Over the last six years, rapper-turned-movie star Will Smith has become a hot Hollywood property having appeared in a number of big-budget popcorn flicks, such as "Independence Day", "Men in Black", and "Enemy of the State". Though he has dabbled in dramatic material in the past, most recently with "The Legend of Bagger Vance", Smith delivers what is probably the most impressive performance of his career in "Ali", portraying boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Unfortunately, it is disappointing to see Smith's assiduous turn being wasted in this bloated bio-pic, a film in dire need of both an editor and a point.
"Ali" covers ten years of the boxer's life, from his world championship-winning fight as Cassius Clay in 1964 to his comeback against George Forman in 1974's 'Rumble in the Jungle', which took place in Zaire. In between these two meticulously-recreated bouts, the film chronicles the highlights of Ali's life with the narrative skill and emotional intensity of a laundry list: his two failed marriages, his association with the Nation of Islam, his friendship with famous sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight of "Pearl Harbor"), and his refusal to be drafted for Vietnam, a long legal battle that squandered three of his prime boxing years. During this time, a number of faces come and go, including Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles of "Riot in the Streets"), his trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver of "Black & White"), his 'other' trainer Drew 'Bundini' Brown (Jamie Foxx of "Any Given Sunday"), Don King (Mykelti Williamson of "Three Kings"), first wife Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith of "Scream 2"), second wife Belinda Boyd (Nona M. Gaye), attorney Chaucey Eskridge (Joe Morton of "Bounce"), and a blink-or-you'll-miss-it appearance by Martin Luther King (LeVar Burton, aka Geordi LaForge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation").
Like director Michael Mann's last film "The Insider", "Ali" plays as a story about an underdog trying to do right in a world full of compromises. True, Ali is portrayed as a black man who wants to make it to the top of a world on his own terms and with his dignity intact. Unfortunately, the script seems to have difficulty in finding any sort of focus in detailing the minutiae of Ali's career. For example, though blustery pride seems to be presented as one of Ali's tragic flaws, the script never conveys a sense that the Champ ever comes to grips with it. True, a few scenes hint at such a revelation, such as Ali's tour of the back streets of poverty-stricken Kinshasa or the falling out with his second wife, yet nothing ever comes to fruition. The same is true with another idea that the script kicks around, the symbolic threat that Ali, his fame, and his Muslim background represented to the establishment during the tumultuous late Sixties. Unfortunately, this angle also ends up being glossed over and quickly discarded once Ali heads for Zaire. As a result, "Ali" seems a lot longer than it needs to be as it meanders from one sequence to the next, with scenes that either seem to have little relevance or run far longer than they need to be.
Despite a weak script, there are a few performances of note in "Ali". Taking a page from the Russell Crowe ("A Beautiful Mind") school of acting, not only does Smith look the part, but he becomes Muhammad Ali. Buffed up and quick on his feet, Smith is credible in the film's boxing scenes, and when he's out of the ring, he also has Ali's mannerisms down pat, including his charismatic trash talking. Voight also excels in his uncanny portrayal of Howard Cosell, as does Silver as Ali's trainer, though it is a shame that he ends up being overshadowed by Foxx's annoying turn as Ali's right-hand man.
In comparison to "The Last of the Mohicans", "The Insider", and even "Heat", "Ali" is a disappointing misstep for director Michael Mann. Though Will Smith should be applauded for believably portraying the legendary boxer, the rambling script and some curious editing choices reduce the film to a lifeless and tedious moviegoing experience, a far cry from the larger-than-life presence of the man whose story it tells.