January 1, 2002 -- "Ali," despite some fine performances and well-staged fight scenes, is a major disappointment. It is overlong and bloated when it should have been a lean, mean fighting machine.
Will Smith ("Enemy of the State") stars as Mohammed Ali, the greatest boxer of his generation, in this film based on Ali's early career. The story starts out fast, skipping Ali's early years and getting to his first title fight with Sonny Liston early in the film. The fight scenes are very good. It is not the usual film fighting with pulled punches. You can see the fighter's jaws move when they get hit. It looks very real. Smith does a fine job capturing Ali's distinctive boxing style.
The film also partly covers Ali's conversion to Islam and his relationship to Elijah Muhammad, Herbert Muhammad and Malcom X (well-played by Mario Van Peebles) of the Black Muslims. There is not a lot about the in-fighting between Elijah Muhammad and Malcom X, but there are quite a few hints about those relationships. There is also some indication that Ali was unhappy with the boxing business end of his relationship with the Black Muslims. This was some of the more interesting stuff in the film, but it is not dealt with in any depth.
Instead, we get some extended night club scenes, and a running scene in Africa which go on for far too long. There seems to be a failure to trim some unnecessary parts of the film, while failing to focus on what the film is really about. Probably the main thing that does come through in the film is that Ali, ultimately, was his own man. He stood up for his faith and he opposed the war in Vietnam when that was a very unpopular thing to do. He often ignored the advice he was given by his handlers, but he often was proven right in the final analysis.
The other thing that seems clear in the film is the strength of Ali's faith. The film shows how Ali's faith led to his divorce from his first wife, Sonji Roi (played by Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith of "Scream 2"). The film also shows one of Ali's extra-marital affairs. By the end of the film, I guess maybe I felt I knew Ali a little better than I did before, but there wasn't a whole lot of new information. It does give you some idea of why Ali is admired so much.
In addition to Smith's fine performance, Jon Voight of "Pearl Harbor" does a good job playing legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell. Jamie Foxx of "Any Given Sunday" is excellent as Drew 'Bundini' Brown, a trainer. Ron Silver of "The Arrival" is effective playing Angelo Dundee, Ali's manager, as is Mykelti Williamson, who plays flamboyant boxing promoter Don King. James Toney is convincing as boxer Joe Frasier, both in the ring and out. He's got that Frazier bob-and-weave boxing style down pat. It is a shame this film isn't better, despite all the money and talent that went into it. The director, Michael Mann, did an excellent job with last year's "The Insider," but this film isn't near as good as that. The film shows Ali was a great champion, but Ali is a lot more than that. This film rates a C+.
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