By Herb Kane | January 17, 2002

CRITIC DOCTOR EXAMINES: Stephen Hunter (Washington Post), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Dave White (, J. Robert Parks (, Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune), Bruce Kirkland (Toronto Sun), Staci Layne Wilson (, Brad Laidman (, Christopher Null (, Elvis Mitchell (, David Perry (, Rob Blackwelder ( and Robert Roten (Laramie Movie Scope) ^ * * 1/2 stars (our of 5 stars)
Boxer Muhammad Ali was exciting, charismatic, and full of life! He would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” but does director Michæl Mann’s new biopic film have the same effect?
Ali follows the life of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) following his life between 1964, when Ali defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown, to 1974, when he defeated George Foreman in Zaire to regain the crown. Ali was the most famous and flamboyant boxer of the 20th Century, but the movie has a difficult time capturing the magic of the man.
Stephen Hunter (Washington Post) said the movie “captures the impact and the charisma” of Muhammad Ali. Charisma? What charisma, Stephen? Will Smith did a fine job playing Ali, but the movie’s script did not provide a vehicle for Smith to really let go, to become the charismatic larger than life Muhammad Ali. Many critics agree:
— “Smith is sharp, fast, funny, like the Ali of trash-talking fame, but the movie doesn’t unleash that side of him, or his character.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)
— “It’s well made and incredibly reverent, but Michæl Mann’s moody directorial style dims the electricity that should be shooting out of Will Smith’s whole body.” Dave White (
— “Anyone who’s seen clips of Ali at press conferences or on the street knows what a magnetic presence he was, but Ali doesn’t seem to know how to handle that.” J. Robert Parks (
This is still one of Smith’s best performances, but the movie itself fails tremendously. We get almost 3 hours of dull, drawn out scenes covering only 10 years. What happened to rest of Ali’s life?
Marc Caro (Chicago Tribune) listed what was missing: “A sense of Ali’s childhood beyond a glimpse of him moving to the back of a segregated bus; why he became a boxer; how his popularity soared to globe-conquering heights; his specific religious/spiritual connection to Islam; the ‘phantom punch’ controversy surrounding his second defeat of Liston; his fierce, bitter rivalry with Joe Frazier, including their on-air scuffle before their second fight and any mention of ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ (which followed the Foreman bout); any reference to his physical decline, the Atlanta Olympics or just about anything that has happened over the past 27 years.”
Bruce Kirkland (Toronto Sun) said, “Like the real-life Ali did in the ring during the height of his career, the film floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.” The film stung me all right, Bruce. And I didn’t want to float. I wanted to sleep! Ali could have been so much more. Even the boxing scenes were too long.
Staci Layne Wilson ( said, “The boxing sequences were drawn out beyond endurance. I think I’ll go see the hand-to-hand combat in ‘Lord of the Rings’ again, because after this movie I was bored of the rings.”
Bottom line folks: I simply did not have fun watching “Ali” and that never happened watching Ali in real-life. Ebert got it right: “It lacks much of the flash, fire and humor of Muhammad Ali and is shot more in the tone of a eulogy than a celebration. There is little joy here.” Brad Laidman ( rightfully adds, “Where is the joy? Could someone please give Michæl Mann a call and let him know how much fun this guy was?”
Actor Jon Voight was amazing! Not only did he look like Howard Cosell, he talked exactly like him! The critics thought so, too:
— “Jon Voight might deserve an Oscar for being unidentifiable and engaging as sportscasting legend Howard Cosell.” Christopher Null (
— “Mr. Voight goes beyond impersonation; he makes Cosell a recognizable human being.” Elvis Mitchell (
— “For the most part, it is hard to believe we are watching Jon Voight and not some highly talented impressionist.” David Perry (
Rob Blackwelder ( asks us: “If there’s a choice between watching someone copy Ali’s charisma (and of course, his gift for talking smack and making it rhyme) or watching the champ himself in many of the events recreated verbatim in this biopic — which would you rather see?”
The answer? I say both and more! The film failed on all levels, Rob. Robert Roten (Laramie Movie Scope) summed the movie up best: “‘Ali,’ despite some fine performances and well-staged fight scenes, is a major disappointment. It is overlong and bloated when it should have been a lean, mean fighting machine.”
Ali should float like a buttery fly to your nearest video store where it will have less of a sting on your pocketbook. ^ -CRITIC DOCTOR
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