Biopics are a tough trade. There’s always the dilemma of showing too much or showing too little. A life, a famous and eventful one especially, is long and packed with events of varying importance. Which do you cover, which do you leave out? Some biopics frustrate because they overlook too much significant material, others grow tiresome because they run too long trying to mention every detail. And then there’s films like “Ali” which somehow commit both of those things. At nearly three hours of running time, Michael Mann’s film can be overwhelming, but while it touches countless issues, it often doesn’t develop them any further, which makes for an episodic, superficial stroll through the life of a man we ultimately learn little about.
“Ali” opens with a rather virtuoso titles sequence which alternate between an electrifying Sam Cooke concert, a young Cassius Clay (Will Smith) in training and short but telling glimpses at Clay’s childhood in the south. The interlacing of the boxer beating at a punching bag, soul music and moments like a young Cassius being led to the “Colored only” part of a bus, watching his father painting a blonde, blue-eyed Christ or learning of a lynching gives us insights into the man and it warms us up effectively for Clay’s first decisive fight in 1964, against then heavyweight champion Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt). That first boxing match is surprisingly intense, with Mann’s camera right there in the ring, around and between the fighters, and the impact of the punches resonating loudly. Right there, I felt ‘whoa’, this movie means business.
Another thing I did not expect is how big a part Malcolm X would play. In the film’s first act, he’s nearly always hanging besides the Champ, who’s converting to the Nation of Islam and becoming more and more concerned with civil rights issues. X is competently played by Mario Van Peebles, but as a comic book fan sucker for continuity, I would have loved for Denzel Washington to cross over from Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”. By the way, that biopic achieved everything “Ali” fails to, and as it depicts some of the same events early on, that difference is all the more evident. For example, Malcolm X’s perspective-changing visit to the Mecca, where he realises that Islam unites people of all colours, is mentioned in a few seconds but brushed away by Muhammad Ali (he’s rejected his slave name by then), who just sticks to his “Why did you quarrel with the Elijah Muhammad?” Now, that’s intriguing. Was Ali “brainwashed” by the Black Muslims, he who so vehemently claimed to be his own person?
Don’t expect to find out more about this from the film, which immediately shifts focus to something else, and this happens over and over. There are fleeting little scenes showing us Ali beyond the ring and press conferences, but they only tease us with insights into who he really is, what drove him. Then Mann cuts away to scene after scene recreating the key public moments in Ali’s life, which is all good but rather futile, especially when you can see the real thing in “When We Were Kings”, the greatish Ali documentary from a few years ago. Will Smith is good enough here, he’s certainly buffed himself up and he’s got the hilariously cocky banter and the arrogant rhyming down pretty accurately, but still. He’s not Ali. He doesn’t quite have the Greatest’s fire and his boundless showmanship. As for the few time we spend with the private Ali, while I have no way of knowing how the boxer was when the world wasn’t looking, I doubt he was as introverted and melancholy as Smith plays him.
It’s truly disappointing how, after such a powerful start, the movie just keeps losing steam. When it gets to the time when Ali was stripped away of his title and forbidden to fight because of his refusal to being enlisted during the Viêt-Nam war, things pick up somewhat, as Ali reveals to the world -and to himself- to be more than a big mouth, but also a man of convictions. Yet, like everything else in the film, this is simplified. Ali makes one or two spirited speeches (“Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”), but we’re not shown the struggle standing up to the government like that must have been for him, and he’s back in the ring so fast that you can’t really tell that this affected him nearly enough to ruin his career.
Oh, there were plenty of interesting ways to plunge into the life of Ali. The whole film could have been about race, or the Nation of Islam, or his political stand against the war, or about his endless womanising. “Ali” touches all these angles, but without developing them into a compelling or thought-provoking narrative. Ali’s marriages, for instance, are rushed and barely questioned, with his female conquests entering and exiting the film without it giving them a second thought. Instead, way too much time is spent in the ring. As mentioned, I thought the first fight scene was very intense, packing much visceral thrills, but after three other sequences which are only more of the same, it gets blah. The finale, which revolves around the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s historic upset win over a much younger George Foreman in a heavyweight title fight in Zaire, is particularly anticlimactic. It just goes on and on (“Get off the ropes”). And then the movie ends, and you haven’t learned or felt much at all.
One of the picture’s problems is that Michael Mann seems to be way too in love with his own direction. He keeps steering away from the action to do these extended, often pointless musical montages, most appallingly during a 5 minute stretch of Ali running in Zaire with Africans who nearly venerate him. We gather that in, say, 30 seconds, but Mann apparently couldn’t edit out any of his pretty shots of Zaire. Cause his film IS pretty, with interesting use of colour and lighting. I could have done without Mann’s signature hand-held shake-o-thon, but overall this is a skilfully crafted movie. “Ali” ends up being less involving than a “Rocky” flick and less challenging than Scorsese’s ruthless “Raging Bull”, but it’s still worth seeing, dull spots and all, for the few moments of it which flirt with brilliance. I just wish it had been more, because initially it sure seemed like it could’ve been a contender.