If Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is a good example of the right way to make a feature length drama about a well-known historical figure, then Michael Mann’s Ali is probably a good example of how the same kind of film can fail. Michael Mann who directed the cult classic Heat and Magnificent Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day Lewis has as much talent as Spike Lee. Will Smith, while not on the same level as Daniel Day Lewis, does a credible job as the titular hero. But Ali plays like a clunky 1970s TV movie.
How did Michael Mann manage, or why did he choose to make the life of Muhammad Ali look boring? Maybe the best way to approach the question is by looking at the film’s strengths. Will Smith captures some of Ali’s virtuosity with words, but it feels mechanical. Where Denzel Washington embodied Malcolm X, Will Smith always seems to be acting the part of Muhammad Ali. The fight scenes work on a technical level. But they lack the excitement of the excellent When We Were Kings, or even the rough, compelling melodrama of Rocky. Ali’s relationship to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and his heroic refusal to serve in the army during the Vietnam War are dealt with in a workmanlike, but perfunctory manner. The love scenes are just boring.
Ali is at it’s strongest when it slows down and shows Ali in his most private moments. Not only does Will Smith capture Ali’s laid back southern personality in a way he doesn’t capture him as a trash talking virtuoso, the film shows this titanic figure in the history of sports and American politics getting hassled by the cops while he’s jogging, walking through a snowstorm in a hoodie, worrying about money, sitting around in his living room watching TV with his family, We understand what it must have been like for the real Muhammad Ali to imagine that his career as a fighter was over, that he could no longer practice the art that he might have been better at than any other person in history.
Had Michael Mann explored Ali’s private relationship with Malcolm X, Ali might have been a good, or even a great movie. But in spite of one poignant moment where Ali refuses to speak to Malcolm when they run into each other quite by accident in Africa, Ali’s betrayal feels rushed, almost as if Mann felt he had to cover it but wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible.
Why, for example, did Malcolm X not have a full Muslim name, but Ali was “promoted’ from Cassius X to Muhammad Ali shortly after his conversion? It was, of course, a reward for his prominence — Ali was the most famous recruit the Nation of Islam ever had — and a bribe to betray Malcolm, with whom he had been close friends. Mann, to his credit, does put it on screen, but then lets it drop almost as quickly.
That Mann shows Ali’s independence from Elijah Mohammad and a hand-picked Nation of Islam handler is commendable but it also feels as if he’s also dancing around the real issue. As heroic as Ali was in his opposition to the Vietnam War, in his willingness to go to jail rather than serve in the army, he missed the boat on Malcolm X. A genuine exploration on how and why Ali fell so short in what might have been the most important test of his life as far as I know has yet to be put to film.