Biographical films are always a gamble. They work best when they portray either somebody previously unknown, or shed new light upon the life of the subject. In the case of Muhammad Ali, a biographical film becomes even more difficult. For one, Ali is still alive and in the public eye. He is a revered figure, and spent most of his life in front of the camera, so his life is already fresh in the minds of many people. Any sort of revisionism is immediately out of the question. Michael Mann's Ali is not able to overcome these shortcomings, and merely plays like a recap of a decade of Ali's life. Yes, it is a compelling life, but why watch the movie when it's just as easy to watch actual footage from these times? Well, Will Smith's performance is probably the one reason to see Ali.

Smith (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Wild Wild West) disappears into the role of Muhammad Ali. He gained 35 pounds and trained extensively, which shows in the boxing scenes (Smith did not use a stunt double). He deftly mimics the verbal dexterity and speech mannerisms of Ali in press conferences and before boxing matches. Smith has a commanding presence here, easily dominating every scene he is in with his charisma. Ali without him would be akin to a mediocre documentary on television. It's quite sad, but Ali drags in places. Mann (The Insider, Heat) and co-writers Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans), Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (Nixon), and Eric Roth (The Insider, The Horse Whisperer) give Smith the only role with meat. Everybody other character suffers from a lack of underdevelopment. Aside from Malcolm X and Ali's wives, most people fade into the background as anonymous extras, although they surely played larger parts in real life.

Ali feels like a flash-forward through arguably the most important decade of Ali's life. Mann skipping over important parts and pausing on lesser parts seemingly at random. He devotes large sections to Ali's relationship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles, Guardian, Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal), Ali's legendary fight with George Foreman (The Rumble in the Jungle, also the subject of the excellent documentary When We Were Kings), the events leading up to the fight with Joe Frazier (but oddly enough, not the fight itself, the Thrilla in Manila), and Ali's problems with the authorities due to his refusal so serve in the military. The last is by far the most interesting, but suffers from the same problem as the rest of the film. Mann has very little of the private side of Ali.

Mann is never able to glimpse into the thoughts of Muhammad Ali. He shows what everybody else knows from watching television and reading the papers, but gives no insight as to why Ali is who he is. The scenes with Ali and his close confidants are brief and lacking in meaningful, insightful conversation. The fight scenes are thrilling and decently shot, but fall into the middle ground between blah and spectacular. This is also a good summation of the entire movie.

Haro Rates It: Okay.
2 hours, 38 minutes, Rated R for some language and brief violence.

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