Scott Hardie | January 2, 2002
With all due respect to Michael Mann (he's the reason why I wanted to see "Ali"), he's the wrong director for the job. A biopic about this complex of a figure needs a sharp focus, literally and figuratively, and Mann is a soft-focus kind of director.

He likes to let his camera linger (and linger and linger) on the background after a scene is over, or roam around the room while the characters talk. We don't get a sense of Muhammad Ali, we get a sense of the rooms he was in. The worst it gets is with a pair of musical performances. The first is intermixed with the opening credits, as a male R&B singer flirts with his audience. The second is a little while later, as Ali dances with the woman who will become his first wife, and they leave to get it on. The female singer continues belting out her number for the camera. I liked both of the performances, but what in the fuck do they have to do with Muhammad Ali? Why do they go on for whole minutes? The camera just stays and stays on them. It's reasons like this that the movie is 2 hours and 47 minutes, when 2 hours would have been just fine.

Will Smith is good as Ali, going as far as he can into the role. Unfortunately, it's not far enough. Not once during the entire movie was I fooled into thinking that I was watching Muhammad Ali, always was I watching Will Smith playing a boxer. It was a very good impression. I can't blame Smith for this, only the casting agent, or more likely the studio exec who signed Will Smith. On the other hand, the supporting actors are all good, every one of them. Jon Voight plays Howard Cosell well (not difficult to do), and Mario Van Peebles does his best Denzel-Washington-as-Malcolm-X impression. That led me to wonder, if Spike Lee had directed this movie like he'd wanted to do, could he have talked Denzel Washington into playing a small part as Malcolm X? Also good are Giancarlo Esposito as Cassius Clay Sr. and, fun to see even in a tiny role, LeVar Burton as Dr. King.

For the first forty-five minutes or so, I thought I might be watching the first bad movie I've seen in 2001. But it slowly got tolerable, and then even, for brief moments, good. I finally rate it as a high "It was okay."


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