"Ali" opens with a shot of Will Smith as a bundled-up 22-year-old Cassius Clay doing late-night roadwork in preparation for his 1964 heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston. It's an arresting visual, of a lonely sphinx in sweats, and it tells you a lot about why a film that is as impressive as this one ends up less satisfying than it should.
That shot is part of a bravura opening sequence that intercuts flashbacks from Clay's childhood--having to ride in the back of buses, being mesmerized by newspaper photographs of a lynched man, watching his father paint a blond, blue-eyed Christ in a religious mural--with a captivating live performance by singer Sam Cooke (David Elliott) doing a soul medley that includes "You Send Me" and "Bring It on Home to Me." That masterfully constructed segment, beautifully shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and edited by William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin and Lynzee Klingman, is further proof, not that it's needed after films like "Thief," "The Last of the Mohicans" and "The Insider," that Michael Mann is a master filmmaker. A celebrated perfectionist, Mann is determined to tell the story of the heavyweight champion--who changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became the 20th century's most celebrated athlete--with a phenomenal attention to detail. Everything had to be as close to the way it was as time and money could make it, and that very much included the impressive performance of star Smith.
With Mann's encouragement, Smith added 35 pounds of muscle to his lithe frame and learned to box, move and even talk like Ali. There were no stunt doubles for the actor during the picture's extended boxing sequences; Smith literally traded blows with the real fighters who impersonate Ali's opponents on screen.
That kind of authenticity was apparently "Ali's" touchstone. "Many scenes take place during major historical events that everybody knows about," Lubezki told American Cinematographer magazine, "and we did everything we could to make them feel as though they're happening for the first time on screen."
Though it's hard to argue with that as a philosophy, in "Ali" it has its drawbacks, precisely because so much of Ali's public life--his conversion to Islam, his allegiance to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army and the subsequent loss of his title--is familiar because it was lived in the full glare of the world's massed media. It's undeniably impressive to see all these events handsomely presented with faithfulness and skill, but for a film whose ad line is "Forget What You Think You Know," it adds too little to what those who saw the real Ali in his prime remember.
What, then, about the private Ali? What went on in this singular life behind closed doors, so to speak, when the cameras were off and the tape recorders silent. It's here that that opening image of Ali doing his isolated roadwork comes to have more meaning. For it turns out that the private Ali, at least as this film portrays him, is very much the stoic, disassociated guy in sweats.
As presented by the five writers who receive screen credit (story by Gregory Allen Howard, screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann), Muhammad Ali is, in a word, unknowable. A stoic enigma who largely keeps his own counsel, the film's Ali doesn't give us any real sense of what he's thinking, of where his actions come from. Even if the real Ali is actually like this, that doesn't make the removed character on screen any more engaging.
Though it lasts an epic 2 hours and 38 minutes, "Ali" concentrates on the 10-year span from 1964 to 1974 when Ali was boxing's next new thing, a heavyweight fighter who was lithe, charismatic and verbally adroit, able to spar with reporters and commentators such as Howard Cosell (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) with the same liveliness he used to dance around opponents in the ring. Those years were critical for Ali. With savvy trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) advising him, he fought, among others, Sonny Liston (twice), Joe Frazier and, in the famous Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, George Foreman. (It's worth noting that the Oscar-winning documentary on that fight, "When We Were Kings," supplies more electricity than we're given here.)
But it was Ali's religious and political actions that stirred up the most controversy. "Ali" deals at length with the man's embracing and then rejecting of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and his conflicts with the Nation of Islam, the U.S. government and the boxing establishment for his "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong" stance. Typically, though, we never get as much insight into his personal processes about any of these matters as we'd like. Ali's first three marriages (Smith's spouse, Jada Pinkett Smith, plays his first wife, Sonji Roi) are all dealt with in a similar restrained manner.
While Smith does a remarkable job of portraying Ali, the character's overall aloofness is an odd choice for one of the most across-the-board likable of leading men. In fact, the only actor who comes alive on the screen, who pops out with an energy and pizazz that's otherwise in limited supply, is Jamie Foxx as Drew "Bundini" Brown, Ali's live-wire "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" motivator.
The difficulty with "Ali" is not that there aren't good things about it but that there aren't enough of them. Perhaps having a universally revered individual who is still very much alive as protagonist caused the filmmakers to unconsciously pull back from an examination that cuts deeper than this one does. Whatever the reason, the energy and hold-onto-your-seat excitement that Muhammad Ali brought to the sports world is oddly absent from this quite accomplished but finally distant film.
MPAA rating: R, for some language and brief violence. Times guidelines: appropriate for older teens.
Will Smith...Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali
Jamie Foxx...Drew "Bundini" Brown
Jon Voight...Howard Cosell
Mario Van Peebles...Malcolm X
Ron Silver...Angelo Dundee
Jeffrey Wright...Howard Bingham
A Peters Entertainment/Forward Pass production, in association with Lee Caplin/Picture Entertainment Corp. and Overbrook Films, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Michael Mann. Producers Jon Peters, James Lassiter, Paul Ardaji, Michael Mann, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers Howard Bingham, Graham King. Screenplay Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann. Story by Gregory Allen Howard. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editors William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin, Lynzee Klingman. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke. Production design John Myhre. Art directors Bill Rea, Tomas Voth. Set decorator James Erickson. Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times