Maybe with Ali, director Michael Mann was doomed before he even stepped into the ring. So large is the mythology surrounding Muhammad Ali, the only three-time heavyweight champion in boxing history, that no film could truly capture him. Ali the man remains as elusive as Ali the fighter.
At first glance, it seemed like an interesting matchup, for Mann has shown plenty of flair over a career that included the groundbreaking Miami Vice series (which defined '80s television) and a brief filmography that culminated in another docudrama, 1999's The Insider. But what might have been a promising career progression slammed against the haymaker that is Ali, as Mann struggles to chronicle one decade in the life of The Greatest. It was one of the most important periods in the life of any athlete ever, starting with Ali (then Cassius Clay) upsetting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964 and ending in 1974 with his comeback win over George Foreman in Zaire's "Rumble in the Jungle." (For more on that, check out the Oscar-winning documentary, When We Were Kings.)
In between those two landmark fights were his conversion to Islam and the subsequent name change; the assassination of his friend and mentor, Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X; two marriages (and countless lovers); turmoil within his inner circle and the Nation of Islam; his budding relationship with sportscaster Howard Cosell; his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector; and a title loss to Joe Frazier. The refusal was an epochal moment; his title was stripped, he lost his boxing certification virtually everywhere in the United States, and he appealed a five-year sentence and $10,000 fine.
Are we missing anything? Sure, and that's part of the problem. Ali is sports history's most important figure, a man who transcended athletics to become an international ambassador. He was an unlikely people's champion, a symbol of African-American pride, an iconoclast in an era of iconoclasts -- a hero and anti-hero all at once. He fought the U.S. government and won in a unanimous Supreme Court decision. More than any other athlete, he lived his life on his own terms and was reviled and loved for it.
There's just so much to Ali, so much we already know, that Mann prefers to simply chronicle events in almost documentary fashion (with all of his visual gimmicks) and not dig much deeper into the essence of the man. He has a worthy conduit in actor Will Smith, but someone -- and it's hard to tell who -- fails to crack the veneer. Almost everyone involved (Mann included, but especially Smith) looks like a bystander, boats being rocked by the turbulent seas of the '60s. Maybe that's Mann's point: that Ali was constantly being shaped and shifted by a storm of external factors. Aside from charting Ali's apparent maturation wherein his heart and mind caught up with his mouth, Mann and Smith don't know where else to go with this film. It's almost like a life story without a thesis. Pardon the pun, but where's the hook?
So much of the film rides on Smith's performance, and while there isn't terribly much there, what is there is fun to watch. Doing as best he can to approximate Ali's rectangular physique, Smith dug into the Robert De Niro workout manual and bulked up accordingly. But more than that, he also captured Ali's mesmerizing, poetic, slurred Southern drawl that spat out one witticism after another ("Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"; "I'm sooo pretty!"; "I'm a baaad man!"). Inspired by, of all people, Little Richard and wrestler Gorgeous George, Ali was audacious and fearless but ultimately hilarious and endearing. He could do it even while taunting his latest opponent. He called Liston a "a big bear; I'm gonna make a rug out of you!"; he mocked Foreman as a mummy and imitated him accordingly. His antics perplexed all of his opponents (it was his third-best weapon, besides his array of jabs and footwork), but they never seemed mean-spirited, and that is where Smith excels.
Actually, there's talented mimicry throughout Ali. Jon Voight, who did a mean Franklin Roosevelt over the summer in Pearl Harbor, here provides a dead-on imitation of Howard Cosell, Ali's most important defender. Their relationship, on the surface combative but underneath mutually beneficial and warm, could be the film's highlight. Elsewhere, Jamie Foxx as spiritual adviser Bundini Brown and Mykelti Williamson as promoter Don King are also funny if ultimately sad figures. But Mario Van Peebles is a huge disappointment as Malcolm X; his flat early scenes keep Ali from getting off to a strong start.
Like most of Mann's work, there's a lot to like about Ali, and taking on just a decade in the man's life is probably about as daunting as Peter Jackson treading on the hallowed ground that is The Lord of the Rings. Both, essentially, are myths. It's just too bad Mann couldn't deliver a knockout punch.