Ali 2002 Starring Will Smith Review
Ali, Michael Mann's boxing epic starring Will Smith, isn't a bad movie. In fact, it's almost as pretty, in places, as Ali himself. But, unlike the champ, it packs little dramatic punch. The result: nearly three hours of heavyweight Hollywood ho-hum.
Mann found his real fame in the 1980's Miami Vice, which brought TV shows a then-radical music-video sensibility. And he's still quite good at using camera work and music to set moods, choreograph an audience's reactions, even do some storytelling for him. The movie, especially the meticulously choreographed boxing scenes, looks great. Busy camerawork and stirring score keep the film interesting enough that three hours pass before one even notices they're gone. (Particularly effective: sparingly used over-the-shoulder and below-the-belt camerawork in the ring, that provides a feel for a first-person perspective on a boxing match. One feels quite palpably what it would be to be on the receiving end of a flurry of Ali's punches—or Joe Frazier's, for that matter.) Visual hallmarks of authenticity abound. Settings, from Louisville to inner-city New York and even Kinshasa, look and feel faithful to their originals (as we imagine them, at least). And historical figures all bear their "signatures" : Elijah Muhammad and Mobutu Sese Seko both have their customary headwear, Malcolm X his reddish hair and goatee, and Howard Cosell his toupee.
Period music, lovely to hear, sets the tone in virtually every scene set in America, while West African pop star Salif Keita provides the musical backdrop for Ali's Kinshasa odyssey.
The movie sidesteps the first obvious pitfall: a descent into hagiography. Ali's poor choice of friends and management (including, ultimately, "Prince of Darkness" Don King) is presented quite openly, and his womanizing, if downplayed, is plain enough to see—we never see him with a woman he doesn't eventually marry (and divorce), and his second wife calls him on it. But these are common enough tropes of the celebrity-athlete's story. More importantly, we see Ali's personal weakness in failing to turn his back on the corrupt and manipulative Nation of Islam at critical moments—he's oddly cold to a Malcolm X who has clearly moved beyond the Nation of Islam's influence, and he chews out Elijah Muhammad's son Howard after beating Joe Frazier, but then submits again to their management. (Like Malcolm X, Ali owes much of his identity to the Nation's influence; but unlike Malcolm, he never quite breaks with them, even when he seems to have outgrown them.)
And inevitably, the film takes on the political aspect of Ali's early career: his engagement with the black militancy of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, his criminal prosecution and ban from boxing after refusing military induction, his denunciation of the U.S. as a bigger enemy to blacks and the poor than the Viet Cong, his decision to fight George Foreman in Mobutu's Zaire. (A celebrity athlete famous for the sport he can't compete in, Ali's transformed by his suspension and legal woes into a political figure, almost a political prisoner living in internal exile.) But somehow, none of Ali's inflammatory, anti-establishment positions feel particularly provocative as presented in this film. Even— or especially—today, for an American Olympic champion and celebrity professional athlete to take these kinds of positions would be explosive. (Can we imagine Tiger Woods taking such a stand? Michael Jordan?) Here, though, Ali's d