Ali, the new video/DVD release directed by Michael Mann and starring Will Smith, examines ten years in the life of charismatic and controversial boxer Muhammad Ali, from 1964 to 1974. During this time he wins the world heavyweight championship, loses it, gets barred from boxing and the Nation of Islam for refusing to be drafted into America's war with Viet Nam, takes several wives, and travels to Zaire to face George Foreman in the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle". This film was mired in controversy almost from the beginning and, unfortunately, there is little in the film to prove the naysayers wrong.
Watching Ali was a curious experience for me. Technically speaking, director Mann creates a world that appears to be full of menace and threat, where life is cheap and destinies are changed with the pull of a trigger. On this level, the film is effective as it was clearly designed to sympathise with Ali's personal situation. The boxer is portrayed as a rebel whose outspoken demeanor and refusal to play by the rules terrified the establishment. The movie makes it clear that America was reeling from low public support for a war that many viewed as pointless, so the last thing the Government needed or wanted was a black rising within the confines of the nation. We see how Ali's successes and subsequent failures became symbols of empowerment to the disenfranchised ethnic communities both within America and abroad. The fact that he dared to succeed on his own terms made him a very dangerous man during these socially uncertain times.
The boxing sequences in Ali are among the most authentic and intense I have ever seen in a film. To his credit, Smith does not seem as out of place as you would expect in a boxing ring. Curiously, he seems more at home in this element than he does fighting aliens, which proves that his critics were wrong in protesting his casting as Ali. The main problem with the movie is that it is strangely uninvolving and unmoving, a huge disappointment considering the potential of the source material. Here is a story that is every bit as inspirational as, say, Rocky, but with the added emotional factor of it being real. Director Mann has opted to tell the story in the most sombre way possible. Watching this film, we are to believe that Ali's life was a string of tragedies which weighed heavily on the man's soul. When you see this guy in old interviews he seems defiant, carefree, and wickedly patronising. None of these qualities are present in the movie. The movie is slow, bloated, and filled with hollow imagery that registers no dramatic impact. Even worse, the script fails to enlighten us on the inner lives of anyone in the film. Ali's wives never reveal anything of their true nature, and the subject of the film itself remains undefined. After this film was over, I didn't feel I knew the character any better than when I started watching it. We learn that Ali was principled and determined to succeed on his own terms, but we don't learn why. Where did this morality and ambition come from? Why did he lose interest in women so quickly? Why was he willing to risk his career rather than face his civic responsibilities? To say that he sympathised with the Viet Cong as a racial minority himself is too simplistic an answer. These and other questions remain unanswered by the movie.
I also wish to comment on the acting, one role in particular. I suppose Smith did a good job, he has an Oscar nomination to show for his work. I say this because I knew virtually nothing about Ali going into the film, and little more coming out, so I'm guessing he did his homework. I have read that he nailed the character's physical presence perfectly, but it looks like he did little more. This is probably not his fault, as the direction and script are clearly working against him. I do have to commend John Voight on his portrayal of Howard Cosell. The actor completely loses himslef in this role. I did not even know it was Voight until the closing credits, which in itself is high praise. Alas, there is very little else to commend the movie for in terms of acting aside from these two.
While watching Ali, I found myself taking more that the usual breaks. The running time on this film felt like a life sentence, and I had to force myself to finish it (I am a completist, after all). The only scenes that really come alive are the boxing ones, and Mann wisely includes enough of them in the film to keep us from falling asleep. The fact that a movie this dull was made about such a colourful individual is really a shame. Ali lacks the intense, almost visionary quality of other Mann films like Heat and The Insider. Perhaps it was a case of getting too close to his subject, or not close enough. Whatever the reason for the film's shortcomings, it was not an engrossing experience.
The successful biopic is able to entertain its audience while revealing volumes on its subject. Unfortunately, I have to say that Ali does not accomplish either goal. An interesting effort, but still a failure in the final analysis. In the meantime, this man who created such a stir in the world of professional boxing seems aloof and distanced from his audience in a manner I'm sure he never was during his reign. Was this movie made with Ali's full blessing? I'm afraid we'll never know.