Ali chronicles the life of three time Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), from his first title fight against Sonny Liston, to the infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman.
A prominent figure in America during a time of great change and racial intolerance, Ali was good friends with controversial black leader Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) who helped convert Ali to the Muslim faith. His conversion angered his Christian father (Giancarlo Esposito), while his loyalty to the Nation of Islam was tested due to a rift developed between Malcolm X and NOI leader Elijah Mohammed, resulting in Ali ending his relationship with Malcolm effectively.
After the assassination of Malcolm X, Ali became the new poster boy for the NOI, and his out spoken nature was eaten up by the press. When the US Government drafted Ali to fight in the Vietnam War, he refused to serve and was subsequently arrested, stripped of his title, and suspended from the ring for three years.
He would then go against the odds and reclaim the title from George Foreman, reassuring his place as the greatest boxer in the history of the sport.
Writer/director Michael Mann’s precise direction seems to have taken the humanity out of the most human of stories. While making a great looking biopic that has spared no expense in presenting every detail as truthfully as possible, Mann forgot to make a film that entertains, creating a (surprisingly) emotionally void, tone flat portrait of an athlete whose contribution socially and culturally has yet to be matched.
The surprising choice of casting former fresh prince Will Smith in the title role works well to a certain point. There is no denying the hard work Smith has put into the performance, his body structure and slick moves in the ring eerily reminiscent of Ali. Yet the voice and mannerisms which he brought to the role stop short of a chameleon effort. It felt more like a great impersonation, rather than an absorbing dramatic performance.
The rest of the cast fair much better. Jon Voight gives an impressive performance as boxing commentator Howard Cossell, with the makeup team doing an excellent job bringing his character to life. Jamie Foxx too is also very good as Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, showing the talent that will make him a future Oscar winner. Equally impressive in minor roles are Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X and the under rated Mykelti Williamson as boxing promoter Don King.
By not shying away from Ali’s flaws, Mann has brought forth a much deeper portrayal of Ali than what was perceived in the public eye. A notorious ladies man, Ali goes through his fair share of women (played by Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye and Michael Michele), two of whom would go on to become his wife in relationships that did not last long, due to Ali’s stubborn attitude towards women which often lead to adulteress affairs.
The fight scenes are ultra realistic, with the camera right in the ring as every jab and swing is delivered with machine like precision. Yet with such devils in the details the entertainment factor is sacrificed, resulting in some of the dullest fight sequences seen on screen. The final fight between Ali and Foreman, where Ali deployed his ‘roper a dope’ tactic was sound in theory, but in execution is rather boring to sit through.
And that is the main problem with Ali; it can be a boring cinematic experience. Some Hollywood spit and polish was definitely needed on this one.