Review Date:
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Stephen J. Rivele, Chris Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann
Producers: A. Kitman Ho, Michael Mann
Will Smith
Jamie Foxx
Jon Voight
This picture covers the lifetime of Muhammad Ali from the years 1964-74, during which he won the world boxing title, got it stripped from him when he refused to fight in Vietnam, married some ladies here and there, became a Muslim and regained his championship once again.
Too much style, too little substance, too many questions left unanswered and way too much reliance on songs, editing and montages, make for a hollow portrait of one of the most popular figures of the 20th century. I went into this movie with a “general” idea about Muhammad Ali, his life and his boxing career. I came out of this movie with very little more. It was like the filmmakers were more interested in putting on a show, than actually getting into the nitty-gritty of what drove this man, what made him tick, what went through his mind. I can’t tell you how many times I said, “why did he do that?” during this picture. I go to see biographical pictures so that I can gain further insight into someone, not because I’m looking for even more questions! What attracted Ali to the religion of Islam? No idea. What was the reasoning behind the government’s decision to overturn the conviction on Ali? I’m not sure. Why did Ali open the door to the Nation of Islam folk after they turned their back on him during his most needy period? Again…no clue! In fact, there were lots of smaller details that I would liked to have known as well, like what Ali said to Don King after the Rumble in the Jungle (all we see is them whispering) or how important/unimportant his kids were to him? (there’s barely any mention of them in the film)

And the reason it might seem like I’m being picky about this, even though the film does cover a decent amount of his trials during this period, is that this puppy lasts over 2 1/2 hours, and way too much of that time is spent on bogus stylish atmosphere shots, with drums booming and horns blaring in the background, montages featuring Ali doing this and doing that, and just a whole bunch of other fluff! (did we really have to see him running around Zaire for what seemed like hours on end with no dialogue and a blasting soundtrack- talk about redundant!) This is a film created by Michael Mann. Did I expect to sit there and be bored during its first 10-15 minutes while he showcased a “music video” type arrangement of Mr. Sam Cooke singing in a nightclub, with Ali inserts? No way. I expected details, I expected a lot more about Ali’s life, his background, his thoughts, his dreams…but I didn’t get much of what I wanted. Granted, some of the stuff covered was done well, specifically the dodging of the draft, the rumble in the jungle and his God-like reverence in some places. I also appreciated all of the performances across the board, most especially that of Will Smith, who I honestly never thought could do anything remotely related to a Muhammad Ali impression, but I gotta admit, he comes pretty damn close here.

But even though the performances are good, very few of the secondary characters are actually developed. We barely get to know any of his wives (or why he fell for them), his Italian corner man is there throughout the movie but we don’t even know where he comes from or what he thinks of Ali himself, and at some point, we are shown a breakdown of Jamie Foxx’s character of Bundini, but instead of caring for the man in the scene, you just end up wondering why you don’t and why that scene is in the movie in the first place? I’m sorry but if you’re going to give me a 3-hour opus, I don’t want to have all of these questions in my mind when I walk out and I certainly need for many of the characters in the film to be developed. Even Cossell’s relationship with Ali, which seemed to be the most fleshed out one in the movie, wasn’t explained enough (how come they liked each other so much?) And the fight scenes? Well, they were okay but to be honest, some of them ran a little too long, and even though the steady-cam mounted on some of the punches was cool to see, the use of the steady-cam during “regular” scenes outside of the ring was a distraction (I will say that the final freeze-frame shot of Ali was kick-ass though!!). My suggestion? Skip this movie, rent the 1996 documentary called WHEN WE WERE KINGS instead, and if you are still curious to see how Smith handles this role, well…rent it on a cheapie night! Disappointed, disappointing…knock-out!

BTW, for anyone who doesn’t even know one bit about the details of that time period in America, be prepared to ask yourself even more questions while watching this movie (why are there riots on TV, why did the Nation of Islam kick Malcolm X out of their group, who was that other black man who got killed and what did Ali’s friend have to do with him, etc…)

(c) 2021 Berge Garabedian