Ali (2001): 6 out of 10: Standard biopic covering ten years of Muhammad Ali’s life from 1964 to 1974.
The Good: This is a Michael Mann film. I love Michael Mann films. He can often put together amazing sequences. The first twenty minutes of the film are brilliant storytelling. Almost silent except for a Sam Cooke concert (Cooke played brilliantly by David Elliott) inter-spliced with scenes from Ali’s preparation for a fight with Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) and brief glimpses into Ali’s segregated childhood.
The rest of Ali (and there is a lot of the rest as Ali clocks in at two hours and thirty-seven minutes) has some very good highlights as well. Some critics felt the Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) piece was not up to the standard set by the Spike Lee joint Malcolm X with that stunning Denzel Washington performance. It is a high bar but I think both the script and Mario Van Peebles performance hold thier own and are a highlight of the movie.
The acting in general is excellent across the board. Star Will Smith does not get nearly enough credit for his performance here. What could easily have been an unconvincing caricature is instead a strong performance that seems to hit the right notes in every scene.
Speaking of actors that need to stay off social media in 2022, the other outstanding performance is from none other than Jon Voight. Playing Howard Cosell, Voight finds the right side of caricature. (And Howard Cosell is very easy to caricature. Americans used to have Howard Cosell impressions the way the British all seem to have a Michael Caine they bring out at a booze up.). Voight has the mannerisms right and the caring attitude that Cosell had towards Ali shines through.
I would also be remiss not to point out that the fight scenes rival anything in the Rocky films. If anything, they are more accurate and technically better shot. They are uniformly excellent with Will Smith looking the part (Smith put up on 35 pounds of muscle to match Muhammad Ali’s 210lb weight.). Ali uses pro boxers Michael Bentt and Charles Shufford (George Foreman) to great effect. Mann isn’t afraid to let his boxers put Smith through the ringer.
The Bad: This is a Michael Mann film. I love Michael Mann films. Manhunter, Thief (RIP James Caan), and The Keep. Alas, I notice that all these films are from the eighties. As is his stint as executive producer on Miami Vice. Now not everything that Michael Mann has done since the first Bush administration is awful by any means. (Collateral is really good) but as a director Mann has some bad habits.
His main bad habit… well, let me put it this way. Spending ten minutes listening to a Phil Collins’ song as Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas (Yes, I had to look that up) cruise around in a white 1986 Ferrari Testarossa under the neon lights of Miami works. It is a great way to spend ten minutes of my life air drumming In the Air Tonight and imagining how cool I would look in a white linen jacket. (Spoiler alert I had one in the eighties and it made me look like Truman Capote.)
You know what isn’t a good use of my life? Watching Will Smith jog around the back streets of Maputo, Mozambique pretending to be Kinshasa, Zaire. Do you remember that scene in Rocky II where Stallone is exercising and the kids start running with him? That was inspirational. Now replace the excellent Bill Conti soundtrack with some inspirational sounding afro pop and stretch it to twenty minutes.
Ali is a long film. Mann is a very talented filmmaker, but Ali is not a pretty subject. As Ali himself might quip, those ten years were Joe Frazier ugly. I just don’t think Mann is the best filmmaker for the subject. He does so many things well (Like that opening ten minutes) but seems to skip over large chunks of time. What Ali needed was a different touch, like Scorsese brought to Goodfellas or well Raging Bull, obviously. (Though Scorsese is not perfect in this regard either, as anyone who has sat through the fucking Irishman can attest to).
This is a story that needs a point of view. A focus. For too much of its running time Ali is a this happened, then that happened kind of film. With a lot of that happened being blink and you miss it moments.
And miss it you will. There is a great story of Ali’s relationships with the Nation of Islam here, but it is too often lost in the boxing. Ali seems to take a left turn to Zaire about halfway through and all of a sudden, we are supposed to be concerned about a fight that really doesn’t matter against an opponent Ali had never faced. Outside of needing the money, there really isn’t the kind of motivation one would expect from a boxing movie. Or from real life as well.
There is a great movie about the fight in Zaire. There is a great movie about Ali’s relationships with his wives. There is a great movie about Ali and the Nation of Islam. There is a great movie about Ali refusing the draft and the legal fight that ensued all the way to the Supreme Court. The problem is all these movies cannot fit comfortably in one film. Even a novel would have issues with so many plotlines. It is deadly for film.
Telling one story well is better than cutting corners on a bunch of different, if related, stories. This is a challenge for many biopics that few pull off. Ghandi is one that seemed to manage from my recollection, but many biopics wisely pick one or two specific incidents in a person’s life and expand the themes and story from there. Otherwise you end up like the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
The Ugly: In Ali, there are two wives and one future wife. They are in order too slutty (Jada Pinkett Smith), not slutty enough (Nona Gaye) and just right (Michael Michele). People who glance at Ali’s Wikipedia page will notice that he was married four times. Now the word on the street is The Nation of Islam made Ali divorce his first wife because she wore make-up and well acted like an American woman. His next two marriages failed due to Ali’s endless infidelities.
The movie Ali will make you think, however, that his first two wives were unreasonably horrible people. Shrew is the word I would go with. Ali paints these women as various brands of shrew, while poor cheating Ali is just this Goldilocks looking for the right porridge. (I am assuming The Nation of Islam is the bears in this scenario).
Painting Ali’s first two wives as nagging shrews is not a good look. And considering what we know about Ali seems particularly unreasonable.
And speaking of things we know about Ali… I know this is a biopic and biopics have a tendency to smooth over the rough edges. (Even biopics about demonstratively bad people can be guilty of this. That Hitler guy seems like a good boss is a strange impression to get from Downfall, but there you are.)
Ali had some very rough edges. He was often a very nasty and racist human being. He fully supported the Nation of Islam and all that entails. Ali cheated on his wives with a fervor that would make Charlie Sheen blush. A glance at some excellent documentaries such as Facing Ali (2009) or Thrilla in Manila (2008) will give a more three-dimensional picture of the man.
In Conclusion: You know when I was a young man still trying to make that white linen jacket work Mike Tyson was a monster. Soon, he moved on to become a rapist. Then he was the guy who bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off.
Now Tyson is a fucking cartoon. Literally, he has a cartoon show called Mike Tyson Mysteries that ran for sixty-nine episodes (nice).
Tyson appeared in the first Hangover movie as well. When Hangover 2 was being cast, the director Todd Phillips and studio proposed a Mel Gibson cameo as a tattoo artist. The cast went ballistic. “They don’t want him to be in the movie and serve as a platform for some creepy comeback,” the insider tells Us. “They didn’t want that energy or to shoulder what would come with having him a part of the film.”… Mel Gibson has issues. But compared to raping a teenager and biting a chunk out of a guy’s ear? (Liam Neeson replaced Mel Gibson only to be cut and replaced by Nick Cassavetes in what can only be now described as the cursed cameo of Hangover 2)
Okay, much like the cast of Hangover 2, I have lost the plot. What does this have to do with Ali? The strange thing about the Rumble in the Jungle people really don’t think about Ali as a draft dodging radical Muslim and they don’t think of George Foreman as a young monster of a heavyweight. Foreman of course became the oldest heavyweight champ in 1994 and made more money selling grills than anyone has ever made boxing. (Plus, he has close to a dozen kids named George. I mean, he is downright lovable.)
I think Ali is a very well acted film with some superb boxing scenes and a great opening. I also think it could be trimmed about thirty minutes and needed to pick a lane when telling its story. It is worth a watch, but I rather watch some very good documentaries about the same fight. They are about an hour shorter, a lot more informative, and often you get to see Ali as he was rather than how we choose to remember him.