Taking place over the 10 year period of Muhammad Ali's greatest challenges (1964-1974), "Ali" (IMDb listing) follows the beloved boxer (played by Will Smith) as he beats Sonny Liston for the championship, becomes a household name, begins to adopt Muslim teachings, dodges the Vietnam war draft, falls into obscurity, then returns to glory in the legendary "Rumble In The Jungle" fight in Zaire, Africa, versus the pre low-fat cooking guru George Forman.
"Ali" isn't your typical biographical picture. It's not exactly a document of Ali, but an attempt to capture his essence. The way he moved, sounded and impacted the world around him. The film moves freely from event to event, without much care in tying these episodes together. It has little narrative drive, preferring to lay back and coast on the heels of the performances and composition. It's a frustrating movie, since director Michael Mann is known for his rambling, yet has infinitely more focused direction in better films ("Last Of The Mohicans," "Heat"). "Ali" fails Mann in simple storytelling since there is little care to see it through for the entire picture.
Once you get used to the loose narrative device (about 30 minutes in), and become aware that no real biographical information will be presented, "Ali" does boast some impressive technical credits and some brilliant mimicry by the performers.
It's easy to razz Will Smith for his ego-trips ("Wild Wild West"), but Smith finally gets to show off some of his skills in the title role. Ditching the charm that has failed him in recent years, Smith buries himself deep in Ali's skin. Recreating the defiance of The Champ along with the voice and features, Smith brings to life Ali in a way that the film should've taken a cue from. As unfocused as the picture is, Smith is assiduous in his persistence to nail down every nuance of the man. I studied his performance closely, waiting in determination to see even a glimpse of the old Will Smith pop out of his performance. The moment never came. Smith tucks away all of the ego and "becomes" Ali in the best sense of the word. It's an accomplishment I doubt we will ever see again from Will Smith.
The one fear I did have going into "Ali" was that the filmmakers would try to glorify Ali, and paint him as a saint who changed the world. While there is little argument to how Ali affected the sports world and the African-American community during the 1960s and '70s, at the end of the day, Muhammad Ali was still a man made simply of flesh and blood. In the film, Ali is rarely shown as responsible for his actions. Everything that happens to Ali in "Ali" is someone else's fault. Can't fight? It's the government holding him back. Mistreated? It's the promoters or his own management team that have faltered him. The picture rarely shows that Ali was fallible and filled with his own prejudices. Mann and Smith labor only halfheartedly on this uncomfortable aspect to Ali's disposition, and by focusing on the aforementioned mood of the film, neglect to get their claws into who Ali was as a human being.
One particularly repulsive theme running throughout the film is Ali's constant wandering eye for the ladies. The Champ went through many wives, yet the film portrays this as the romantic ideal, claiming Ali was just a hopeless loverboy who couldn't help himself when it came to women. This doesn't sit well with me, as it still is considered adultery no matter how Mann tries to spin it. He lets Ali off the hook for his crimes, and in turn neuters the personality and obliterates the film's credibility. Muhammad Ali is a complex celebrity, yet the film's blind eye to the more salacious and unpleasant details ruin the shape of the characterization that Smith has worked so hard on.
While "Ali" is an intense and a carefully mounted you-are-there picture, Mann really misses an opportunity to find the soul of his subject. Coming out of the film, I didn't gain any more respect for, or knowledge about, Ali as a person, and certainly not as an important cultural figurehead of the era depicted in the film. And if that was the particular Mann and Smith were after, then just what is the point of "Ali?" A man as revered as this certainly deserves a more comprehensive film.
Filmfodder Grade: C