In the end-of-the-year rush, when films come at critics like snowballs at a junior high school playground fight, it's hard to clear the palate before running to the next screening. The brilliant "Ali" may have passed through before critics were ready to give it the attention it deserves. Michael Mann's film is not only kinetically exciting but psychologically true, and succeeds at both without resorting to clichés or misstatements of historic fact. Moreover it refuses to treat Ali as a reverent icon, walking to Gethsemane; though a hero, he is a very flawed one. And Will Smith captures Ali's genius, and his skills, and his limitations, in a performance that deserves all possible awards.
Start with the opening, where Mann cross-cuts from a Sam Cooke night-club performance to a montage of the boy Cassius Clay growing up in Louisville, in one scene walking hand in hand with his father through the city bus to the back, reserved for 'Colored Only,' and stopping to see the front-page story in a Negro newspaper about the lynching of Emmitt Till. No words are necessary, no explanatory dialogue; just the pause as the child takes it in. And the power of Cooke's music drives the whole montage, sets the rhythm of the rest of the film, makes the point that there will be power, sex, rage, and beauty to come. It's probably the best ten minutes in film this year.
But the rest is not at all a letdown. Mann has chosen the ten years from 1964 to 1974 as his frame - the crucial years that began with Ali, as Clay, taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston (the film accuses Liston of putting an irritant on his gloves and blinding Ali with it for a round) and ended with the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in which Ali regained the title from George Foreman. Along the way we meet Howard Cosell (Jon Voight in a lovely and unironic performance that captures the very warm and close friendship he shared with Ali) and Ali's first, second and third wives.
The journey was hard and almost blighted by the government's prosecution of him for his refusal to serve in the army. Ali's courage in withstanding the attack, his willingness to face prison, having his title taken away, and losing the best years of his career, is moving in the film without being mawkish or sentimentalized. By the time his vindication comes, it is more a relief than a triumph. Ali is a strong and centered man, who grows in many ways during the years of the film. At the same time he is a horny, randy young stud, looking for new conquests. Smith captures all these qualities without seeming to try; he has Ali's great cadences in his voice, he delivers the rhymes and taunts with ease, and in the ring he appears to know very well just how to handle himself. Best of all, he shows us Ali's magical charisma, the reason the world fell in love with him.
The film does not dwell on Ali's conversion to Islam and his relationship with Herbert Muhammad, though it regards the assassination of Malcolm X as crucial to his decision not to serve in the army. Ali's courtship of his wives, and the difficult relationships they all had with him, are here too. They are well acted roles (by Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona M. Gaye, and Michael Michele), and each one gives a bit more illumination to his character. The star-crossed Bundini (Jamie Foxx) is here as well, along with Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) and others. There is a powerful moment in the film, after Ali's title has been taken away and he is hoping for a title match with Joe Frasier (James Toney). Ali is broke, walking down the street. Frasier pulls up in his Cadillac and invites Ali in. They sit for a while in the car, and Joe says, courteously and compassionately, "How are you fixed for money? Lemme give you some." The bond of love and respect between fighters is as strong as the blows they give each other in the ring. It's just one great moment among many in this remarkable film.