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Ali   C+

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Eric Roth, Michael Mann
Cast: Will Smith, Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Giancarlo Esposito, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jeffrey Wright.

Review by Rob Vaux

A trailer for Men in Black II immediately preceded my screening of Ali, providing two minutes of Will Smith doing his usual comedic persona. The preview punctuated Smith's massive challenge in the film itself -- could the Fresh Prince effectively convey one of the most towering figures in 20th century sports? Surprisingly, rather than underlining his shortcomings, it provided strong evidence that he was, in fact, the perfect man for the job.

Smith has always been one of our most charismatic stars: charming, likable, and commanding attention with unconscious ease. His intelligence and wit are instantly endearing, making him a joy to watch even in otherwise forgettable drek like Independence Day. Muhammad Ali shared those qualities as well, while bringing a fiercer and more confrontational edge to them. In his performance as the champ, Smith uses those similarities as a springboard, melding his own qualities almost perfectly with those of Ali while building a more complex character on top of them. Ali's bravado and bluster dominate the screen; people gravitate towards him almost instinctively, whether in the ring or on a Harlem street corner. Yet they hide more substantive personality traits, of which the public had only fleeting knowledge: his faith in Islam, his compulsive womanizing and genuine principles that led to his defiance of the draft. Smith tackles these deeper traits with sublime confidence, bolstered by the similarities between his persona and Ali's. It's easily the strongest performance of his career, giving the movie a strong and nearly unshakable heart.

Would that the rest of the film kept pace. Though technically polished by director Michael Mann's trademark professionalism, it feels curiously ordinary, a word one never associates with Muhammad Ali. It covers a 10-year period from 1964, when he first won the championship as Cassius Clay, to 1974 and the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman. The decade encapsulates most of the vital events in Ali's life: his association with the Nation of Islam, his refusal to submit to the draft (and three-year banishment from boxing), his loss to Joe Frazier and triumphant return to the heavyweight throne against Foreman. Ali gives these events their due, yet never delivers any real insight or understanding of them. They appear like any event in a hundred other biopics: stating them for the record rather than delving into their effect on the title figure. We leave Ali without feeling that we know the man all that much better, or that we can glean something from the trials and travails of his life.

A few flashes of brilliance punctuate the film -- the presence of Malcolm X (a bravely understated Mario van Peebles), an early-morning run in Africa revealing the depth of the locals' admiration. The strongest elements involve his relationship with sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), whose thirst for the spotlight equaled Ali's own. The two symbiotically feed off each other, both shining brighter by bouncing off of each other. In the process, they become fast friends. Ali respects Cosell's blunt honesty and willingness to challenge him, while Cosell sees a highly ethical young man with a willingness to grab the world by the tail. Voight does a fine job (though Cosell impersonations are a dime a dozen), and the scenes of the two men together are wonderful.

Unfortunately, none of these sequences -- Voight's or otherwise -- ever really add up. They feel disconnected, waiting for someone to link them together more decisively. Without firmer cohesion, they simply float away, leaving Smith more or less alone to carry the proceedings. As strong as he is, he needs support to pull this off. Mann pays a great deal of attention to historical details -- and the film feels authentic to the period -- but seems to miss the forest for the trees. Recreating a time and place means nothing if we can't gain insight from it. The documentary When We Were Kings gives a much more thorough analysis of Ali, and I imagine that any number of news broadcasts about the champ could equal Mann's efforts here. There was nothing run-of-the-mill about this fighter; it's a pity that the film with his name should be such a cookie-cutter.

Review published 01.01.2002.

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