review for Ali on AllMovie

Ali (2001)
by Derek Armstrong review

Always a technician at the top of his craft, Michael Mann proves it again with his visually alive take on the boxing life of Muhammad Ali, starring Will Smith in the role naysayers doubted he could play, and featuring all manner of virtuoso work inside the ring. While both director and star were generally praised, the film itself failed to appear on year-end ten-best lists, due to what might be described as an impenetrable emotional distance from its subject. Even with Smith silencing his critics through an effective combination of impersonation and nuance, his Ali is an unexplored curiosity, seen mostly through a handful of his most famous fights. Still, the visual achievements, including the precise performances, are undeniable. Mann's handheld camera and off-center compositions again give that palpable p.o.v sense of a life spied upon, teleporting viewers into the detailed world he creates. Mann is king of setting the scene without expository overkill, letting the soundtrack or a telling image speak louder than the dialogue. This approach is particularly noteworthy with the character of Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), Ali's trainer, a key recurring figure whom the ever-judicious Mann blends into the narrative without having to rely on a big speech or other device to distinguish him. Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, and Jon Voight are also terrific in supporting roles, particularly Voight's scene-stealer as the appropriately plastic-looking Howard Cosell. Ali may float like the most technically accomplished butterfly out there, but because it fails to sting like a bee, thematically, it can't keep pace with Mann's best work.