The story of champion boxer Muhammad Ali's struggle to regain the heavyweight crown, set against a backdrop of political and racial strife in '60s America.
Ali, the story of boxing champion Muhammad Ali (née Cassius Clay), wants its audience to care about Ali's drive to be the champ, his yearning for racial equality, his strong Muslim faith and even his failings--as husband, friend, human being. Unfortunately, the film's early scenes don't really give the audience much insight into Ali the person; instead, the movie assumes we'll all be on board with Ali's greatness, and all the filmmakers have to do is put it in context for us. That context is an ugly place--1960s America--definitely not the place to be if you're a black sports champion, Malcolm X's close friend and a vocal civil rights activist yourself. Once you get to know this Ali, it's easy to care about him--he's charming, if self-absorbed, and firm in his convictions--but, unfortunately, the first hour of the film plods along very slowly, meandering through Cassius Clay's days in Miami before he won the title and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In the first hour, Ali's fight with Sonny Liston doesn't matter. During the last two hours of the film (yes, that's right, three hours in all), it finally starts to matter whether or not Ali gets drafted and whether or not he beats George Foreman in Zaire. What matters the most, though, is whether or not you've got enough soda to get through what is shaping up to be a very dull evening.
Will Smith's performance gives a bit of light to an otherwise disappointing film. Not since Six Degrees of Separation have Smith fans been given the opportunity to see him shine in a dramatic role, and despite the movie's meandering, it was worth the wait. Smith's Ali gives the film focus when it seems to lose itself, and his performance is powerful, if a bit lopsided at times. Mario Van Peebles is no Denzel, but his Malcolm X is certainly passable, and the henchmen of Elijah Muhammad who shadow Ali everywhere are just creepy enough to seem the villains in a film that doesn't really have any--at least, not any that are characters. Jada Pinkett Smith, newcomer Nona Gaye (Marvin Gaye's daughter) and Michael Michele all give brief but memorable performances as Ali's first three wives (he does like the ladies). But the supporting prize in what would otherwise be a one-man show must without doubt go to Jon Voight, whose Howard Cosell is classic stuff and whose chemistry with Smith makes for the best scenes in the film. Jamie Foxx as Ali's ''inspiration'' Drew ''Bundini'' Brown basically sits in the champ's corner and cheers him on. Foxx gets a few laughs in when his character is sober, but when his addiction to drugs and alcohol turns sour, so does Foxx's performance.
Michael Mann, who successfully tackled the death-dealing tobacco industry and the politics of journalism in The Insider, brings that same dark sensibility to Ali. But the weighty subject matter of race and religion, even when presented through the eyes of a boxer, may have been too much meat for what is ultimately a sports story. The movie's explorations of civil rights and religion come across as pretentious rather than sincere, the script clunks along and the dialogue is often forced. The words Ali spoke in real life are the only ones in the film that actually seem real (and if you've ever heard him speak, you'll know that that is a very odd thing). The boxing matches, though beautifully choreographed, seem to go on forever; they're probably half the reason the movie lasts as long as it does. Fortunately, gone are the wide angles of weekend satellite sports coverage--this is high art. Ali's boxing matches are a mix of slow-mo, quick camera work, tight shots of flesh being punched into oblivion, and dramatic lighting. There are even times when Ali, ever filmed as light on his feet, actually does appear through tricks of the camera to ''float like a butterfly.''
If a little cinematic pretension doesn't bother you, see Ali for Will Smith's sincere performance--just don't expect a lot of sincerity from the film itself.