Ali is a riveting film that manages to pay respect to the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, without actually shedding any light on him. Here was a man whose outrageous personality and likeable charm more than overshadowed his boxing skills, no matter how eloquent and majestic those skills were, and yet Michael Mann's screen version of the boxer's story mythologies him without celebrating him; the film respects him but doesn't love him.
There's been talk of a biography of Ali for years now, and even the film's star, Will Smith, has yo-yo'd in-and-out of deciding whether he wanted to appear in the film or not. Michael Mann, acclaimed director of Heat and The Insider, even found it a struggle to bring the film to the screen, agreeing to forfeit his salary in exchange for a share of the film's profits. Now that Ali has finally been produced and released, the film has received mixed ratings, and has failed to make as much of a dent in audiences' minds as the filmmakers had hoped.
Omitting Ali's early years, along with his most recent chapter in which he can be found devoting his entirely life to fighting Parkinson's disease, Ali concentrates solely on the period starting with his clash with Sonny Liston in 1964 and ending with his famous 'Rumble In The Jungle' clash with George Foreman in 1974 (that was chronicled in When We Were Kings). During this ten year period, Ali converted to Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay to what we now know him as and infamously refused to allow himself to be drafted for the Vietnam war, which sparked massive controversy. Also during this time, Ali had heavy dealings with such celebrated figures as Malcolm X and Don King, whilst leading a promiscuous life which resulted in many wives and lovers.
Ali is a tremendously worthy adaptation of a tremendous showman, and this is largely thanks to Will Smith, who might run away with this year's Best Actor Oscar. We forget almost instantly that this is the same man who starred in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and Men In Black, and even though Smith and Ali aren't exactly alike in terms of vocal tone and physical appearance, we the audience seem to trust Smith, almost as if he is the advocate of Ali in the film. Indeed, every performance in the movie is inspired, from Jon Voight playing Ali's verbal sparring partner and friend Howard Cosell to Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X. Giancarlo Esposito is also excellent as Ali's father, along with Mykelti Williamson, who would convince you that he was actually Don King. Joe Morton, Albert Hall, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ron Silver and Jeffrey Wright also complement the cast splendidly.
Although Michael Mann has done a fantastic job with Ali, he has still ultimately failed to give the film a soul. Mann would have you believe that Ali was a man who constantly fought with a chip on his shoulder, as if insecurity and cowardliness were causing his outward personality. Ali wasn't just a boxer, but a poet and philosopher with razor-sharp wit, and yet these latter qualities seem to have somehow become lost in the mix. It's as if the celebrity icon of Muhammad Ali that we know and love isn't the same as the aggressive, stubborn and enigmatic Ali of the film. This might be the film's point, but it could at least serve to contrast these two opposing sides of Ali's character, in order to help the audience identify the difference, rather than merely presenting one viewpoint. This is essentially the summation of the film, in that it's a powerful and brilliant study of a boxer struggling to maintain his identity against the odds, and yet it completely fails to tell the audience anything new about Muhammad Ali, or even represent the joy he gave to millions. This is what prevents Ali from being a masterpiece.