For about its first fifteen minutes, Ali is heaven. Sam Cooke (David Elliot) is on stage, wooing a crowd with a medley of his greatest hits. The tempo is slow and poignant. Overlaid upon this soundtrack is a blaze of glimpses of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) in various postures and situations.
Soon we are witnessing Ali's childhood condensed into a few, telling vignettes. In bold strokes, the racism of white America is contrasted with the soul and energy of black culture. And now the Cooke medley kicks out of slow gear and into an intense, ecstatic rhythm as the sequence builds to its height.
There is only one person in contemporary cinema who could have conceived and executed this opening with such panache. Michael Mann (Heat , The Insider ) is a generally underrated director who deserves to be classed alongside Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma. Few filmmakers can achieve his symphonic fusion of image, music and performance.
If only the rest of Ali were as fine as that first fifteen minutes. Although there is much to admire and enjoy in the movie, it left me frustrated.
In The Insider, Mann showed himself to be an artist who revels in the precise, meticulous reconstruction of documented realities. But he was able to take the real-life story of that film and bend it sufficiently to his own ends, finding a core theme that cohered all its diverse tangents and characters. The biography of Muhammad Ali proves to be more difficult, intractable material.
The film covers the years 1964 to 1974 – from the Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) fight to the "rumble in the jungle" with George Foreman (Charles Shufford) in Zaire. Mann and his three co-writers define this period, in dramatic terms, as the time in which the boxer dropped his family "slave name" of Cassius Clay and adopted the identity of Ali – beginning a journey of self-realisation that really only reaches its culmination when he melds with African culture.
The broad details of Ali's life and career are, of course, widely known, even to those who are not fans of this brutal sport. Mann has to contend with our television memories of every fight, speech and interview Ali gave, not to mention Leon Gast's brilliant documentary When We Were Kings (1996). Thus, Mann is compelled to enter into a devil's pact with realistic recreation, eschewing the kinds of liberties which Scorsese liberally exploited in Raging Bull (1980).
Where Scorsese rendered historic fights as fleeting, abstract, avant-garde blurs so that he could hurry back to the prolonged scenes of domestic violence, Mann is stuck with the moves that these boxers actually made in the ring. His camera has to stand back and take in the strategies, the overall choreography, and trace the narrative arc of each major fight. The possibilities for launching into the kinds of expressionist effects at which Mann excels are severely curtailed.
As a realist film, it will stand or fall for viewers depending on whether Smith is accepted as a reasonable facsimile of Ali. And here one must take a leap of faith. As a performance, Smith's offering is mesmerising, delivered with maximum intensity and conviction. But he cannot match the physicality of the real Ali, and nor, to my mind, does he entirely capture the craziness, the almost "possessed" aura that Ali exuded.
As biography, the film is essentially reverential, made with the full blessing and co-operation of its subject. It pretends to show Ali as a flawed human being, but goes easy on any critique of his acts and decisions. Mann's most inspired idea is to approach the multiple selves of Ali – his very different ways of behaving in and out of the public eye – primarily through the register of his voice. The Ali who whispers to his wives or confides in his family or male friends is a world away from the shouting, rapping, chanting Ali.
Beyond that idea, Mann has a fairly shapeless, real-life chronicle on his hands – a collection of often strong and fascinating scenes that never coalesce into a single, solid form.
One senses the director trying to forge continuities with his previous films. The role of sports broadcaster Howard Cosell (an unrecognisable Jon Voight), for instance, who enters into an unusual and touching brotherly relationship with the boxer, recalls the depiction of the media in The Insider. As in Heat, much of the action is refracted through the subjectivity of the main character, leading to a kaleidoscopic series of partial views and confused sensations.
But Mann never finds a central theme that brings everything together into a satisfying whole. The closest he comes is in the story's stress on Ali's individualism. This hero is one who will always, eventually, choose his own, intransigent path over that dictated by the government or even his religion.
But this emphasis, in turn, chafes against the film's close attention to the social make-up of Ali's environment. When it comes to a figure such as Don King (Mykelti Williamson) – of whom Ali's wife Belinda (Nona Gaye) dryly comments that he "talks black, acts white and thinks green" – this is a surprisingly forthright and politicised Hollywood blockbuster.
I have learnt never to entirely trust my first impressions of Mann's films. They almost always improve with repeat viewings, often revealing secret themes and structures. But I seriously doubt whether Ali, for all its fine moments and aspects, will take a place alongside the director's masterworks.
MORE biopics: Auto Focus, The Aviator, Basquiat, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kundun, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Malcolm X, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Pollock, What's Love Got to Do With It?
© Adrian Martin February 2002