One of the most fascinating, exciting and complex lives of the 20th century is revealed in part in “Ali.” Michael Mann’s ambitious and cold study of the great boxer and cultural icon possesses an informed, intelligent perspective and is never uninteresting to watch. But the filmmaker’s brooding personality and style have imposed themselves on Muhammad Ali more than Ali’s zest and impudence have loosened up Mann, resulting in a picture that feels bottled up rather than exuberant, which is what many might expect or hope for with this subject. A wonderful cast and the film’s epic view of recent history will make this priority viewing for Ali and Will Smith fans, sports enthusiasts, graying boomers and black audiences, categories that extensively overlap. Modest commerciality of biopics reps the conventional-wisdom downside, so ultimate B.O. fate of the reported $105 million production will rest mostly with younger auds who have probably heard of Ali but will need a big push to attend a film about him.
Arguably the most famous person on the planet during his fighting years in the 1960s and ’70s, Ali himself starred in a first biopic, the not-great “The Greatest” in 1977. Telling Ali’s story in full requires coming to grips with several major forces and institutions: boxing, the Nation of Islam, black self-realization, the media, the ’60s protest movement, the seismic cultural shifts of the era and women, for starters.
Doing justice to these subjects, and balancing them effectively, reps a major challenge that Mann has met more successfully than not. What he and fellow scripters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (“Nixon”) and Eric Roth (“The Insider”) don’t manage quite so well is conveying Ali’s wild and crazy side and, much more important, getting inside Ali’s head to suggest what drove the man, what made him tick.
Main action is effectively framed by the decade 1964-74, from the time the 22-year-old Cassius Clay wrested the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston to the moment Muhammad Ali regained it with his momentous knockout of George Foreman in Zaire. Even with the focus thus tightened, there is no way a feature-length film could hope to include everything of relevance in the man’s life during this tumultuous period, and there will be inevitable dissatisfactions with what has been omitted, especially in boxing and in the bedroom.
It becomes clear that Mann is aiming not for documentary thoroughness but for an impressionistic portrait that combines bold brush strokes with telling detail. First 50 minutes or so are the best in the picture, delving more deeply than anything that comes later into three key areas — boxing, religious politics and relations with women.
To the accompaniment of a prolonged Sam Cooke medley, the buildup to the first Liston fight is interlaced with brief glimpses of Clay’s youth and introductory looks at some of the fighter’s inner circle — trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), court jester/motivator/corner man Drew “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx), close friend and photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright) and, most important at this stage, Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles).
The Liston-Clay contest, the most comprehensively presented fight in the picture, is beautifully staged. Despite minor physical differences between Will Smith and the man he is playing, the actor has shown, by the end of this first fight, that he has complete command of his part: The vocal lilt, braggadocio, impulsiveness, charisma, narcissism and openness to people — as well as his trademark ring moves — are all captured as well as one could expect from any actor.
It was after this fight that Clay stunned the nation by confirming rumors that he had converted to Islam. Even so, there were fissures beneath the surface largely unknown at the time, and the film treads boldly and confidently into such sensitive areas as the suspension of Malcolm X by Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall) and the newly named Muhammad Ali’s own repudiation of Malcolm when they met by chance in Africa.
At least in dramatic terms, Mann handles the issues relating to the Nation of Islam extremely well, economically portraying Ali’s distress over the refusal of his first wife, Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), to comply with Islamic dress standards; showing the fury of the fighter’s father (Giancarlo Esposito) over his son’s conversion; revealing the government had a spy in the Nation’s leadership’s ranks; and quietly advancing the view that Elijah and his son Herbert Muhammad (Barry Shabaka Henley) knew a lucrative gravy train when they saw one.
Never for a moment, however, does the film question the sincerity of Ali’s embrace of Islam. Rather, it is seen as one facet of the man’s determination to do things on his own terms, to rebel, to not play by the white man’s rules. Ali also is shown as being considerably less doctrinaire than many of his Muslim brothers, rejecting the popular “white devils” theory and having no religious problems with close friends Bingham (a Catholic) and Brown (a Jew).
