Rated R - Running Time: 2:38 - Released 12/25/01

Apparently, there was a fair amount of revision to the original screenplay for Ali, Michael Mann's epic and reverent 2½-hour tribute to the man who could arguably be described as the most famous heavyweight boxer in history. The first version, written by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, based on the story by Gregory Allen Howard, was reportedly over 200 pages long. Although the final text, boiled down by Eric Roth and director Mann, is presumably much more sparse, Mann chose to compensate with a slow pace and plenty of arty mood scenes which basically translate to dead air. Though the film is beautifully captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and well-acted by Will Smith and his large supporting cast, Mann's treatment is overindulgent and scattered, with numerous cinematic statings and re-statings of the same points set against a laidback soul soundtrack that seems to emphasize its slow pace. Heck, if each of its wordless, emotionally pregnant scenes were filled with dialogue, Ali could easily have filled 300 pages.

This is not to say I didn't like it. Smith has obviously done his homework on Muhammad Ali, not only capturing his mannerisms and his slow, soft-spoken vocal characteristics with uncanny precision, but gaining 35 pounds for the role, and the boxer's life is indeed a fascinating subject. The film starts with his ascension to the heavyweight title in 1964, spanning through his conversion to Islam and subsequent dropping of his original "slave" name, Cassius Clay, his legendary friendships with civil rights leader Malcolm X (played by Mario Van Peebles) and sports announcer Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, caked with makeup), and his refusal to go to Vietnam and the resulting loss of the championship belt. It culminates with his 1974 fight to recapture the heavyweight title in Zaire against George Foreman. But in this long, slow-moving film, whose running time should be sufficient to cover the life of any sports figure, Ali's life, even his career, is not fully discussed. We see bouts against several of his more famous opponents, such as Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt), Joe Frazier (James Toney), and Foreman (Charles Shufford, a real-life heavyweight boxer), two of his three championship wins, and his marriages to two of his four wives (played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Nona M. Gaye), but no mention is made of his 1960 olympic gold medal win, his third and final 1978 championship victory over Leon Spinks, his famous battle with Parkinson's disease, his triumphant torch-lighting appearance in Atlanta at the '96 olympics...

Surprisingly, the film seems focused at least as much on Malcolm X as Ali, covering portions of the political leader's career and death in detail (one gets the impression Mann was wishing he could have been eulogizing him instead; this film bears more than a passing resemblance to Spike Lee's 1992 masterpiece). Also featured are Ali's turbulent relationships with his Jewish drug-and-alcohol-addicted coach, Drew "Bundini" Brown (sensitively portrayed by Jamie Foxx), his father (Giancarlo Esposito), and his Islamic advisor, Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright).

Ali was and is an ever-fascinating figure, both in sports and political history, whose story deserves to be told. But director Mann, while producing a beautiful and thoughtful tribute, seems somewhat unfocused in his delivery. Ali contains much information, lots of emotional depth, and a triumphant performance by Smith, but its dragging pace and tendency toward digression often seem to work against its good intentions. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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