Ali (2001) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language and brief violence
Running Time: 157 min.
Cast: Will Smith, Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann
Review published June 11, 2002
Ali is the type of movie that is hard not to disappoint people with, since Ali is a much loved figure around the world, and one of the most popular personalities of the Sixties and Seventies. Also, Ali was released in December of 2001, which usually means a film that is trying to garner Oscar nominations, so the expectations as well as the scrutiny are at an all-time high. However, while many will be disappointed with the final product, there's no denying that Muhammad Ali is a captivating figure in boxing history, and even American history, and the curiosity alone into his private life makes for some compelling viewing nonetheless.
One of the primary factors that may disappoint some viewers is the fact that Ali only spans a brief portion of his life, concentrating strictly from the time he first gained the world heavyweight title to the time he gained it the second time. Obviously this was the pivotal time in Ali's career and also for the civil rights movement, and Michael Mann's Ali interweaves Ali's career, personal life, and political alliances during that era. In addition to his rise to prominence, the film showcases his relations with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, why he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, his relationships with the three women he married, his fight to avoid going to Vietnam, and the court battles to keep from going to prison as well as regain his boxing license back.
Probably the most surprising aspect of the film comes from the casting. It would be doubtful before the film for Will Smith (Wild Wild West, Enemy of the State) to be the first person named to play Muhammad Ali, but Jon Voight (Zoolander) as Howard Cosell? Mario Van Peebles (Highlander: The Final Dimension) as Malcolm X? Then when you hear that they've cast comedians in supporting roles such as Jamie Foxx (Held Up) or Paul Rodriguez (D.C. Cab), you begin to wonder if this is a serious endeavor. Yet, the casting works brilliantly, and each cast member plays their roles in almost pitch perfect fashion, that you'd wonder what happened to the careers of such wonderful actors like Voight, Van Peebles, or Ron Silver (Timecop), for this to be their first good work in about a decade. Director Michael Mann (The Insider, Heat) gets the most out of his actors, and certainly delivers many genuinely great moments, especially during scenes played out without dialogue.
However, it isn't all rosy for Mann. While he certainly lends a unique style that is mostly effective, some parts of the film seem needlessly long, such as the initial fight or scenes of Ali jogging. While stylishly done and effective for what they are, they also make the film too somber for what should be an exciting bio-pic about a dynamic personality. Also, the scope seems too narrow to have the label of Ali, since we only get a slice of Ali's life during a certain period, and we never really learn where he is from, or really who he is. Lastly, the last hour of the film is the Rumble in the Jungle bout where Ali gains his belt back, but almost every scene is a re-enactment of footage already seen in the terrific documentary When We Were Kings, that the inclusion seems redundant and fruitless, with the only revelation being that Ali has an affair with what would be his future wife while in Africa.
I personally think if the first hour were dedicated to Ali's upbringing, the second on his career and Muslim faith, and the last hour reserved for his post-career life and battles with Parkinson's disease, Ali would have been a much more complete and satisfying package. However, we have to take what we can get, and we do get a good film with many fine performances and interesting historical tidbits. I recommend Ali in combination with When We Were Kings for people who want to know a little more what the man behind the legend was like during the peak of his career. However, if you are looking for the definitive Muhammad Ali film, you'll have to be patient, as that movie has yet to be made.
©2002 Vince Leo