personal revelations.

The most dissatisfying omissions concern Ali’s private and family life. Since Ali is still alive, Mann and his team might have been too restrained or apprehensive to deal with his Ali’s relationship to women; as is known, Ali has been married four times and is father of nine children. The movie acknowledges Ali’s first marriage to Sonji (played by Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett) and his inexperience in the bedroom in several soft and romantic moments. However, Ali barely throws a glancing look at its hero’s courtship of other women, black and white, and his next couple of marriages. Rarely showing any of his kids, Ali the movie neglects its protagonist’s parental roles and values.

An extremely complex and complicated man, Ali cultivated various, often contradictory persona, for different audiences: Champion, troublemaker, loudmouth braggart, original rapper, shrewd diplomat, womanizer, family man–above all, a man whose gusto for life and the limelight was boundless. But Ali the movie captures vividly only some of these facets. At it weak moments, the picture comes across as the triumphant story of a man who, after winning the heavyweight championship, loses the title and begins a long arduous struggle to regain his crown, discovering in the process that time has taken its toll and robed him of his prowess as he’s about to contest George Foreman, his younger, stronger foe.

The boxing scenes are impressively shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, and, considering there have been many prizefighting movies, from Rocky to Scorsese’s Raging Bulls, the movie shows in minutia detail the moves and countermoves as planned and executed by the rivals, the tense pauses between rounds. But, once again, what the movie lacks is a distinctive perspective on Ali’s talents as a fighter, what made him a champion, how different were his boxing methods from those of his opponents. Hence, one of the yarn’s most obscure figures is Angelo Dundee (Silver), Ali’ trainer from his youth–of the entire supporting cast, Ron Silver’s part feels the most truncated.

Mann must have been aware of the script’s problems for he ends his saga with what’s easily the most exuberant sequence, namely, Ali’s trip to Africa, and his preparations to reclaim his crown from Foreman. The scenes describing Ali’s mysterious, transcendental rapport with Zaire’s masses are ponderous and overdone. Nonetheless, visually speaking, there’s nothing in the film as the scene in which Ali enters into the huge arena like a blood-seeking gladiator. It’s in these moments that Ali achieves epic grandeur, supplementing rather than duplicating the images seen in Leon Gast’s award-winning documentary, “When We Were Kings,” which chronicled the fight.

As expected of every picture by Mann, a visionary stylist known for his hip and ironic poise, Ali boasts craftsmanship of the first order, jazzy yet consequential images and sounds. Auteurist critics and viewers will marvel at the consistent perspective of what can be described as angst-ridden urban fatalism, which runs through most of Mann’s films, including Thief, Manhunter, Heat, and now Ali.

Holding the entire picture on his broad shoulders with consummate skill and undeniable charm, Smith rises to the occasion without ever succumbing to sheer imitation, which, impressive as it is, was the choice of Jon Voight. It’s almost impossible to imagine any other actor in a demanding role that calls for the display of physical skills, macho prowess in and out of the ring, outrageous borderline crazy humor, affable rapport with just about any person, man or woman, black or white, elite or rank-and file. Smith may be one of few Hollywood stars who can exhibit gaudy narcissism without the unbearable obnoxiousness that usually goes with it.

Adding much needed color is the inner circle¬†of Ali’s entourage, composed by such terrific actors as Jamie Foxx, Jeffrey Wright, and Giancarlo Esposito, who handle the deft banter and hipster dialogue with great panache.

Credits

Running Time: 159 minutes

Pro co: A Sony release of a Columbia presentation, in association with Initial Entertainment of a Peters Entertainment/Forward Pass production, in association with Lee Caplin/Picture Entertainment Corp and Overbrook Films.
US dist: Columbia
Int’l dist: Columbia Int’l
Exec prods: Howard Bingham, Graham King
Prods: Jon Peters, James Lassiter, Paul Ardaji, Mann
Scr: Steven J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, and Mann, based on a story by Gregory Allen Howard
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Prod des: John Myhre
Eds: William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin, Lynzee Klingman
Music: Lisa Gerard, Pieter Bourke

Cast

Will Smith
Jamie Foxx
Jon Voight
Mario Van Peebles
Ron Silver
Jeffrey Wright
Jada Pinkett Smith
Giancarlo Esposito