It is a sign of the times that many of us learn about world events these days more from Facebook and Twitter feeds rather than from official news outlets, and that certainly was the case for me regarding the death of Muhammad Ali.
My previous brush with the champ had been his animated Saturday morning adventures I Am the Greatest!, where he solved mysteries and dispensed witticisms which are lampooned in the similarly bizarre Mike Tyson Mysteries in Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim series.
However, those memories from my childhood did not show up electronically when the champ passed away last weekend, and they were also omitted from Michael Mann’s 2001 style-over-substance take on the Ali legacy simply titled Ali.
Mann is probably best known for his pastel ode to ’80s police procedurals with the TV series Miami Vice, and while I have a nostalgic soft spot for that show the same cannot be said for this tepid bio flick.
The first hour of this 2.5 hour look at 10 years of boxer’s life could easily be erased without losing much. Mann’s saga begins with Sam Cooke singing in a club to set both the time and place before meandering through this initial act in a ham-fisted attempt to establish Cassius Clay’s devotion and conversion to Islam.
The first misstep occurs right after that opening bell when Mann’s Ali, portrayed by beefed-up, former The Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Will Smith, does not even speak for the first 10 minutes of the film. When you have such an outspoken and highly quotable character as Ali, it only makes sense to let that mouth roar but Mann for some reason chooses to show him more in introspective light. The exposition languishes until we arrive at (spoiler alert!) Malcom X’s assassination, and Ali is faced with what the death of his friend means to him.
While I understand Ali’s religious conversion is central to understanding the man wearing the boxing gloves, it could have been better handled. Most viewers paid to watch Smith’s interpretation of classic boxing moments instead of this none-too-subtle history lesson on the Nation of Islam. While Mario Van Peebles delivers a passable performance as the controversial leader, he fails to bring any fire to X’s rhetoric and instead only renders a neutered version of Ali’s passionate ideological mentor.
The film only starts to gain momentum when Howard Cosell (a prosthetic covered John Voight) brings Smith’s broody fighter to life with their spirited interview segments. Cosell acts very much as Ali’s foil and provides Smith an avenue by which to do a somewhat convincing impression of the champ’s more-spirited monologues, but neither he nor Voight ever go full volume arrogant antagonist with their banter. This is where the film should have started, because if you already vaguely know the backstory of how Ali stood up for his convictions to defy both the Vietnam Draft and the boxing commission’s pressure to publicly subvert those same convictions, you instantly start to like the loud mouth.
From there we get a macho take on Ali battling a self-destructive drive that ends several of his first marriages as he strives to retain the heavyweight boxing title both in the courtroom and the boxing ring. However, instead of any internal monologues which could offer insight or even introduce self doubt on the part of a maligned champ struggling with a comeback, we simply see Smith’s own matinee idol interpretation of Ali go from one new woman to another with a look of stoicism on the pounded pugilist’s face. If you squint hard, sometimes he inhabits the body of the champ but he never really delves much into the all-important soul of the character because he is working so hard on the caricature.
Jamie Foxx provides an intriguing subplot with his character’s bouts with substance abuse while subsisting as part of Ali’s entourage, but his performance would mean more if Smith attempted to show how his Ali felt seeing his friend’s parallel fall from grace and rebirth. Sadly, we only see Ali briefly break down once and Smith’s attempt at acting could have easily been traced frame for frame from Ali’s badly animated cartoon.
The final act depicting Ali’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman is handled well, but even then Mann’s direction gets in the way of itself. His camera manically spins around the ring to showcase the fancy footwork and poetry of the confrontation, but at the same time it is deeply devoid of any inspiration. Perhaps knowing the outcome in advance robbed me of being invested in the fight, but Mann’s showy style also kept me from feeling any of the physical and emotional punches and their intended impact.
And that really is my central complaint with Ali: The director and its star manhandle the myth of a legendary athlete, and when their story is over nothing new has been shared. The audience is never invited inside boxer’s head to gain insight into why he was so driven to become a legend under his own terms. Instead, we get a truncated overview of a decade in Ali’s history that only addresses his personal battles with a titlecard introduced right after his greatest triumph and seconds before the credits roll as the EDM sounds of Moby play over a training montage.
Maybe 2001 was not the right time to tell Ali’s story on the big screen. Now that we know how it all ended for the champ, perhaps reenacting Ali lighting the Olympic Torch in 1996 would be a better lasting image to remember him than those cartoons which caught my attention years ago. It would be better than the numerous Facebook posts I read recently and certainly more insightful than watching this attempt to tell his censored Hollywood story.
Instead of a soundtrack featuring Alicia Keys, Moby, and R. Kelly, perhaps another actor-director combo could tell a more-involved tale of Ali’s rise to fame and convince the similarly outspoken Kanye West to deliver a soundtrack which is actually worthy of The Greatest.
Until then, we have the pied piper of R and B giving it his best shot with the song above. Sadly, unlike Ali, this tribute has more power behind its punches in five minutes than Mann and Smith do in two-and-a-half hours.
- Directed by Michael Mann
- 2001, Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, and Jon Voight.
- Runtime: 2 hours, 37 minutes
- Rated PG for athletic violence and mild language.
- Grade: C-