The underlying spirit of Michael Mann’s current biopic Ali is by now so familiar that it’s ushered in the dreaded realm of cliché, and that’s a shame. Over the 10 years covered by the film, Muhammad Ali, now America’s No. 1 sports icon, wins the title, finds love(s) and religion, takes his famous stand, and suffers accordingly before gaining redemption both in and out of the ring. Sounds like great stuff for a movie, except how do you imitate life already imitating art? Ali tried playing himself 25 years ago (The Greatest) and failed miserably. Now Mann and, more prominently, Will Smith (as Ali) take their turn and wind up with a big, bursting sentimental rehash.
Jack Newfield once described Ali in terms of his various identities—”man-child, con man, entertainer, poet, draft-dodger, rebel, evangelist, champion, you name it.” All right, bully, goodwill ambassador, merry prankster, insatiable lover-man—to tack on a few. Unfortunately, the beauty of such a multi-sided, enigmatic figure is woefully lost on a Hollywood that prefers spitting out more wooden characterizations. Smith gets little help from a screenplay that devolves from Ali’s more classic couplets (“It may amaze ya, I’m gon’ whup Joe Fraz-yah”), to soap-operatic confrontations, to trite self-affirmations (“I’m gonna be who I wanna be”). With quizzically upturned brows in the insufferable close-ups, Smith too often seems confused—hardly a staple of the Ali personality. And the cadence is only superficially Ali-esque, almost forced. As for the rhymes, it’s as if the hip-hopster Smith holds something in reserve, as if these are goofy, old-timey riffs that he can’t quite feel comfortable with. Similarly, Jon Voigt’s Howard Cosell is too dry and restrained (when not bizarrely avuncular), missing entirely the self-absorption of the real man. Ditto Ron Silver’s Angelo Dundee, in actuality a warm and congenial fight trainer.
Nitpicking aside, the movie crawls along at a snail’s pace, odd considering it deals with but a portion, albeit a major one, of Ali’s career and life. The heavy-handed treatment of Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X, with the Nation of Islam, with his wives, and the dreary depiction of his struggles with the draft are largely to blame. There are so many neat sidebars to the actual time frame (’64-’74) that it’s too bad the moviemakers are so bent on hammering home the obvious. True, Liston, Frazier, and Foreman were the big fights, but as a thorn, Ken Norton (notably absent) provided the champ with a couple of nasty wake-up calls. And for all the attendant doggerel, how about Ali’s meeting with Marianne Moore at Toots Shor’s? Or how about something on the bogus “computer” tournament final, staged by Ali and Rocky Marciano? Or on the fight plans with Wilt Chamberlain, kiboshed when Ali greeted Wilt with “Tim-ber!”?
To the film’s credit, the choreographed fight sequences come off credibly. For all his problems with the Ali persona, Smith aptly captures the signature ring style—the dancing, the hands held low, the head movement, and the patented shuffle.
From this corner, the film’s blazing highlight occurs early on with the seduction of Clay/Ali by his first wife, Sonji, magnificently played by Jada Pinkett Smith. The scenes reek with a bluesy, lounge-y sultriness of early-’60s South Side Chicago. The story line couldn’t have suffered by making a right turn at that point, but of course, that wouldn’t have been the real deal. Oh well. As Ali himself once said when informed that he’d lost in one of the separate endings filmed in his computer bout with Marciano, “Nobody’s gonna believe a movie anyway.”