Investigating Michael Mann: Ali

Muhammed Ali (Will Smith) celebrates after a surprise victory in Michael Mann's film.
Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) celebrates after a surprise victory in Michael Mann's incredible film.

There are few straight-up crowd pleasers in Michael Mann’s career, especially in his later films. I’m an serious fan of his movies, but it’s easy to see why reactions to Miami Vice and Public Enemies were divided. The trickier one for me is Ali, his 2001 biopic of the legendary boxer. It’s an intriguing story of a well-known figure and has a huge star in the title role. Despite those benefits, the response from audiences and critics was mixed. It wasn’t a financial disaster but didn’t recoup its sizable budget. Roger Ebert called ita movie that was never properly prepared and mounted, that got away from its makers in the filming, that has been released without being completed.

That reaction is surprising because I’d place Ali among Mann’s most convincing films. His confidence in this era shines through from the start. The story doesn’t rush to hit every beat, and that allows for better understanding of the real man behind the persona. Smith plays the big moments well yet also finds the inner strength lurking beneath the bluster. Shots with Ali training in Zaire or riding quietly in a car succeed because we’re able to see the emotions in Smith’s face. Depicting the fights well is impressive; what really sells this film are the scenes around the famous battles.

Sam Cooke performs to cheerful audiences in Michael Mann's Ali.
A Sam Cooke performance vitalizes a stunning 10-minute sequence to open the movie.

How to Open a Period Piece

The first 10 minutes of Ali are a master class from Mann on how to introduce a place and time. There’s little dialogue or obvious exposition, but he gives so many important details. It’s February 1964, and Ali (still known as Cassius Clay) trains for his first fight with Sonny Liston. His run down a quiet street is intercut with a lively Sam Cooke performance to an adoring crowd. The outdoor shots are grainy and contrast sharply with the bright lights of the concert. We also catch glimpses of Ali’s childhood as he watches his dad painting Jesus and sees a photo of a lynched man in the newspaper. These quick moments reveal hints at what created Ali’s worldview as an adult.

Mann also introduces us to Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and mentor Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) during this sequence. Ali’s relationship with Malcolm is a key part of his personal life, and the others provide imporant support for the fights. With each new scene, the momentum builds towards Cooke’s final performance of “Bring It on Home to Me”. The incredible part is how seamless the complex introduction feels; there’s no weight to the exposition. Mann shows us the forces around Ali and ramps up the energy towards the Liston fight. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) sets just the right mood and is an early example of remarkable digital cinema. By the time Ali hits the door for the weigh-in, we’re ready to rumble young man rumble.

Will Smith's Ali battles Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.
The fight sequences in Ali are some of the best ever made, particularly the first Liston fight.

Fighting the Big Ugly Bear

I’ve yet to see more convincing fight scenes than what’s in this film. Mann lets the fights breathe, particularly the two that bookend the story. It feels like a different sport than what’s depicted in the Rocky films. The fighters often miss, and we see the exertion from each round. The punches also make an impact since the actors are actually hitting each other. The first Liston fight is fascinating because the stakes are so high. This is Ali’s shot to take down the champ, and he may not get another. The camera lingers behind the boxers’ shoulders and drops us into the environment. With lights shining everywhere, there’s an otherworldly atmosphere as the camera tilts inside the ring. Mann also incorporates long and medium shots to ensure we aren’t disoriented by the action. The music picks up when the tide shifts to Ali’s side, and it creates a feeling that something amazing is about to happen.

Smith trained for a year to develop the physique and skills for the role, and he never resembles an actor mimicking a boxer. When the camera zooms in on his happy feet, it’s easy to believe those come from the same guy. Smith’s charisma shines at the weigh-in. Joined by Bundini, he announces his presence to the reporters on hand. The contrast with Liston is never sharper than during this moment. Ali uses wit to ridicule Liston, who can only reply with “I’m gonna fuck you up!”. Liston doesn't have the same way with words and is more of a bruiser. The quiet time before the fight reminds us that Ali’s a showman but hardly a fool. He may play the clown for the press, but he’s a smart guy who understands the importance of this opportunity. The thoughtful man who greets Malcolm in the locker room is quieter and reveals a more complex individual.

The fight covers 10 minutes of screen time, but it feels much longer. When Ali claims “I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to boxing!” after winning the title, it's arrogant yet may not be far-fetched. The scenes following the win are more deliberate but equally intriguing. Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall) recognizes an opportunity with the young Cassius and becomes closely involved, and that creates an internal conflict when Malcolm becomes estranged. It’s interesting that Albert Hall is now playing the Elijah Muhammad after portraying his associate in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He has limited screen time but is convincing. The attention spent on Ali’s relationship to Malcolm and the Nation of Islam reminds us this isn’t just a boxing movie. Shots with U.S. agents tailing Malcolm (especially in the Director’s Cut) hint at a larger story to explore. These brief interludes add depth by looking beyond Ali.

A somber Ali watches the city burn following the MLK assassination in Ali.
A somber Ali watches the city burn following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.

