Events begins with Ali (Will Smith)'s dominating defeat of reigning champion Sonny Liston in 1964, when the young underdog still went by the name of Cassius Clay, and concludes with his triumphant overthrow of reigning champion George Foreman in 1974, when he was considered an over-the-hill underdog. The in-between space is filled with a mostly engrossing account of events that led to his conversion to Islam, the refusal to serve in the armed forces for which he was essentially stripped of his title, and the endless court battle he waged to be able to win that title back. Add to that the more personal matters of two problematic marriages and personality conflicts with such famous figures as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed and Don King, and the “Ali” recipe takes shape.
It's an accomplished blend of historical fact and speculation--formidable as a history lesson but somewhat insubstantial as a story. Unlike “Raging Bull's” Jake La Motta, who remains a divisive and classically tragic figure, Ali today enjoys widespread admiration as both an athlete and a citizen. There is no lingering dispute as to his character on which to pin the picture's edgier moments; Ali himself has outlived and transcended such debates, leaving the film without a satisfactory dramatic core. As a result, viewers are less likely to be captivated by attempts to dramatize the past and increasingly likely to focus on superficial merits to the point of being more impressed by Will Smith's impeccable depiction of Ali than by Ali himself.
In fairness, Smith is undeniably excellent in the role, capturing the essence of Ali's character rather than his caricature and boasting a beefed-up body perfectly sculpted to resemble that of the boxer while in his prime. Other supporting performers are equally convincing--a puttied-up Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm and Mykelti Williamson as King--though one is constantly reminded that they are precisely that: convincing replicas of the originals.
Mann's directing style may also be a diluting factor. The same quasi-documentary approach that contributed so much tension and suspense to “The Insider” doesn't seem quite suited to dealing with a broader period of time. There's an unavoidable feeling that “Ali” is sometimes more interested in restaging events than in dramatizing them, more concerned with mirroring the details of Ali's television appearances, press conferences and fights than excavating the details of his psychology or his personal life.
Given the long history of the project, which passed through the hands of numerous producers and writers before finally landing in the lap of Mann and his “Insider” collaborator, screenwriter Eric Roth, it's understandable that much of the story should be as diluted as it is. Too many cooks and too much time spent cooking have wound up overcooking a story that should have been raw from the get go. If “Ali” has flaws, however, they are flaws borne of risk-taking and a determined resolve to do what should have been an impossible task. Any feeling of regret that Mann and Roth didn't quite pull it off must be tempered with gratitude and admiration for the fact that they dared make the effort in the first place. Starring Will Smith, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Joe Morton, Paul Rodriguez, Giancarlo Esposito, Nona Gaye, Michael Michele, Barry Shabaka Henley and Albert Hall. Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann. Produced by Jon Peters, Paul Ardaji, A. Kitman Ho and Michael Mann. A Columbia release. Biographical drama. Rated R for some language and brief violence. Running time: 158 min.