Ali, Michael Mann’s dazzling, flawed, achingly ambitious biographical epic, kicks off on a note of triumph, maybe even revolution—and no, it’s not a famous knockout, or even a float-like-a-butterfly rhyme. It’s the spectacle of Sam Cooke (David Elliott), the rhythm & blues singer, rousing a packed nightclub audience to a sultry frenzy. The year is 1964, and as Cooke performs a medley of his hits, you can feel the excitement surging through the air of a nation. Ali, in its startling impressionistic prelude, presents us with what amounts to a totemic shift in American life—the full infusion (and threat) of black virtuosity and pride, on its own fearless terms, into the national bloodstream.
We see Cassius Clay as a boy on the el train, pouting in silent identification with a newspaper photograph of the murdered Emmett Till, and there are images, as well, of the relentless young Clay in his training duds, jogging through the nighttime streets. He’s literally readying himself to be a freedom fighter.
At last, Clay (Will Smith), a brash and furious 22-year-old boxer from Louisville, Ky., already notorious for his eccentric and boasting motormouth style, steps into the ring for the heavyweight title bout with Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt), the bruiser Goliath whom nearly everyone assumes is going to reduce Clay to a soggy pile of pulp. Their matchup is, of course, one of the legendary chapters in American sports history, and Mann stages it in close to real time, with an authenticity that testifies to how seismic the stakes are. Physically, Clay is large, but he boxes with a small man’s grace, at once dodging and absorbing the blows, his feet skip-dancing across the canvas until, finally, he moves in for the kill. His fighting style is like a counterpart to the rhetoric of his friend and mentor Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), who is in the crowd: It fuses litheness and defense, agility and brawn.
When Clay wins the title, he becomes, in effect, the freest black man in America, saying whatever he wants, the way that he wants to say it. Outrageously outspoken, he’s the first African-American superstar of the media age, and he’s catnip to the press. Except that he’s about to topple its agenda, fulfilling himself by becoming Muhammad Ali, disciple of the Nation of Islam. No one owns him—not the mobsters who control boxing, not the white establishment, not even the black establishment.
As Ali, Will Smith undergoes the kind of astonishing self-transformation that makes you blink, then stare. Within 30 seconds, he utterly gets you to forget that you’re watching Will Smith. It’s not just the look—the flattop and sandpapery skin, the bulging babyish lips—or even the happy singsong yowl of Ali’s voice, which the actor mimics with uncanny precision. Mostly, Smith acts with his eyes, and they are poised between coal-fire anger and that slightly inscrutable spaciness that Ali, in his heyday, had even at his most volatile.
For all of its swirling docudrama bravura, Ali is a surprisingly downbeat epic, full of hushed, reflective moments in which we see the private Ali pulling the strings of his celebrity persona. His rap-poet grandstanding is a playful and knowing charade, a way of keeping himself at center stage without ever revealing who he is. The film is heady with period atmosphere, and it features juicy supporting turns by Jon Voight, who nails Howard Cosell’s insidious vacuum-salesman whine but also gives him a softer, more engaging private side, and by Jamie Foxx as Ali’s dissolute rascal of a cornerman, Drew ”Bundini” Brown. Yet for everything it gets right, Ali, following its superb first hour, begins to lose the vision, clarity, and structure necessary to bring its hero into full focus. Mann never quite comes to terms with the contradiction at the heart of Muhammad Ali—this regal narcissist who revels in his victories, his beauty, and his appetites yet who worships at the shrine of a religious sect that demands puritanical fealty.
Refusing to be drafted (”Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger”), Ali loses his crown and is not allowed to box for three and a half years. His descent from the role of champion presents the film with a dramatic quandary that Mann never quite figures his way out of. No longer able to glory in Ali’s triumphs, we need, all the more, to get inside his soul, but the man we see, beneath the vivid surface portraiture of Smith’s performance, is little more than a moody, troubled saint. There’s scarcely a hint of the Ali who indulged in obsessive and flagrant dalliances with women. His hunger for life remains mostly offscreen, and his relationship with the cultish, bullying leadership of the Nation of Islam is just a nagging abstraction.
The final third of Ali is a meticulous re-creation of the weeks leading up to Ali’s 1974 comeback fight against George Foreman in Zaire. This famously colorful event, with its glimpses of the early hucksterism of Don King, its images of the local masses accompanying Ali’s training runs with jubilant chants of ”Ali, boma yé!” (”Ali, kill him!”), makes for a vibrant episode, but the amount of screen time that Mann devotes to it feels like a cheat. The weight of the film’s ambition comes to rest on the outcome of a single bout, as ‘Ali, in effect, tunnel-visions itself into a pan-African Rocky. It’s not that Ali’s victory in Zaire was small; it’s that the story Ali started out telling was so much larger. B