Michael Mann is, arguably, the greatest director working today who began his career after the movie brat invasion of the 1970s and Star Wars. While this may be a sweeping statement, any director who has made such consistently intelligent, literate films (and created Miami Vice, but we won't hold that against him) ought to have his every new film awaited eagerly, on the grounds that it may well be of the same extraordinarily high calibre as such modern classics as The Insider and Heat. Thus, although Ali is a slight disappointment for such a talented director, it still represents a genuinely heavyweight (sic) effort, with a revelatory performance from Will Smith at its heart.
The plot deals with Ali's life between the mid 1960s and the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' in 1974, with brief flashbacks to his earlier childhood. (Earlier versions of the script presented his life as a straight biopic, but Mann and Eric Roth, his co-writer, made the sensible decision to concentrate on the man at his most iconic.) The narrative thus deals with such incidents as Ali's friendship with Malcolm X, his uneasy relationship with the Nation of Islam, and his refusal to be drafted into the American army, and subsequent arrest, as well as his highly successful boxing career.
Although this may seem to be a sports film, this is no more a film about sport than Raging Bull was a light-hearted study of a pugilist, instead being a typically intense and intelligent look at how Ali, or Cassius Clay, managed to single-handedly change American perceptions of black public figures, albeit at a time when Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were becoming far more prominent than conservative forces might have liked. Mann's usual themes of urban alienation, as expressed through the extraordinary individual and his uneasy relationships with others, are present, although not examined with the extraordinary rigour that characterised the stunning The Insider; the hypothesis that Ali was a kind of secular saint that the film half-presents is also somewhat unconvincing, with his adulterous liaisons and dubious religious convictions presented in too whitewashed a manner, albeit in a far more interesting and realistic fashion than, say, A Beautiful Mind.
It's also a genuinely fascinating look at the end of the life of Malcolm X, which it covers in a far more interesting and even-handed way than Spike Lee (who, ironically, was in the frame to direct Ali for years) did in his eponymous film in 1992. It also leads to the film's most devastating moment; Ali is driving along, and is told by a hysterical passer-by that Malcolm has been assassinated. To the accompaniment of gospel music, Ali pulls his car in, and sheds a single tear as all those around him begin to mourn hysterically. It may sound mawkish, but Mann's brilliance at handling the scene makes it incredibly vivid and effective in context.
The performances are all excellent, some more surprisingly than others. The revelation is Smith, who moves away from the stereotypes of his Men in Black or Fresh Prince persona to become a serious actor successfully; while his comedy background helps to convey Ali's extraordinary wit brilliantly, he also rises to the challenge of handling difficult dramatic moments equally well, and he'd be a deserving winner of the Best Actor Oscar. Jon Voight is also excellent as the sports reporter Howard Corsell, Ali's sometime sparring partner and friend, even if he is unrecognisable under heavy make-up. Other performances are all good, with actors like Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett emulating Smith by stretching their repertoires to include serious dramatic work, rather than the light comedy (and, in Foxx's case, Any Given Sunday, which perhaps counts as light comedy if you're in the mood) that they are best known for before. Mario Van Peebles is also very strong as Malcolm X; the film needed a powerful presence in such a pivotal role, and he certainly provides it.
The film is not flawless; it's slightly too long, for one thing, and there are occasions where it feels as if scenes have been rather abruptly removed. However, it's still an intelligent, thoughtful piece of craftsmanship from a brilliant director that genuinely does illuminate the life of one of the twentieth century's most important people (and, for your philosophy buffs out there, sometime correspondent of History of Western Philosophy author, Bertrand Russell).