A Split Decision

3 Stars


Ratings based on a 1 to 5 scale

Muhammad Ali didn't play by the rules, and neither does Michael Mann's honest, richly detailed, gorgeous movie about him. An uncompromising look at 10 tumultuous years in the champ's life--from his first fight with Sonny Liston in '64 to his battle with George Foreman in Zaire to regain the title that had been stripped from him when he refused to fight in Vietnam--"Ali" goes out of its way to avoid Hollywood biopic cliches. No hagiography, it attempts to get inside a complex, fallible hero, a man who was pushed and pulled by history, and who pushed back, changing history by the force of his will. Like Mann's last movie, "The Insider," it examines the mystery of heroism.

Will Smith, beefed up and quick on his feet, is utterly convincing in the thrillingly staged fight scenes. He gets Ali's verbal rhythms down, but this is no mere impersonation. Smith's Ali is a performer who clicks on and off at will. Outside the ring he's often somber, wrapped in solitude. The cocky, playful Ali is there in the wonderful scenes with Jon Voight's Howard Cosell, his verbal sparring partner and, off camera, his confidant. What's surprising about Smith's performance is how subdued and internal it is.

Mann isn't afraid to depict Nation of Islam's Elijah Muhammad and his son Herbert as opportunists riding their convert's gravy train. Nor does he shy away from Ali's womanizing. Ali seems a fool to turn his back on second wife Belinda (Nona Gaye), who sees more clearly than he how he's being used. The movie, credited to five writers, covers a lot of historical ground, from the assassination of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) to the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. You realize how completely Ali's life embodied the Zeitgeist.

Does "Ali" succeed? It's a split decision. Mann's integrity, his abhorrence of crowd-pleasing Hollywood tactics, is admirable, but he keeps the audience at arm's length. He's made a cool movie about a hot man. For all the great soul music, for all the excitement inside the ring and the juicy performance of Jamie Foxx as corner man "Bundini" Brown, "Ali" is hard to warm up to. I respect it enormously, but it feels like an art film in search of a movie. Mann recognizes the importance of Ali as an entertainer, but he's in danger of forgetting how to be one himself.