Muhammad Ali is arguably the most electrifying and world-renowned athlete in history. His life has been a Sisyphean roller-coaster, from his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and a subsequent multi-title-winning pro career to his three-year suspension for evading the Vietnam-era draft as a conscientious objector. Michael Mann is one of the more visually interesting directors of our time. From his 1981 feature debut Thief to the Oscar-nominated The Insider his films have consistently dazzled the eye if not always fully engaging the cerebellum. So it’s a surprising disappointment then, that Ali, the product of their intersection, stands as a bland and surprisingly uninvolving film that packs very little punch outside of its fight scenes.
The film focuses on a single decade, starting the night in 1964 when Ali (Will Smith) won his first pro heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. It was a tumultuous time for both Ali and America, but at the end of two and one-half hours (that seems even longer) little in the way of illumination has been provided. Mann and four other screenwriters (itself a bad sign) present the era via a string of blank and bland scenes with little connection or context. Watching old ABC Wide World of Sports interviews with Ali would be more instructive.
The whole enterprise plays out more like a historical re-creation than a drama, as Mann trots out a lot of history but always shows much more what than how or why. Even when is mostly lost, as aside from a single date superimposed at the very start of the film the viewer is left to guess what year it is at any give point. And every time the film appears poised to yield some insight or dive deeper than a recitation of facts and events, Mann shuffles his narrative cards and the spell is broken.
Will Smith’s title performance is technically proficient. It’s a convincing mimic job that nails Ali’s vocal cadence, body language, and facial muggings.But little depth or understanding comes through; the performance would be more at home in one of the audio-animatronic dioramas at Epcot Center. Mann’s films usually employ a rich set of supporting characters and Ali is no exception. But good performances by Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X and Jamie Foxx as Drew "Bundini" Brown are largely underutilized. Jon Voight plays Howard Cosell under what looks like twelve pounds of latex mask and is unintentionally hilarious.
There’s no question that the film looks great, though. Mann uses a pseudo-documentary style throughout with lots of murky and moving camera work, long takes and simple edits to create a gritty aura of realism. The fight scenes are especially invigorating, shot claustrophobically close and using raw thudding sound to take the viewer into the center of the maelstrom of punishing blows that is a pro boxing match.
The film ends on what should be a huge high, the stunning upset in Zaire when Ali regained his title from the much younger and more powerful George Foreman by employing the now-classic "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. But even this falls flat as the film shows it as a rote re-creation of an event and does nothing to explain who devised the strategy or what inspired it. So when Ali is shown with arms raised in triumph once again, it’s no more affecting than reaching the last frame of a 5th grade Social Studies filmstrip, the one that says "End of Lesson." A laughably terse postscript ends the film with an even more resounding whimper, reducing the rest of Ali’s life to a hastily scrawled footnote.
Ali does the unthinkable: making its complex and dynamic subject smaller than life, reducing Muhammad Ali to nothing more than a talking sports action figure posed and moved on a very small and uninteresting stage.
– Bob Aulert