Appropriately enough, Michael Mann’s “”Ali”” begins with a song – an old-school celebratory hip-shaker that writhes with pain as it riles the crowd. The musical prologue zips us through the early years of world championship boxer Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), a kinetic figure both inside and out of the world of sports, and sets the tone for Mann’s work. It just doesn’t linger too long, for as relevant as the past may appear to be, we don’t have time for it here.
Instead, Mann’s cinematic book report only dissects a decade in the legendary boxer’s life, though the time frame chosen reflects most of the champ’s highs and lows. Beginning with his first world title fight against champion Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt), “”Ali”” meanders its way through matches, failed marriages and government crackdowns until we reach the “”Rumble in the Jungle”” in 1974. The screenplay, from a story by Gregory Allen Howard, focuses primarily on two facets of Ali’s life – his religion and his sport – and relays them to us via the boxer’s relationships with two strong men: Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). How they met or became so close is left to our imaginations, though Ali’s respect for them is evident. The relationship with Cosell, a bond of mutual respect that fueled an on-air promotional circus from time to time, deserves its own movie – and the wonderful Voight would have to resume the role. Here, it is left in the shadows too often.””Ali,”” however, does pack plenty of punches, most notably the mesmerizing turn by Smith. Older colleagues I watched the film with had difficulties seeing Ali in Smith, and understandably so. The man himself was so charismatic, so alive – a tough act to follow. Mann’s film, and Smith’s performance, must compete with the collective memories of boxing fans, as well as the highlight reels and outtakes shown year-round on ESPN. They display the real Ali – floating, stinging, and constantly singing his own praises. But I did see more than a few traces of Ali in Smith, and I learned more about both men as a result of the actor’s resounding performance. While Mann makes surface glances over the life of a prominant figure without exploring too deeply, Smith provides the man with passion, pain, extreme confidence, and even fear (look for it when Ali faces the juggernaut of George Foreman in Africa). I enjoyed Mann’s approach to the boxing matches, which resonate with stunning clarity and originality. Directors have filmed the boxing ring in various ways, some effective and some off-kilter. Mann brings a fresh outlook by alienating the sound in the ring, muting the crowd and amplifying the grunts, groans and sighs uttered by the feuding warriors. When contrasted with Mann’s pre-boxing shots, brimming with endless chatter, verbal jabs and taunting, the matches pack that much stronger of a punch. But in the ring, it’s business. In the ring, it’s put up, as well as shut up. But once again, the director needs an editor. With “”Heat”” and “”The Insider,”” Mann has earned his reputation for lengthy prose, and “”Ali”” certainly goes the distance. At just under three hours, the film stutter steps, bobs and weaves for 9 solid rounds, but tires just when the knockout punch should have been delivered. By the famed “”Rumble In The Jungle,”” a benchmark battle between an exonerated Ali and the relentless Foreman, the length and reptitiveness of the material was felt. Another press conference became another sideshow, and another pretty face (Michael Michele, this time) once again signified the boxer’s cheating heart. Everything that could have been said about the champ had been said by then, and said well. Ali, the film reminds us, fought beyond 1974, losing and regaining his title three more times. Though humbled by Parkinson’s disease, Ali was even able to attend the premiere of his own film, a true triumph. Grade: BBy Sean O’ConnellDec. 24, 2001