The Thrill is Gone

The tone of the second act is much different from the joy when Ali gained the title. He splits with Malcolm out of loyalty to the Nation of Islam and is shattered by the assassination. The expressionless look on Ali’s face betrays no emotion, but it’s clear that he’s dying inside. When he takes down Liston in the first round of their rematch, the excitement is nonexistent. Ali’s angry about Malcolm’s death, issues with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a racist world. He’s all business and has no time for boxing. Questions remain on whether Liston threw the fight, but that wouldn’t fit within this narrative. A later fight with Ernie Terrell was even nastier after the opponent called Ali “Clay” before the contest. Ali toys with the guy and institutes a vicious beating. Smith effectively conveys the anger boiling up inside Ali that comes out with serious ferocity towards the helpless Terrell.

The focus during the middle hour is Ali’s refusal of the induction order into the U.S. military. Instead of making a compromise and taking the safe route, he steps up and nearly loses everything. Smith doesn’t overplay these moments, especially the famous line “A’int no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The stunned expression from his photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright) says it all. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Ali watches a city burn and rides a train in silence. The forces that want to maintain the status quo are strong; what chance does he have? When Ali finally returns to the ring, he isn’t the same guy and has lost years off his prime. He doesn’t have that edge to take down a force like Joe Frazier. Even a superstar like Ali has limits, and Smith reveals that vulnerability.

Ali (Will Smith) talks with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) in a memorable TV interview.
The Ali/Cosell relationship stands out because of the chemistry between Smith and Voight.

Ali and Cosell

The most convincing relationship is between Ali and Howard Cosell, played with fitting quirkiness by Jon Voight. The make-up to help him resemble Cosell is remarkable, but it’s Voight that makes the character spring to life. During Ali’s lowest points, it’s conversations with Cosell that energize him. We catch shades of the outgoing younger guy as he describes a fantasy of defeating Joe Frazier. What lifts this relationship beyond the public sparring is the warmth behind the scenes. There’s no BS from Cosell when he’s talking to his friend off camera. Ali talks to the broadcaster like a mentor and respects his opinion. That’s rare for a guy who’s been taught not to trust people, even those close to him. Cosell’s phone call to Ali from the studio giving him the news of his win at the Supreme Court seems fitting given their connection.

Less engaging are depictions of Ali’s relationships with three women during the film’s 10-year time period. Each actress brings something interesting to the part, but they receive limited attention in the script. The introductions are fun, especially the dance scene with Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith). Their relationship goes downhill quickly and gives her little to do after the first scene. More impactful is Belinda (Nona Gaye), but even that marriage eventually grows sour. Ali’s infidelity is addressed but not dwelled on, and it isn’t clear why he can’t be a good husband. It’s clear that he wants to run the show, and Belinda’s concerns about the Nation of Islam and Don King (both correct) don’t sit well. Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) arrives during the final act and sets up an unseen chapter after the credits. It’s difficult to fit everything in a biopic, and it’s unfortunate that the women receive less attention.

Ali trains in Zaire before the Rumble in the Jungle fight in Michael Mann's Ali.
Ali jogs on the edge of the frame while the Zaire people ardently support him.

The Rumble in the Jungle

The definitive chronicle of Ali’s fight with George Foreman in Zaire is Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Mann can't match it. What he does instead is build an emotional climax following the somber middle act. Even before the fight, Ali’s left speechless by the feverish support from the African people. Arriving to the famous chant of “Ali bomaye!” (Ali kill him!), he once again becomes the people’s champ far away from home. There are lengthy shots of Ali running through the streets with crowds following him everywhere. This sequence might feel tedious in lesser hands, but it brings resonance to the closing fight beyond the professional stakes.

Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy is famous; Stallone even copied it in Rocky III. What keeps the fight interesting is the danger that emanates from Foreman. Few believe that Ali can win, even some in his inner circle. Charles Shufford’s quiet and imposing work as the massive Foreman keeps the fight intriguing even when the final outcome is known. Following Ali’s victory, the look on Smith’s face as he celebrates before the crowd hits just the right notes. He’s faced possible death and achieved the impossible, and the victory feels earned after all the struggle. This isn’t the last act of Ali’s life, but it’s the right place to close this epic film. By narrowing the scope, Mann provides more depth and a real sense of what drove the man. Ali transcends the normal biopic and is captivating right to the end.


  1. This is a marvelous review! I really need to give this another watch. I remember finding aspects of it riveting, but also finding some parts to feel incomplete. You have me anxious to see it again, though, and reevaluate it. It'll be nice to see Smith in a strong role again.

    1. Thanks. I feel like it's easy to want more from this film because there's so much to cover in Ali's life. The reactions are typically all over the map for this movie, so it doesn't surprise me that you had issues with certain parts. If you get a chance to watch it again, let me know how it goes.

  2. So glad you like this film. I remember seeing in the theater in loving the movie as a whole and the performances of Smith and Jamie Foxx, in particular. I was very disappointed after leaving the theater and everyone I talked to about it, hated it. Great review. You've made me want to revisit this since it's been a few years since my last viewing.

