Notoriously obsessive director Michael Mann and star Will Smith devoted nearly two years and over 100 million dollars from the coffers of Columbia Pictures and other financiers to creating this biography of boxing great Muhammad Ali, which focuses on the ten-year period of 1964-1974. In that time, the brash, motor-mouthed athlete quickly dominates his sport, meets and marries his first wife (Jada Pinkett-Smith), converts to Islam (changing his name from Cassius Clay), and defies the United States government by refusing to submit to military conscription for duty in Vietnam. His world heavyweight champion title thus stripped from him entirely for political reasons, the champ sets about to win back his crown, culminating in a legendary unification bout against George Foreman (Charles Shufford) in Zaire, dubbed the "Rumble in the Jungle." In his travels, Ali becomes a symbol of power to disenfranchised African-Americans everywhere and meets such luminaries as Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), Martin Luther King Jr. (LeVar Burton) and Maya Angelou (Martha Edgerton). Ali features an all-star supporting cast that includes Jon Voight, Giancarlo Esposito, Jamie Foxx, Nona Gaye, Michael Michele, Joe Morton, Paul Rodriguez, Ron Silver, Mykelti Williamson, and Jeffrey Wright. ~ Karl Williams, All Movie Guide
Ali is a rush of charm, violence, and well-crafted mythmaking sure to enthrall. From the unforgettable surge of the opening--a 10-minute montage of sheer brilliance where formative scenes from the early life of Cassius Clay float along on the rapture of a live performance by Sam Cooke in a Harlem nightclub--through to Muhammad Ali's departure for Zaire to fight George Foreman, Michael Mann's homage is mostly crisp and fleet-footed. As Clay/Ali, Will Smith acquits himself marvelously due in large part to his uncanny re-creation of Ali's most famous weapon, his mesmerizing voice. Indeed, the best scenes throughout showcase Ali's verbal rather than pugilistic sparring; whether with his entourage (notably Jamie Foxx), Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), or Don King (Mykelti Williamson), Michael Mann's Ali has the same authoritative wit and ability to surprise that so disarmed the public. The news conferences and behind-the-scenes banter are exquisitely re-created; not so Ali's flaws. Mann's attempt to depict Ali's womanizing, his dubious affiliation with the Nation of Islam, and his insatiable need for the spotlight seems halfhearted and laborious in comparison to the film's enlivened adoration of its subject. As the sluggish second half of the film betrays, Ali is at its impressionistic best when it's in awe rather than when it explains. --Fionn Meade
Another key development in Ali's life that is underway as the film begins is his conversion to Islam (and again, it would be interesting to know what sparked his interest in the religion). This in turn leads into his biggest fight out of the ring, when he refuses to be drafted to fight in Vietnam because it would violate his religious beliefs, and is stripped of his championship title as a result. It's a sobering lesson on how America treats its heroes. When they step too far out of line, they get swatted.
Will Smith delivers the performance of his career (so far) as Ali. He has the man's confidence and braggadocio down to a tee, as well as revealing his inner vulnerability. Jon Voight is equally astonishing and unrecognizable as the sportscaster everyone loved to hate (and a perfect foil for Ali), Howard Cosell, complete with droning voice and ill-fitting toupee. Over-the-top comedian Jamie Foxx exhibits a surprising restraint as Ali's buddy Drew "Bundini" Brown, getting a chance to display his acting chops as he descends into drug addiction. Mario Van Peebles is a thoughtful Malcolm X, and other well-known names crop up, such as LeVar Burton, who appears briefly as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jada Pinkett Smith (Will Smith's real-life wife) and Nona Gaye play Ali's wives Sonji and Belinda, respectively, but they are mostly relegated to the background. Ali's realm, both in and out of the ring, is one where men call all the shots.
The film doesn't shy away from showing Ali's less heroic side. While his arrogance and egoism is taken for granted as part of the show, his constant infidelity raises conflicts both within his family and his Muslim community. Nor is the Nation of Islam shown in the best light; aside from Malcolm X, it largely seems interested in using Ali for his celebrity allure.
Perhaps because Ali is such a vivid figure off stage, the boxing matches aren't as viscerally exciting as those in the first Rocky or Raging Bull, for example. And the final section, with Ali preparing for the fight in Zaire, goes on far too long. It's more of a meander, than a rumble, in that jungle. But overall, Ali is a compelling portrait of a true American icon, its flaws compensated for by first-rate performances from the leads. -- Gillian G. Gaar