**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+
starring Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles
screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann
directed by Michael Mann
by Walter Chaw The craft of Ali is every bit as dazzling as we've come to expect from its director, Michael Mann; the film is a loving coronation of fighter Muhammad Ali's myth. But at the same time, Ali is too dependent on our familiarity with its subject's life, and spends altogether too much time in slow-motion reveries of choice bouts public and personal. Reminding at times of Martin Scorsese's rapturous Kundun, the film falls far short of that razor-fine, impressionistic masterwork by aspiring to be all things to all people (docudrama, tribute, demystification)--an impulse never indulged by "The Greatest" himself.
At the centre of the picture is Will Smith; accordingly, the signature shot of the film is the actor's visage in an extreme close-up profile to either the right or left of the panoramic frame as events unfold behind him. While overused, this image is at best striking and at worst effective, no doubt owing to Mann's perfectionist mien and impeccable eye for blocking. Mann's is a bold statement that Ali was not only subject to the tumult of his time but also the definitive figure around which the swiftly changing world revolved: Ali is the Civil Rights movement; Sam Cooke's ardour; Malcolm X's fury; Vietnam's injustice; Martin Luther King, Jr.'s martyrdom; and Watts' rage. One man's life as the catalyst and repository of a decade (1962-1972) of incendiary images.
As a consequence, despite the library of biographical material available on Ali, Ali is most like Muhammad Ali: The Birth of a Legend, a collection of photographs taken between 1961-4 by famed civil rights photographer Flip Shulke, with Neil Leifer's famous Ali-Liston "Knockout" still from 1965. Such specific praise indicates, however, that what there is of narrative functions as little more than sparse captions for the powerful images. "Here is Clay defeating Liston for his first heavyweight title," "Here is Muhammad Ali's first wife Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith), second wife Belinda (Nona "Daughter of Marvin" Gaye), and third wife Veronica (Michael Michele)," "Here is Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire." If you don't already know who Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright), and Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) are, the film does little to clarify their relationship and importance to Ali.
Despite its visual beauty, Ali lacks a spark of its own. Will Smith nails Ali's voice and witticisms, but he can't duplicate the playfulness, the political charisma, or the sheer physical presence of the former Cassius Clay. (Who could?) When he squares off against James Toney's Joe Frazier, not to mention Charles Shufford's hulking George Foreman, there's no sense that Smith's blows land with Ali's power--and no amount of Mann's graceful camera strokes can disguise Will's lack of sting. Jon Voight turns in another grotesque performance beneath a ton of prosthetic make-up (following his cyborg-turn as FDR in Pearl Harbor), his Howard Cosell sounding right but looking like Alfred E. Neuman come to shambling life.
Ali begins badly by treading the same ground as Spike Lee's Malcolm X (going so far as to recreate X's assassination yet again), and though he's game, Mario Van Peebles will never be Denzel Washington. The breezy middle portion focusing on Ali's struggles with the Draft as he tries to protect his title is undercut by the ending, which fictionalizes the events surrounding the Ali/Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle," already beautifully dissected in Leon Gast's When We Were Kings.
Ultimately Ali is a puzzle, a gorgeous coffee-table book of a movie that's ideal as a conversation piece partly because it lingers enigmatically. It is half a film at 155 minutes, all representation and no exposition. Mann is so gifted a visual director that a work of poetry is very nearly constructed from a collection of famous moments. Ali plays as a compilation of highlights to either a more ambitious treatment or a more traditional one, living a half-life of borrowed images and stolen verve in the grey zone between them. Originally published: December 25, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Michael Mann's gloomy Ali comes to us on DVD in an audio-visual presentation that inspires less disappointment than the film itself. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is velvety smooth and three-dimensional, the best a Mann film has yet looked on the format and in the top-tier of Columbia TriStar's efforts--it's that good. Shadow range and detail seems limitless and there is no intrusion of edge-enhancement. Colours are brilliant, though cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki works in a largely desaturated palette. The lone drawback to the video is that it's so crystalline that the transitions to those few shots generated by digital cameras tend to be jarring. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also powerhouse, with the split-surround activity most militant during the matches, particularly the "Rumble in the Jungle." The LFE channel is used to subtle perfection as George Foreman goes ape on a punching bag: it's this sound effect, above all else, that winds up conveying Ali's late-career vulnerability. Trailers for Spider-Man, Men in Black II, and Ali--each in DD 5.1--round out the haphazardly-chaptered DVD. Originally published: March 28, 2002.