Muhammad Ali is a fascinating fellow, and Michael Mann a very talented filmmaker. But the latter’s big-budget picture about the former, while made with the careful craftsmanship Mann lavishes on all his projects, is a curiously unsatisfying piece which reveals far less about its subject than you want to know. What’s most surprising about “Ali,” in fact, is just how staid and formulaic it is. Not only does it fail to examine the personal life of the boxer to any great extent, but, apart from a couple of exquisitely recreated boxing matches, its presentation of his public career comes across as fragmentary and disjointed. The picture is cautious, pragmatic, even decorous–the very antithesis of its subject.
To be fair, “Ali” doesn’t pretend to be a full biography of the heavyweight champion. It ignores the first twenty-two years of his life and everything after 1974. It offers instead a chunk–a major chunk, to be sure, but still a chunk–of the story, beginning with the 1964 match in which Cassius Clay, as he was known at the time, shocked the boxing world by defeating Sonny Liston and concluding with the Don King-promoted “Rumble in the Jungle,” the highly-touted extravaganza in Zaire in which Ali regained the crown of which he’d been stripped by winning over the favored George Foreman. Between these two pivotal events, the picture covers the fighter’s first two marriages and his introduction to his third wife, his conversion to the brand of Islam preached by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, his conviction for refusing induction into the army and subsequent appeals, and his struggle to reclaim the title after being denuded of it by boxing authorities. The decade was certainly the central one in Ali’s life, and it does impose a certain dramatic symmetry on Mann’s film, with the two major fights acting as bookends; but unfortunately the decision to concentrate exclusively on it leaves the roots of Ali’s character unexplored and the tragic aspects of his life over the past twenty-seven years untouched. Moreover, the picture doesn’t even manage to treat the ten years it does cover very satisfactorily. To often it comes across as history hastily written in shorthand–“Now Malcolm X is assassinated! Now Martin Luther King is shot!”–and there’s a clunky, one-thing-after-another quality to it all that seems more appropriate to the TV screen; at one point sportscaster Howard Cosell (played by Jon Voight) is even made to explain to Ali, in the simplest possible terms, why the government is persecuting him–it’s as though the audience (as well as the title character) are being spoon-fed the most elementary information. The portrait of Zaire under Mobutu in the final reel, moreover, seems simplistic after the far deeper and more effective depiction in the recent “Lumumba.” One hates to bring up Oliver Stone’s hysterically conspiratorial treatments of modern events for comparison, but whatever their faults–and they are considerable–“JFK” and “Nixon” demonstrate a mind selecting and arranging material to some dramatic point–a characteristic that’s distinctly lacking here. Most of the characters, too, have a sketchy feel to them. Ron Silver, to offer one example, is made up to look astonishingly like Angelo Dundee, Ali’s famous trainer, but he’s given virtually nothing to do except to hover in the background. The talented Giancarlo Esposito is so anonymous as the fighter’s father that for a time it’s not even clear whom he’s playing. Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X is an important plot element early on, but Mario Van Peebles makes little of the role, and as Elijah Muhammad Albert Hall is a feeble replacement for the superb Al Freeman, Jr. (in “Malcolm X”). And while Jamie Foxx works to bring the drug-addled “Bundini” Brown to life, his is a performance of obvious tricks rather than real conviction. Other good actors–Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Joe Morton–are pretty much lost in the shuffle.
All this doesn’t mean that “Ali” is without virtues. The fight sequences are very well staged, though they lack the raw intensity of, say, “Raging Bull.” Will Smith, though he doesn’t possess the physique of a prizefighter, gets Ali’s voice and enthusiastic attitude right; it may be more an impersonation than a performance, but at least it has energy. And Voight puts his flair for vocal mimicry, exhibited earlier this year in “Pearl Harbor,” to good use as Cosell. He’s virtually unrecognizable under the makeup, which is so heavy that facially he resembles a mannikin more than a human being (it really does inhibit his ability to show emotion), but his periodic banter with Smith’s Ali provides some of the very few moments which seem vibrant and authentic. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography should also be noted; with its periodic hand-held moments, it manages a mixture of grittiness and gloss which suits Mann’s approach beautifully.
As a whole, however, “Ali” is an ambitious endeavor whose emphasis on surface sheen renders it dramatically bloodless. One can admire the intent of the story arc in presenting this decade of the boxer’s life as his journey of self-realization from Clay to Ali and from America to Africa, but the picture’s failure to delve very deeply into his psyche leaves it overly schematic, more hagiography than history.