Mann's Ali goes the distance without being a knockout, though its first hour is as stinging and nimble as the fighter in his prime. As with many historical films, our knowledge of the outcome becomes a stumbling block, and Ali's thematic breadth and visual flourishes can't dispel the air of inevitability that settles over it.
Ali shrewdly confines itself to a single tumultuous decade in the prizefighter's life, from his defeat of Sonny Liston in February 1964 to the "Rumble in the Jungle" 10 years later. The introductory montage is a blissfully confident yet unsettling feat of editing, intercutting between Sam Cooke rousing a nightclub with "Bring it on Home" to then-Cassius Clay (Will Smith) vigorously jogging, skipping rope and battering a punching bag. In between both, we catch glimpses of Ali's past, including his youthful awareness of segregation and the Emmet Till lynching.
The sequence segues to an extended imitation of the Liston fight itself, with Mann carefully choreographing the match to simulate the real thing. After becoming world champion, the fighter's life becomes far more complicated. He publicizes his association with black Muslim spokesman Malcolm X (a thoughtful, seething Mario Van Peebles) and eventually adopts the name Muhammad Ali. The new name ignites an argument with his father (Giancarlo Esposito) over the implications of rejecting his family's "slave" name and embracing a more racially inclusive religion. Part of the equation is his father's job: painting blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesuses for white churches.
The film finds Ali at the center of the Civil Rights conflicts of the 1960s, during which most political and religious disputes derived from matters of race, as when Ali criticized the Vietnam war with the line, "Ain't no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger.' " Ali presents the fighter's many contradictions without expecting to find the key to them, as in his devotion to being a good Muslim, despite his penchant for infidelity with such women as Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Casting Will Smith in the role at first seemed merely based on the actor's verbal gifts. He lives up to Ali's early nickname, "The Lip," and delightedly fires off his signature insults, as when he says of one opponent, "Boy even dream he whuppin' me, he better wake up and apologize." But Mann gives Smith a gift of more silence and stillness than we expect, so that he also conveys Ali's determination. Reporting to the draft board, he wordlessly, almost mournfully, refuses to answer to the name "Cassius Clay," though he knows he may never box again. Later, jogging through African streets, he sees his image in graffiti and appears genuinely humbled at his role as an inspirational figure.
As ever Mann pays meticulous attention to precise, real-world details, which give his films more solidity than the work of the similarly stylish Ridley Scott. At the same time, while confirming the crispness of his cinematography and the accuracy of his set dressing, he tends to lose track of his story's dramatic essentials (which happened in The Insider to a lesser degree). Mann includes broad-canvas matters like an FBI connection to Malcolm X's assassination and the corruption of Zaire's government, when we'd rather hear more from Ali's own mouth. The film also tends to let Motown music do some of its emotional heavy lifting, as when "Change is Gonna Come" plays after Malcolm X's death.
The superb documentary When We Were Kings thoroughly chronicled Ali's Zaire fight with George Foreman, and in Ali, since the boxer shows an unassailable confidence in himself, the film never generates much suspense: The resolution seems a fait accompli. We can still enjoy such acting details as off-camera camaraderie with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight in impressive but immobile makeup) and the verbal felicities of Don King (Mykelti Williamson).
Mann's Ali remains a visually glossy yet biographically rich tribute to Ali's life and influence. The film celebrates Ali as a survivor who emerged intact from one of America's most furious decades, giving a T.K.O. to history itself.
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