Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Biopics can be very tough to pull off successfully, and they become toughest when they involve already-famous personalities. Geez, the makers of A Beautiful Mind ran into trouble for some liberties, and John Nash was not a terribly well known person. When filmmakers take on subjects like George Patton or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the challenges escalate.
However, at least we don’t know those folks well through vivid historical documents. The actors involved had a fair amount of leeway to make the personalities their own. When a movie takes on someone who became famous in the TV age, the challenges increase. The more famous the person, the more difficult success could be.
So what do you do when you create a biography about one of the world’s most famous men? Pray, I suppose. In any case, that didn’t stop director Michael Mann from trying, as he attempted to tell us the story of Muhammad Ali in this 2001 epic.
Actually, Mann didn’t try to cover all of Ali’s life. Just like Patton only covered the general’s World War II experiences, Ali sticks with a specific period of time, albeit one that lasted longer than WWII. Ali starts in early 1964 and covers a decade of the boxer’s life. It begins with his seminal bout against Sonny Liston and concludes with his rousing battle against George Foreman.
In between the film focuses on a few specific topics. We watch the relationship between Cassius Clay (Smith) and black Muslim leaders like Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall). The latter eventually redubs Clay as Muhammad Ali. The boxer becomes a huge star due to his flamboyant personality, but he takes some knocks via his involvement with the controversial Muslims.
Matters become worse for Ali when the military drafts him and he refuses to go. Though he avoids jail time through a series of court appeals, but Ali loses scads of money because he can’t get permits to fight. Eventually he earns his freedom again, and he engages in a few different bouts; the movie climaxes with the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” against Foreman.
I looked forward to Ali and expected to like it. However, I felt quite disappointed by the film. Although I’m too young to have experienced Ali’s early days, I clearly recall the huge fame the boxer enjoyed during my childhood. Heck, I even owned an Ali action figure when I was seven or so!
Since the film covers a period before I became old enough to follow Ali, I was interested to get a better idea of what had happened. To be sure, I had a rudimentary understanding of Ali’s life, but I hoped the movie would flesh out those days.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of the era remains pretty basic. In many ways, Ali feels like a “greatest hits” reel. It flits from topic to topic fairly quickly, and rarely offers any depth. Ali’s interactions with the Muslims during the mid-Sixties and his fight to stay out of jail toward the end of the decade make up most of the film, but they seem somewhat rushed. Granted, that may be inevitable for a movie with such a wide scope, but I think director Michael Mann could have followed his subject in a more substantial way.
We lose many events along the way. I understand this has to happen to keep the movie from lasting seven hours, but it seems awkward at times. For example, we hear talk of a third Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight, but we never learned anything about Ali vs. Frazier 2! The movie makes other leaps like that that leave the viewer confused.
Ali often feels like it elevates style over substance. Mann offers his usual flash and panache, but they fall flat for the most part. Even the boxing sequences lack much impact, and a lot of the film honestly comes across like a Rocky wannabe. Toward the end, Ali runs through Zaire and people follow along with him. I couldn’t help but wonder when “Gonna Fly Now” would swell in my speakers.
The movie also rarely seems like anything more than a puff piece that glorified Ali. I can’t say I expected it to be really down and dirty, but it glosses over his flaws and comes across too much like a hagiography. We see his adultery and some other issues, but we’re never given any indications of problems caused by these. Ali’s women come and go, and they make no impact whatsoever.
However, with the exception of most of the female characters, the supporting cast of Ali does make the film seem more substantial. The flick packs a fine roster of talent, and most overcome the slim nature of their parts. Some get totally lost in the shuffle, though. For example, I knew LeVar Burton appeared in the film, but not until I watched the credits did I realize he portrayed Martin Luther King in a couple of “blink and you’ll miss him” scenes.
Otherwise, some of the bring a lot to the table. Jon Voight earned a well-deserved Oscar nod for his warm and human take on Howard Cosell. This is a tough part; I suppose younger folks don’t recall Cosell well, but for many of us, he remains a vividly remembered presence. Voight had a lot to lose, but he manages to make the broadcaster seem real and three-dimensional. Never does his work come across like a Rich Little impression. Even buried under much makeup, Voight does nicely.
Mykelti Williamson imbues promoter Don King with all of the appropriate bluster, and Ron Silver miraculously brings substance to the nearly unwritten part of trainer Angelo Dundee. We learn of Ali’s closeness to his longtime partner. Of course, Mann never fleshes this out, but Silver’s presence almost makes us understand it without exposition.
Jamie Foxx displays remarkably little ego as cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown. Shown with balding head and paunchy gut, Foxx looks miles away from the aspiring hunk and hero of Bait. Brown’s another woefully underwritten part, but Foxx adds some life and zest to the role, and he really lets himself show the depths to which the character sinks.
As I’ve perused other reviews of Ali, I’ve noticed many people who express that they usually don’t like Will Smith as an actor but they loved him here. My feelings run the other way: normally I like Smith a lot, but I didn’t care for his take on Ali. One of the most charismatic men of our time, Smith fails to bring much spark or life to the role. He seems oddly dazed and subdued much of the time; Smith’s own natural charisma is nowhere to be seen.
I also found it tough to suspend my disbelief. I could buy Voight and Williamson as well-known personalities, but Smith couldn’t pull off the title role. He suffered the tougher challenge, since he was onscreen for virtually the whole film, but Smith simply never made me feel I was watching the Champ. Instead, it felt like a flat and bland imitation.
Considering that director Mann made the tale of a fat, middle-aged corporate whistle-blower compelling two years earlier with The Insider, you’d think he could do wonders with The Greatest. However, the movie suffers from scattershot storytelling, an excessive emphasis on style, and a surprisingly uncharismatic performance from its lead actor. Muhammad Ali’s life merits a great film; Ali fails to become that movie.
Footnote: one throwaway line in Ali really irked me. After a 1964 meeting with the Beatles - not shown in the film - Ali tells his girlfriend that only one of the band was “smart”. He refers to “the one with the glasses”. For one, I doubt she’d know who this meant, since John Lennon virtually never wore his glasses in public at that stage. In addition, I seriously doubt Ali ever made such a statement. Ever since John died in 1980, a myth continues to grow that he was the brains of the operation and the others just acted as stooges who followed his lead. Paul McCartney’s become understandably paranoid about his historical legacy; stupidity like this line from the movie proves his point.
It also showed bad timing, since the apparent slight on George Harrison hit screens less than a month after his death. Even without that tackiness, Mann should’ve dropped this slam on the band. It’s a moronic attempt to look funny and knowing, but it just demonstrates ignorance.