Where intimate relations are concerned, it’s more implied than stated that Ali was relatively inexperienced when he met Sonji, who quickly brought him up to speed. Thereafter, however, pic walks on eggshells when it comes to matters of womanizing and Ali’s relationships with his next two wives, the devout Muslim Belinda (Nona Gaye) and the sleek Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele). Very late in the game, Ali half-jokes that he wishes he had discovered Islam five years later, so he wouldn’t have felt so conflicted over his weakness for women. Statement comes as something of a shock, however, since nowhere in the pic has any tomcatting been seen or even referred to.
With the arrival of some major milestones — the assassination of Malcolm X, the controversial second Liston fight, Sonji’s split and Ali’s 1-A draft classification — a dramatic flattening starts to occur that increasingly afflicts the picture. Famous moments — Ali’s refusal to step forward for Army induction; his controversial line “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”; the stripping of his title in the wake of his conviction for draft evasion; and the 3½-year court battle that concluded with his unanimous exoneration by the U.S. Supreme Court — are dropped in among quieter scenes that underline Ali’s psychological and financial stress during this period and the sustaining support he received from sportscaster Howard Cosell (a remarkable Jon Voight).
One of the more remarkable scenes during this stretch has Ali jumping in a car driven by Joe Frazier and getting his rival to promise to fight him by convincing Frazier he’ll never be accepted as champ unless he beats the “people’s champ,” Ali.
Resulting battle, the justifiably billed “Fight of the Century” between two unbeaten heavyweights, is unsatisfactorily, even inaccurately presented, in that it gives the impression that Frazier not only won the decision, but thoroughly whipped Ali; in fact, the fight was very close, and Frazier ended up in the hospital in serious condition for days.
After glancingly noting that Ali turned the tables on Frazier in their second contest, narrative jumps ahead to Zaire, where the film spends its final half-hour dealing with the Rumble in the Jungle against Foreman.
Understandably declining to compete for excitement with Leon Gast’s comprehensive, Oscar-winning docu on the subject, “When We Were Kings,” Mann takes a different tack, examining the mystical connection Ali began to feel with Africa and its population, especially youngsters, through long scenes of him running through the back streets and alleys of Kinshasa (wonderfully doubled by Maputo, Mozambique) accompanied by scads of locals. Sequences have a dreamy quality, but also convey the long journey Ali has taken from middle-class Louisville, Ky., boy to universally recognized citizen of the world.
Pic ends on the expected high note of Ali’s stunning eighth round knockout, but most exciting footage is of Ali’s entrance into the massive stadium filled with tens of thousands of fans who are obviously real people and not, gratifyingly, fill-the-seats CGI creations.
Just about everything Mann has chosen to present is valid, substantial and convincing, but by the end, the feeling persists that while certain essences have been grasped, only part of the story has been told.
The director’s visual and aural dapplings are strikingly effective at their best, but over the long haul don’t represent a satisfactory alternative to in-depth dramatic scenes; one longs, for example, for even one sequence in which Ali and Dundee discuss boxing strategy or assess an opponent (as it is, Silver has hardly any lines), or of Ali en famille (he has nine kids, but from the film, you’d hardly know he had any).
The cast is outstanding, from Smith, who carries the picture with consummate skill, and Voight, who is unrecognizable under all the makeup but nails Cosell’s distinctive vocal cadences, to those in the smallest parts. Foxx is dead-on as the unpredictable, unreliable but essential and lovable Bundini, and Van Peebles impressively captures Malcolm X’s commanding intellect and personal affection for the boxer. Completely convincing in smaller but crucial roles are Joe Morton as Ali’s resilient attorney through the lean years, Esposito as the volatile Cassius Clay Sr., Henley as the ever-hovering Herbert Muhammad, Mykelti Williamson as Don King and Paul Rodriguez as fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco.
Technically, the production displays Mann’s customary mastery of image and sound. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography has a deliberate rough edge that lends a verite vibrancy to the images, while John Myhre’s impeccable production design meshes seamlessly with the many actual historical locations Mann insisted upon using. Craft contributions are first-class all the way.