It doesn't take a fan to know that the aura of Muhammad Ali transcended the limits of the ring, the limits of his country
the limits of his era.
Ali wasn't just a boxer, he was an entertainer, a poet, a man who literally contextualized his time with actions such as joining the Nation of Islam, befriending Malcolm X, refusing to fight in Vietnam because no Vietcong ever threw a N-word at him, he traded his glory for courage, earning even more glory over the long haul. The historical magnitude of a legend like Ali is so powerful that a biopic was indeed overdue, and in 2001, when it was announced that the story of Ali was to be released, that the greatest boxer of all-time would be played by Will Smith, the most flamboyant and charismatic of the then-young actors, and directed by Michael Mann, known for his complex, methodic but ultimately rewarding directing, "Ali" was expected to be a knockout. Alas, it wasn't.
The film disappointed the fans who expected new insights about their hero and the non-fans who thought they would learn one thing or two about the legend: how and why did he convert to Islam? Was his 'arrogance' genuine or was it just an act? How much hardship and humiliations did he undergo as a kid to be so proud and eloquent about his achieved greatness? How did Ali deal with the loss of the title and the years of ban on a personal level? Or simply, how about his private life, what kind of a husband or a father he was? The film provides shades of answers but Ali is still a mystery at the end. We don't know more about him and we might even question the things we took for granted. And the weaknesses aren't just on the content but the form, too. How can a film that deals with a larger-than-life and enthusiastic personality, played by a magnetic actor, and directed by a competent director be so frustratingly flat... and even, dull.
I read that it was the Academy Award nomination for "The Insider" that earned Michael Mann the project. Comparing the editing of "The Insider" and "Ali", I still scratch my head, Mann had a simpler story to tell in the sense that the focus was one man, but as if he's used to deal with multi-character driven stories, "Heat" being another remarkable example, Mann seems only able to indulge to many long silent scenes punctuated by elements of context, generally music, as if he was sure that the audience will always be receptive to the shots of Ali running with a puzzled expression, Ali looking sad and thoughtful. These fillers are so numerous that even the joyful moments, supposed to be the high points of his life, don't elicit the enthusiastic responses they aim for. When Ali defeats Sonny Liston and shouts that he "shook out the world", I didn't feel the goose bumps from the original footage, I was just glad that needlessly detailed game ended.
This feeling is even more frustrating because Will Smith gave the performance of a lifetime, you can tell he pulled a 'Raging Bull' in his characterization and at the end, you could almost feel you had the young Ali on screen, the other actors did good, Jon Voight, unrecognizable behind his Howard Cosell mask would earn an Oscar-nomination along with Smith and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X Jamie Foxx as Bundini Brown did justice to the story. But Foxx would later pair up with Mann for the most superior and better-prepared "Collateral", "Ali" seemed to have been made in a rush, with a lack of preparation that is baffling from Mann. I liked Ebert's comment that the film features many scenes that looks like ready to get a few cuts in an editing room. I don't know how long did the running across Zaire took place, but did they really expect us to be enjoying it, it was so long that even when the Fight of the Century started, I was exhausted already.
Will Smith immersed himself into his character; he gained weight, trained, and was ready to take real hits. I don't think Mann put himself in the same mindset, he should have seen "Raging Bull" to check how you can make a terrific and exciting boxing game that lasts less than five minutes, he should have watched (or watched again) the remarkable documentaries about Ali, including "When We Were Kings" to try to extract from them the substantial elements about African-American conscience. He should have watched "Malcolm X" to see what a good biopic is, that you can make a long film that doesn't feel long, or to realize that the 'Malcolm X' part didn't need to drag on because it would never equal Spike Lee's. The film focuses on 1964-1974, the most defining chapters of Ali's life, but we could have earlier glimpses of his past to understand him instead of a second retread of Malcolm X' final years.
Again, Mann is a terrific director but for some reason, he wasn't ready for "Ali", and my guess is that Spike Lee would have been a more interesting choice, he would probably have focused on the aura and persona of Ali in a more exciting and engaging way. That's what the fans expected, an intimate view on the champ, and this is why the film flopped, I could see the crowds in the theaters when the film was released but it didn't last, bad word of mouth, as simple as that. Foxx would later play in Ray Charles' biopic and if "Ali" was half the film "Ray" or "Malcolm X" or half any other Mann's film, it could have been something. A flop, that's what it is, and of the puzzling kind, at that.