Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
Jamie Foxx as Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown
Jon Voight as Howard Cosell
Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X
Ron Silver as Angelo Dundee
Jeffrey Wright as Howard Bingham
Mykelti Williamson as Don King
Jada Pinkett-Smith as Sonji Clay
Michael Bentt as Sonny Liston
Giancarlo Esposito as Ali’s Dad
Michael Michele as Victoria Porche
Paul Rodriguez as Ferdie Pacheco
Charles Shufford as George Foreman
James Toney as Joe Frasier

An interesting look into the life of boxer Muhammad Ali with a wonderful performance by Will Smith.

Ali is based on the early career of boxer Muhammad Ali. The movie starts out following him as he wins the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. Featured are his friendship to Malcolm X, his conversion to Islam, and fast rise to stardom. Of course his perfection of the art of trash talking in rhyme is focused on, too. The film highlights two of his early marriages (he had 4) and his fall from the spotlight when he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. From being broke and outcast, Ali fights his way back to retake the title in a fight with George Foreman in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire. ‘Ali’ follows the highs and lows of the boxer and shows just how he became a legend.

Ali is rated R for some language and brief violence.

What Worked:
One of the most memorable things about this film is the transformation of Will Smith. He not only perfectly imitates Muhammad Ali’s trash talking and mannerisms, but he bulks up to actually have the physique of the boxer. Based on seeing The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, you never in a million years would have thought he could pull off this role, but he does so convincingly. In reality, Will Smith and Ali have similar personalities, so he was a great choice to play him. Smith handles himself well in the action scenes in the ring along with the dramatic scenes elsewhere.

Going into this film, I didn’t know much about Muhammad Ali beyond his public persona. This film goes a bit deeper into who the man is. It was interesting to see how the Islamic religious leaders used him as a tool. I didn’t know Ali had been so close with Malcolm X. I also didn’t realize that Ali and Don King didn’t seem to get along all that well. It was also interesting to see how Ali would make fun of people in public, but they were close friends in private. He would call Joe Frasier ugly in front of the press, but then they’d help each other out behind the scenes. It’s amazing how Ali was able to put on a good show for both the media and his fans inside and outside the ring.

Some of the best scenes in the film are between Howard Cosell and Ali. They have some really hilarious exchanges that lighten the otherwise dramatic tone of the movie. The one-liners Ali spouts are priceless and while Cosell generally plays the straight man, he occasionally fires back some classics himself. Jon Voight gets an amazing amount of help from tons of prosthetics on his face. He looks about as much like Cosell as you could hope for.

The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job. Jamie Foxx is funny as Ali’s black Jewish boxing coach. It also turns out that he was the inspiration for a lot of Ali’s rhymes. The soundtrack is also first rate with a bit of Motown, hippie music, and even African sounding music to supplement the shots in Zaire.

What Didn’t Work:
This film really needed to get the mini-series treatment. 2 ½ hours is simply not enough to cover the life of Ali. Gone are any mentions of his battle with Parkinson’s disease, his daughter becoming a boxer, his later meetings with George Foreman, his early years, etc etc etc. A lot of the interesting stuff is left out. There was no choice due to the running time, but it would have been nice to see it covered. Maybe in Ali 2. (Just kidding.)

As it is, the film feels somewhat disjointed. It skips around in time so much that you have a hard time figuring out what year it is. In one scene he’ll just be meeting a girl, then the next minute they’ll be married and have a daughter. Levar Burton is also shown as Martin Luther King Jr. However, his role ends up being reduced to an image on a TV and a photo in the newspaper. That’s it. It really seemed like something got cut. I wonder how much more was cut out, too.

This is also a “warts and all” type film. You’ll either walk away respecting Ali more or finding him all too human. He’s shown as a devout Muslim in the film, but he’s also shown cheating on his loving wife. It’s sad to see, but an important part of the story to tell.

The movie does get slow a few times. For example, director Michael Mann seemed to like long, lingering shots of characters. Once scene was just a shot of a woman singing a song for what felt like a minute straight. She had nothing to do with the story beyond being background music, yet precious screentime was spent on her. Other scenes had a similar feel of slowing down the story. Quite a bit of time was also spent on Malcolm X though it wasn’t his film.

Overall, Ali is a first rate film that is well made and has an excellent cast. You can really tell it was a labor of love for all involved.