M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

The life of boxing icon Muhammed Ali would seem like the perfect match for the skills of director Michael Mann. In the past twenty years, this Hollywood maverick has made a career out of portraying loner men who are married to their jobs. From William Petersen’s obsessed detective in Manhunter to Russell Crowe’s corporate whistleblower in The Insider, these men, in their angry, rumpled solitude, are like tormented saints who answer only to the callings of their profession. For this, they pay a price, usually in the form of estranged wives and emotionally beaten children. But at the end of their grueling battles they manage to achieve a kind of spiritual redemption, and with it, moral vindication.

Watching Ali, which spans ten years of the man’s life from 1964 to 1974, there’s a sense that Mann tried to apply his time-tested formula, but found that it didn’t quite fit. It certainly wasn’t for lack of drama: Ali’s life intersected with almost every major black movement in the '60s and '70s. He became a cultural linchpin, a role he clearly reveled in, and it turned him into an icon. That’s good for him, but bad for moviemaking. Dealing with a modern day saint, Mann doesn’t have a central character he can sink his teeth into. All of the meat is in the life surrounding Ali: in the rancorous in-fighting in the nation of Islam, in the women who threw themselves at him, and in the phalanx of journalists who followed him everywhere he went. These ancillary elements become the central life of Ali while the champ himself is escorted regrettably but gracefully to the sidelines.

Much of the energy in Ali, and there’s quite a bit of it, comes at us visually. Mann is a consummate technician, and with the help of his cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, he conjures up a restless, pulsating vision of Ali’s world. The opening montage is bravura filmmaking. It covers the entirety of Ali’s early life (when he was known as Cassius Clay), from his childhood in the segregated South up to his first fight with Sonny Liston, a fight that Clay won, earning him his first heavyweight title. Set to Sam Cooke’s "Bring It on Home to Me," this opening montage establishes the tone of the movie as one of animal energy underscored by pop cool. And in casting Will Smith as Clay/Ali, Mann places these competing forces in the visual foreground. Smith, buried under mounds of make-up and muscle, never completely disappears into character – we’re always aware that we’re watching Smith – but his celebrity brings something crucial to the role. Smith is an unapologetic, look-at-me showman whose years in the rap world have given him verbal facility and attitude. He’s perfect for the role, and when he launches into one of Clay’s famous boasting riffs – a rhyming, syncopated litany of self-praise and opponent button-pushing – it’s music to our ears.

Button-pushing, it seems, was something Clay loved to do, and in Mann’s film, he inflicts his unique form of verbal flurry punches on friends and foes alike. His relationship with ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell was a friendly rivalry predicated on mutual insults and verbal swipes. On camera, with their oversized personalities, they were a perfect match. Jon Voight’s Cosell looks like a wax museum replica come to life; he’s virtually unrecognizable under layers of prosthetic make-up and a toupee. Voight gets the voice just right and when he banters with Clay, the repartee is both fast and furious. It’s a real performance, not just an impersonation, as are all of the other famous faces who parade through Ali, and there are a lot of them. Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) is on hand to introduce the impressionable Clay to the Nation of Islam. Its leader, Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall), is an imposing figure, sedentary but powerful. In Clay’s inner circle of friends and advisors, there are his trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), his brother Howard (Jeffrey Wright), and his friend and self-proclaimed Jew, Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx). These minor players, each of them expertly drawn and acted, come to life and provide a diverse backdrop on which Clay’s life plays out. They are so interesting, in fact, that they draw attention away from the hero. If Smith’s Clay (who changes his name to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali upon converting to Islam) provides the frenetic, pulsating exterior of the movie, then the gifted supporting cast provides the movie’s inner life – its soul, intelligence, and contradictions.

As a traditional bio-pic, Ali is far too unfocused and sprawling. The movie is based upon an original screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson that covered the entirety of Ali’s life from childhood to present day. Mann, who co-wrote the revised screenplay with Eric Roth (all four writers are credited), is overly ambitious and the result is a movie that starts out as African-American social history, becomes a bio-pic, and ends as a fight picture. It succeeds only at the first. We catch glimpses of a Harlem with a vibrant nightlife and a thriving middle class. The people are in the grips of various upheavals – civil rights, Islamic militancy – and the energy of the times is conveyed through song and faithful re-creations of key events. When Malcolm X is gunned down, the entire city is reduced to tears. The black movement, as depicted by Mann, is a confused animal being pulled in all different directions. By the time Don King shows up on the scene promoting Ali’s comeback fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, you know the entire movement is in trouble.

What Ali thought of these leaders and demagogues remains frustratingly unclear. The movie renders him a pawn, a kind of spokesman for hire. His life unfolds almost exclusively in the public arena, and while these press conferences and media briefings provide compelling commentary on the nature of sports journalism, they say little about Ali. As in Mann’s previous films, domestic life feels rudely truncated. The women in Ali’s life (he had four wives) are all beautiful, intelligent, and aggressive. They come on to him, whether by a wink of an eye or by cozying up on the dance floor, and Ali is powerless to their siren song. Mann, in making Ali so sexually passive, might be making an interesting point about the flip side of pure male aggression, but that message, if it exists at all, is lost in the movie’s ceaseless bustling. The few quiet moments that the movie has are pumped up by Lisa Gerrard’s and Pieter Bourke’s new-age musical score and Mann himself is too restless to stay put for any extended period of time.

The only place where the movie does settle down is in the boxing ring, and technically these scenes are quite a spectacle, combining painstaking choreography with virtuoso camerawork and editing. Naturally, your appreciation of them will depend upon your knowledge of boxing, and so far, the word is that the less you know, the better. But there’s no denying their raw physical power. Smith throws himself into the act with full abandon – he’s really getting hit in these scenes – and his opponents, from Sonny Liston to George Foreman, are appropriately menacing and machine-like. As shot by Mann using a variety of camera angles, including several waist-level cameras that capture the sheer speed of the punches, the fight scenes are more of a study of physical endurance than of mental calculation. These men, by the eighth or ninth rounds, are exhausted, wiped-out and barely able to stand. We sympathize with them physically, but not emotionally, and when Ali emerges victorious from the climactic Rumble in the Jungle sequence, it’s a hollow victory. Mann, as director and screenwriter, hasn’t sufficiently linked Ali the man with Ali the fighter and as such we can’t infer what’s going through Ali’s head while he’s in the ring. But maybe we’re not supposed to be able to. Ali is, above all, an exercise in bestial aggression and it hits its stride only when in hyper-drive, when Ali is pounding away at an opponent with his fists, or at a journalist with his words. By the end of this exhausting movie, we’ve felt Ali, but we haven’t begun to know him.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Columbia Pictures (
Movie Web site: Ali



photo credits: © 2001 Sony Pictures Entertainment Co. All rights reserved.