    1. I saw Ali in the theater with a big group, and I remember being so thrilled coming out of it. I was stunned when one of my friends immediately dismissed it and said it was pretentious. It just shows that Mann's style isn't for everyone, and I've seen that more and more with each of his movies. I'm glad you're also a fan!

  3. It's been a while since I've watched Ali. I remember being captivated by the persona of Ali and learning more about the history of it all. I've been following a little bit of MMA lately and it's interesting to learn how some athletes have been adapting Ali's movement and footwork into their own style. Great article!

    1. I don't watch MMA, so it's fascinating to hear that Ali is influencing some of their styles. It's just another way that his presence is still felt in sports.

  4. Dan, you are killing it with these Michael Mann reviews. I loved your praise for Miami Vice, but you've outdone yourself with this Ali piece. Like Miami Vice, I absolutely love Ali. Everything about it. That opening, I mean… THAT opening. It’s so damn strong, for all the reasons you mentioned. “…there’s no weight to the exposition…” I loved that.

    I may disagree with the opinions of others, but I think it’s inelegant to tell them their opinions are wrong. So I bite my tongue a lot when I hear people say that the boxing scenes in this movie aren’t convincing or realistic. I boxed as an amateur for two years (and still do today, for recreation) and though my time with the sport was limited, the scenes in Ali are unquestionably the most realistic boxing scenes ever depicted on film. For me, it’s inarguable. (And yeah, the fight scenes in Rocky are some of the most unrealistic.) So that’s my long way of saying thank you, good sir, for appreciating the fight scenes in this movie and writing about them, and the entire film, so well here.

  5. You're too kind, Alex. I think what makes Ali get such a wide variety of reactions are the same reasons that I love it. Even the opening sequence isn't what you'd aspect from a biopic. Yet it all works so well! I listened to the commentary from Mann on the Liston fight, and it's clear that he studied the fight and tried hard to recreate it accurately. I haven't seen anything on this level for me, but a lot depends on your perspective of what makes a fight work in a movie. I haven't been able to give this blog as much attention lately, so I really appreciate the positive feedback. It means a lot.

  6. Found it really interesting that Ali wasn't considered that much of a success for Michael Mann - for me, it's been one of his best and most accessible films to watch, next to Collateral.

    It has been an incredibly long time since I first (and last) saw Ali - it was an astounding watch for me. It felt very much like you were alongside Ali in his journey as a boxer and a man. Going through everything he went through. Will Smith floored me in his portrayal as Ali. The lengths he went to to play the role are something few actors have done. Massive credit to him for how good I think this film is...

    1. I think it's crazy to think that Will Smith spent a full year preparing for the role. The preparation definitely paid off, though. I'm too young to remember Ali in his prime, but I still believe that Smith is Ali. It's that good. I still don't get the lack of love for the movie, though it's coming from people I respect. So who knows? Either way, I'm glad to hear from another fan.

  7. Great article, you really summed up the virtues of this very, very good movie.
    Very underrated ("Ali" bombed at the box office and was nominated only twice at the Academy Awards...the very Hollywood biopic "A beautiful mind" was the winner this year!!) and even Mann's fans tend to be mixed about this movie, probably because Mann is so often linked to the thriller, urban style.
    I think it's one of the best "biopic" ever made, a genre which is often generic and dull but here Mann transcends the routine, thanks to his brillant direction unusual elliptical storytelling and vivid performances from the whole cast. And yes, the boxing scenes are probably the best i've seen on the big screen (i've seen "Ali" twice in a huge theater of Paris, in 2002), very impressive and immersive, especially the first half hour and the Foreman fight at the end.
    It is said that the US Blu Ray of "Ali" will be available in January 2017...maybe a new cut?

    1. I'd love to see Ali on the big screen again. I saw it during the original run and have watched the Director's Cut on DVD a bunch of times. The Blu-ray is going to be tempting if there's anything new to it; I'd love to see a new cut. Ali gets better for me every time I see it; the boxing scenes are some of the best, and Smith has never been better. It's a long film but flies by, and it's definitely immersive like you mention. I understand why it's not as well-liked as Heat or Collateral, but it's definitely up there for me.

  8. One shot among others that i found really striking in "Ali", on the big screen, is when Ali goes to Africa and sees in front of him hundreds and hundreds of people, surrounding him and shouting "Ali Bomaye!" I also like the train/subway ride and the Bundini's breakdown scene just before.
    I tend to be mixed about Mann's "Director's cuts", some of his adds are fine, but sometimes they work less...about "Ali" Director's cut for example the use of voice over Ali's running in Kinshasa streets ruins a bit the beauty of this scene...i don't like the cover of "In the air tonight" over the final showdown of "Miami Vice" too. I like some of the deleted scenes of "Mannhunter" though, and i'm really curious to see the "Director's cut" of "Blackhat".

    1. That cover in the Miami Vice Director's Cut worked for me, which was actually a surprise. I also think the opening scene works better. I do think that his tinkering doesn't always lead to better films, but it's interesting to see him do it. I really hope the Blackhat Director's Cut gets a release at some point.


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