As film biography goes, this one has the usual set of limitations, such as characters who were important to the biographical figure but who don't come alive as dramatic figures in the screen retelling. The consequence of this is that drama is often lacking. In "Ali", the only drama that can be counted on is what's inherent in the boxing matches.
Fight fans, of course, have something special to derive from the film. To the extent they remember those who surrounded Ali and had an influence on him, their screen depictions will enhance their enjoyment. Others might enjoy it from the standpoint of providing some details to the headlines they read about many years ago. If there was anyone who owned the headlines in those years it was the bragging, rhyming Ali. But, anyone hoping this film gets inside the man to expose his inner motivations can forget it.
No one should have any doubt that Ali was an extraordinary heavyweight champion. He had ring skills, size and power necessary to gain and hold the big title. And, the fight choreography is reproduced well enough here to suggest how important strategic thinking and control were to that task, not to ignore the sheer deadliness of his fists.
The story picks up in his earlier years when Ali (Will Smith) is exposed to the thinking of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and the Alien Nation who influenced his religious conversion, not that we're given any hint of why, exactly, other than that he fell under the spell of some charismatic people. The 22 year old Cassius Clay gains the crown from Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt), no softie, and begins demonstrating that he's far more than just a pretty face and a style of PR that was all his own.
We see how his religious affiliations bothered the FBI and how the government sought to shut him up by inducting him into the army. He refuses induction, is stripped of his title, is barred from fighting, becomes poor even after a few very large purses and, finally, is exonerated by the Supreme Court. His next step is to regain his belt from Joe Frasier (James Toney).
In what is, perhaps, the film's only revealing detail of the man, we are shown that, as a womanizer, Ali was something of a champ as well. We're treated to a parade of women and get a hint of what a handsome champ's opportunities might be like out of the ring. As for the ones he married, we get an idea of what each meant to him before during and after the ceremonies. It's a succession that parallels his string of ring conquests, and includes Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith), Belinda (Nona Gaye) and Veronica (Michael Michele).
The final set piece is the Ali-George Forman fight in Zaire, promoted as the "Rumble in the Jungle". Those who saw the more intimate and detailed documentary, "When We Were Kings" will fill in the blanks presented here and will recall his strategy against a man whose hitting power was legendary. Both films show how Ali kept his composure and his own council, suggesting to no one just how he was going to fight the "unbeatable" and extremely dangerous Foreman. There were many who bet against Ali; many who thought he was in his decline. Few suspected how far he was willing, and still able, to go.
Of the people surrounding Ali, there's a continuing close relationship to sportscaster Howard Cosell, as mimicked by a too heavily made up Jon Voight. He's so pasty faced and unnatural you'd think he was prepared to go out and rob a bank. But the vocal mimickry is good and, perhaps, the relationship he had with Ali was as "special" as suggested.
Ever present at ringside but otherwise presented here as just a bit of wallpaper is one of his key influences, Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver). His other influences from his brother to trainer Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), are valid components of what indeed was a large entourage that Ali allowed to surround him for better or worse -- more often worse. These people, in real life, had a lot to do with the failure of a previous Ali biopic (1977), one in which he played himself, "The Greatest".
Michael Mann, a director of proven credentials in the recreation of machismo and power (the super heist film, "Heat"; the classic "Manhunter"), invests long periods of historical exposition with music, intercutting and other energizing resources, but can't break the tedium of biographical storytelling. Moreover, Will Smith is diligent in his physical and mental depiction of Ali, having so well conditioned his body and absorbed the Ali speech rhythms and timbre. A serious actor with a sense of humor and comedic timing second to few, he seems to make the most of voicing the Ali wordplay, though the effort is not entirely masked.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is highly pro with a bit too much hand held camerawork. While effective as it struggles among a thronging crowd, it's employed at times as though it's one more tool in a director's arsenal to provide energy to an undramatic moment.
It's to directorial, actor, camera and editing credit that the fight recreations are effective. It's been said that Will Smith used no doubles for those sequences, allowing for convincing realism. The sound of pounding gloves and sprays of sweat springing from the face that connected with one, combine well to put the fight fan in his or her element.
Composers Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke found good inspiration in the subject and the settings to create a lively and meaningful soundtrack, mixing gospel and African sources for their music.
All involved were obviously dedicated to this work which they nevertheless were unable to make rise above the average biopic, dynamic as the subject was, skillful as the individual contributions were. Maybe it's because of the lack of revelation or insight into the man himself. Makers of biographical films need to realize that that's the main reason to bother.
Estimated cost: $107,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $75,000,000.