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Stars: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Nona Gaye and Jada Pinkett Smith
Director: Michael Mann
Script: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth and Michael Mann
Music: Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke
Columbia Pictures
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes
Rating: R for language and fight violence

Anyone familiar with the culture of the '60s and '70s is also familiar with Muhammad Ali. Though he never held political office or led a major organization, he was one of the most recognized figures of those two decades, and his legend has not waned in the intervening years. To make a bio-pic, then, about the man called "The Greatest" is no small task. A straight-forward biography would merely cover ground that most people already know. A greatest-hits package of his fights would just repeat what is already routinely shown on various sports stations.

No, a bio-pic of Muhammad Ali must do more. It must somehow situate Ali in the context of his time, or dig deeper and show how Ali became the man he was, or investigate how Ali's flaws were inextricably tied up with his strengths, or explore how Ali's choices affected society, or focus on the two silent decades of the '80s and '90s. Any of those would make for a gripping and provocative film.

Unfortunately, director Michael Mann chooses none of them. Instead he begins in 1964 when Cassius Clay knocked out the feared Sonny Liston and, skipping across Ali's career like a jumpy phonograph needle, ends with Ali's great triumph over George Foreman in Zaire. Along the way, we're treated to Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam, his marriage to Sonji Roy and then later to Belinda Boyd, his conviction for refusing to enter the draft, and his interactions with sports figures like Howard Cosell and Don King. But these are all covered so superficially we never get a sense of either the man or his time.

It's not that the movie is short; in fact, it goes past the two-and-a-half hour mark. So with what does Mann fill up the time? Well, there are stagings of Ali's three big fights: Liston I, the epic battle against Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden, and of course the bout with Foreman. There's also a tame but long sex scene between Ali (played by Will Smith) and Sonji Roy (Smith's real-life wife Jada Pinkett Smith). And there are lots and lots of shots of Muhammad Ali looking pensive or training silently or walking at night. I'm sure that Mann was hoping to capture some element of the "real" Ali, but his effect is to get the audience wondering when the next fight's going to be.

Ali's greatest failing, however, might be that it rarely shows what a charismatic figure Ali was. Anyone who's seen clips of Ali at press conferences or on the street knows what a magnetic presence he was, but Ali doesn't seem to know how to handle that. I should point out this isn't Will Smith's fault. On a few occasions, he's allowed to re-create Ali's trademark verbal sparring, and the result is exhilarating. Smith does a wonderful job with Ali's vocal inflections and mannerisms. It's a fantastic impression without sounding like a mimic. Will Smith is also
credible in the ring. While nobody, and I mean nobody, could ever come close to the beauty, grace, and speed with which Ali fought, Smith is more than adequate, giving a sense of why Muhammad was so special.

The supporting cast is also strong. Jamie Foxx, better known as a comic, gives a great performance as hanger-on Drew Brown. Ron Silver as trainer Angelo Dundee, Jeffrey Wright as photographer Howard Bingham, Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, and Mario van Peebles as Malcolm X all give worthwhile performances, helping us to understand what life was like in the late '60s/early '70s.

It's no surprise that Michael Mann's direction is also solid. The man who gave us The Insider and Heat uses hand-held cameras and widescreen compositions to great effect. The fight scenes, in particular, are beautifully shot with overhead lights creating a striking modernist effect. But all of the acting and direction can't overcome a project whose very conception is flawed, a movie that doesn't know what it wants to do and ends up doing nothing.

A couple nights ago, I happened to catch the Ali-Foreman bout on a late-night sports show. I've seen that fight at least a half-dozen times, but it never fails to raise goose-bumps as I watch--Ali using the rope-a-dope strategy, yelling into Foreman's ear when they're in a clinch, and then the final surprising barrage of punches in the eighth round that ends the fight. But I noticed something this time I had never noticed before--as Ali slumps to the canvas at the fight's conclusion celebrating his victory, the British announcer who's calling the fight screams into the microphone, "Ali has won. The great man has won." Unfortunately, the movie Ali never floats or stings. It just sort of lies there for 150 minutes, which is a tremendous disservice to one of the great men of the 20th century. 

