3 Stars
Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 minutes
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Will Smith proves any naysayers wrong from the get-go in “Ali.” The extra pounds of muscle he packed on for the role is indeed just the tip of the iceberg; more than simply inhabiting the boxing great’s physique, Smith erases his own star persona to completely embody The Greatest’s spirit, convincingly capturing his uniquely charismatic swagger. While certainly not a box office risk, the casting of Smith was an artistic risk, and it’s one that pays off quite handsomely.
It remains to be seen, however, if Columbia Pictures’ risk in spending $105 million on Michæl Mann’s biopic will yield similarly profitable results, and all indications are that the naysayers will get this one right. Well-acted and skillfully made, the film offers enough that is worth seeing, but its idiosyncratic nature is sure to limit its mainstream appeal.
For a film that flirts with the three-hour mark, “Ali” covers a relatively small section of Muhammad Ali’s life and career, which will certainly disappoint those seeking a more comprehensive account. In fact, even with its focus confined to the eventful ten-year span from 1964 to 1974, the film may be a little confusing to those without some pre-knowledge of the subject. There’s no shortage of events covered in the script–Ali’s landmark fights against Sonny Liston and George Foreman bookend his full embrace of the Islamic faith (and resulting name change from Cassius Clay), an infamous Vietnam draft dodge, and two failed marriages, for a start–but Mann doesn’t linger on particulars of events for too long a time. One minute Ali is bonding with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), the next he’s turned on him for going against the church, and soon after that X is assassinated. “Ali” isn’t a film that satisfies any traditional concepts of narrative flow.
But then this approach and the limited scope reflect Mann’s true intent behind “Ali”: not so much to offer a sketch of the man’s life than of the man himself. Each event is used as shading in a personality sketch; the concern is less with, say, an interview with Howard Cosell (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) or a jog with children in Zaire than what it says about Ali the person. The latter sequence is particularly good example, one of Mann’s famously eloquent music-driven, dialogue-free passages; as Ali gazes upon numerous hero worship murals in his honor and buried feelings of self-doubt and insecurity subtly wash over Smith’s face. On a similar tack, Mann not surprisingly does well with the extended boxing sequences; special credit goes to the editing team of William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin, and Lynzee Klingman for their electrifying work.
With the individual pieces impressing as much as they do–Smith, the top-notch supporting ensemble, the editors, and so on–it’s a bit of a mystery as to why “Ali” still leaves one with a certain sense of emptiness; perhaps it’s because Mann and crew a nice job painting their chosen fraction of Ali’s personality that one wants to see and know more. Whatever the reason, despite the lack of a certain — to use a sure-to-be-exhausted pun — knockout punch, “Ali” is a consistently intriguing effort, and Smith’s towering performance can only be fully appreciated on a suitably large screen.

Posted on December 27, 2001 in Reviews by

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