directed by Michael Mann with Will Smith, Mario Van Peebles, Jon Voight, and Jamie Foxx opens Dec. 25 at Guild 45, Meridian, and others
SPORTS WRITERS often call Muhammad Ali the most influential athlete of the century, and his rise, fall, and resurgence were amply captured on camera. So fit, funny, handsome, and accomplished when documented in his prime (see "Greater", this page), the man had charisma and star power to burn. (He even played himself in a now-forgotten '77 biopic titled—what else?—The Greatest.) In a life so thoroughly chronicled and quotable, do we really need to see all the details recapitulated again?
Initially, wonderfully, Michael Mann says no. Famously the creator of Miami Vice, he uses two long music-infused montages to structure his picture. During the remarkable first 10-minute sequence, intercut with a Sam Cooke nightclub medley, we learn everything we need to know about our young hero: boyhood during segregation; divided family; rebellion against the church. During that time, 22-year-old Ali (Will Smith) doesn't utter a word. Then, at the weigh-in before his 1964 Liston title match, all that silence explodes into speech. And how. God damn!--how sweet it is, and how poignant given the actual man's Parkinson's disease, to hear those immortal boasts and rhymes again.
This impressionistic approach works perfectly at first. We get the poetic, hyperbolic essence of the champ. Boxing fans will recognize Ali's corner men and confidantes; the rest of us can simply appreciate the exhilarating filmmaking. The talented director of The Insider confidently steps out on the right foot. Then, unaccountably, he stumbles back into a plodding, by-the-numbers biopic, a sweeping yet unremarkable consensus picture that spans a tumultuous decade leading up the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman.
Those 10 years are exciting to a point. Pow! Ali takes the title from Sonny Liston. Wham! He refuses induction into the Army and has his belt stripped from him. Boom! He wins it back from Foreman in Zaire. (That's the plot, folks; don't look to history for suspense.) As a result, Mann faces the almost impossible task of dramatizing an already dramatic, well-known story.
Despite the hype, Ali was a bad idea. Too many screenwriters, too much audience familiarity, too little focus—the film becomes a survey, didactic yet uninsightful. Even as the rounds add up, we already know the score. Given all the money and skill behind the endeavor, a TV miniseries documentary would've been a better treatment of such an eventful life. Ten years isn't enough, and yet somehow it's too much. (Recall that Ali won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 and didn't retire from the sport until '81.)
AS FOR SMITH, lacing up those famous boxing shoes, you've got to admire his guts for taking on the role. A respectable actor when he tackles the occasional quality project (e.g. Six Degrees of Separation), he's hardly the ideal or convincing Ali—but who could be? Smith gets the job done, but don't look for any Oscars.
Among Ali's colorful cronies are Jon Voight's amusing Howard Cosell, Mario Van Peebles' tragic Malcolm X, Jamie Foxx's funny Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Mykelti Williamson's buffoonish Don King. Oddly, Mann has a better grasp on these personalities than on his protagonist, yet it's never particularly clear why they matter to Ali. He sheds tears after Malcolm X's assassination, but you never buy into their prior friendship. Likewise, Ali's pursuit of his first three wives is dutifully illustrated with the appearance of passion but little actual heat.
Mann is stuck following a real-life script, which he does his best to embellish with terrific art direction, costumes, and period details. His second big montage sequence pulses to world beat music during Ali's prefight training run through impoverished Kinshasa. There the film reaches for an unearned crescendo, a return to the first 10 minutes' promise, but it's too late for that. In a bogus epiphany scene, the wizened heavyweight pauses to see himself painted into heroic shantytown murals; his life is transmogrified into art and myth. (Yet his exalted status was hardly news, now or then, to Ali or us.) By beating Foreman, he's supposed to suddenly realize, he becomes more than world champ—he becomes champion of the Third World. Talk about pressure. To his credit, whatever his actual feelings, Ali handled it well. Ali the movie buckles under the weight.