J. Robert Parks 12/22/2001

The film Ali is anything but the greatest of all-time, but Will Smith's performance is worthy of the champ.

Smith (Independence Day) in the title role and Jon Voight (Mission Impossible) as Howard Cosell both deliver Oscar-worthy efforts.  Sadly, their talents are partially drowned out by the worst musical score I've ever sat through.  Certainly the career of the most important athlete in history is difficult to cram into less than three hours.  But rather than find a way to summarize Ali's life up to the starting point of the film, director Michael Mann (Heat) decided to subject movie-goers to 30 minutes of black lounge music played over inaudible dialog.  I gather we're supposed to take his word for it that this dialog explains what's going on even though we can't hear it over the nightclub crooning.

Once we are able to shake off the disorientation, however, Smith's Ali quickly becomes an interesting character and we even forget that the greatest is being portrayed by the kid who rapped "Parents Just Don't Understand."  As someone who thinks the success of other crossovers like Jennifer Lopez, or whatever ridiculous name she wants to be called now, reflects more on the lowering of viewers' standards than the actor's talent, I laud Smith's breakout performance.

The interplay of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in Ali's life was fair in its own right, but its depiction pales in comparison with Spike Lee's film.  The fights themselves are exceptional.  Ali's opponents are aptly portrayed and full of real punches.  Smith actually trained for a year as a boxer in Ali's style, and it shows.

I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the film was saying.  Another long, boring musical sequence crept back in to further disorient me before the Rumble in the Jungle.  All I know is that Will Smith did his job.  Maybe it was great against the backdrop of either such a horrible score or Smith's previous roles, but it's worth it just to see what a great performance he turns in.

Dan Singleton 1/5/2002

Ali is the story of boxing great, Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay. Will Smith (The Legend of Bagger Vance) is the actor who decided to do a year of physical training to build his body into the likeness of Ali.  Well, it worked, not only for the physique, but also for the role of the man.  Smith does a tremendous job here and the boxing sequences are well thought out. This is a Will Smith you won't recognize.  Director Michael Mann (The Insider) uses imaginative camera work to bring the audience into the ring with the fighters.  This is not an easy film to watch.

Ali brings us the good and bad points of the man.  Married several times, he had an eye for the ladies.  The relationship between he and his father (Giancarlo Esposito) didn't run smoothly and neither did his relationship with several members of the Nation of Islam.  Ali is his own person and lived life by his rules.  Most of the time, Will Smith gets the directness of Muhammad Ali, but sometimes Will Smith creeps into it, just as Jim Carrey and Robin Williams have trouble keeping themselves in check in a role.

The movie is set between the years 1964-74 when Clay becomes Muhammad Ali, refuses to be inducted into the U. S. Army, loses his heavyweight title and then has the famous match against George Foreman.  The cast of actors rivals any director's dream and includes Jon Voight (Pearl Harbor) as Howard Cosell; Jamie Fox (television's Jamie Foxx Show) as Ali's ring man, Carl Bundini; Ron Silver as Angelo Dundee; Mykelti Williamson as boxing promoter Don King and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X.  There is mastery of make-up and mannerisms here as you see Voight become Cosell, much as he almost became F. D. R. in Pearl Harbor.  Peebles become Malcolm X and Jamie Fox becomes Bundini.  For those who witnessed the actual fights years ago on live television, it is like being in a time warp.

However, that becomes the problem. Ali ultimately is a film of amazing performances, but not a whole film.  Ali's family life is window dressing. The film loses momentum in the center and only seems to be cohesive in the fight scenes. When you leave the theater, you say, <Gosh, what a fight, > and not <Gosh, what a film. >

Copyright 2002 Marie Asner 1/6/2002

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