"...You watch Ali thinking that this movie is floating like something, but it ain't no butterfly." (Barbara Ellen)
Almost all of the reviews said the same thing in a milder tone: Ali fails as an effective picture of Muhammad Ali's life. Reviewers brought up similar issues with the film. First, the portrayal of Ali as a soft, safe, hero is a mistake. Most reviews start with noting that Muhammad Ali was a scary man to many white Americans, but Michael Mann has cleansed Ali. In the film, Ali is a hero and not threatening. Second, the historical accuracy of the film in certain spots is questionable. Sports reviewers questioned some parts of the film from press conferences to actual fight moments. Third, the Malcolm X and Nation of Islam plot and its relevance to Muhammad Ali's boxing career is unclear. Questions were raised about whether the plot was absolutely necessary in understanding Ali. Fourth, there are major gaps in the film -- the film skips fourteen fights. Also, quotes and historical events seem forced into the film. Reviewers noted that a lot of historical quotes by Ali and many events of the late 1950s and the 1960s are thrown into the movie. On the other hand, reviewers commend Mann for his use of sound, the fight scenes, and the overall historical accuracy. Most also commend Will Smith in his performance.
- Ansen, David. "A Split Decision: Cool Film About a Hot Man." Newsweek 24 December 2001: 40.
- As the title suggests, Ansen feels the film neutralizes or calms the true Muhammad Ali of the 1960s. He credits Mann for making a rather "gorgeous" film about the boxer and also credits Smith's performance. But Mann keeps "the audience at arm's length" (40).
- Cagle, Jess. "Lord of the Ring; Muhammad Ali and Will Smith Turn the Champ's Life into a Movie as Stirring -- and Complex -- as the Man." Time 24 December 2001: 68.
- This review directly quotes Ali about feeling Smith did a "good job" but mainly goes into the amount of research that was put into the movie. Cagle announces that about a half an hour of the movie is in the ring and brings up such issues as "whitewashing" Ali and depicting him as a sex-crazed man. He also mentions that film viewers are required to know quite a bit of history to fully understand the film. The review does little to question the historical accuracy or effectiveness of the film.
- Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Ali, dir. Michael Mann. Chicago Sun-Times 25 December 2001. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20011225/REVIEWS/112250302
- Ebert gives the films a mild two stars, and for the most part his review feels like he would be leaning towards only a half of a thumb up for Ali. He refers to the movie as being "long, flat, curiously muted." The tone of the review begins with Ebert seemingly dumbfounded at how they could turn a movie about one of our country's most entertaining boxing athletes and have it leave us waiting "for the movie to punch up." The only real praise in the review is for Will Smith and his dedication to playing the lead role. Ebert goes as far as to suggest: "the real problem with Smith's performance is the movie it finds itself in." Other areas of criticism included the undeveloped portions of Ali's story, such as his emotions after the death of Martin Luther King.
- Ellen, Barbara. "He Stings Like a Butterfly." The Times (London) 14 February 2002.
- This foreign reviewer admonishes the film for its soft representation of Muhammad Ali. Ellen criticizes Mann for showing Ali in every phase of his life as "lordly and wise...subtle and statesmanlike." In other words, Ali is cleansed in Mann's film. Ellen does mention some favorable things about the film; she calls the scenes between Ali and Cosell "wonderfully funny acerbic scenes." Ellen also commends Smith for his study in the role of Ali, but she mentions that he "under-play[s]" Ali. She concludes: "the film is floating like something, but it ain't no butterfly."
- Goldberg, Jonah. "Ali!, Ali!" National Review 28 January 2002: 30.
- Goldberg is mostly concerned with the popularity of the film Ali and the new global celebrity Muhammad Ali has established. He calls Mann's version of the boxer "sweepingly whitewashed" and argues that the Ali played by Smith and created by Mann is not the fearless man who actually scared most Americans in the 1960s. Goldberg also mentions that the true politics of Ali and the Nation of Islam movement are glossed over or omitted. Overall, this is a review that questions the historical accuracy of the film.
- Harkavy, Ward. "The Greatest? Not his movie." Village Voice 8 January 2002: 145.
- This article accuses Mann of "memorializing" Muhammad Ali. Not only is this film crammed with every famous line the boxer uttered, but the film is also "predictable." Harkavy decides the best performances in the film were the real-life fighters who portray Frazier and Liston.
- Kimball, George. "Ali Movie Almost Picture-Perfect." Boston Herald 27 December 2001: O84.
- Kimball, a sports reporter who met Ali numerous times, argues the film is "effective" and "stunning." The in-ring performances are life-like and realistic, and Smith "has the Ali moves down perfectly." There are some problems with the film, however. First, the film "makes some fairly generous assumptions." For instance, the film shows the "phantom" punch that knocked out Liston in the second fight as a hard right. Also, Kimball concludes the Howard Cosell figure is not a true reflection of the man Cosell was in real life. And, furthermore, "Bundini" has more of ring presence than Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee. Most importantly, the film skips about fourteen fights of Ali's career. Despite all of these problems, Kimball feels the film was successful.
- Rainer, Peter. Rev. of Ali, dir. Michael Mann. New York Observer 24 December 2001. http://nymag.com/nymetro/movies/reviews/5518/
- "Michael Mann's Ali hits hard but loses the man behind the myth." Rainer argues that Mann's attempt to make the movie more about growing up black in America, and ends up failing to do a just job to all the movies lofty goals. He suggests that Ali, a biopic, panoramic in scope, succeeds as a "greatest-hits collection," which might seem like praise, but he goes on to suggest that there really isn't anything new given to us about Ali's story. "Ultimately, Ali is a far more complex creature than this movie allows for."
- Sailer, Steve. "Film Review: Will Smith in 'Ali." Los Angeles Times 24 December 2001.
- Sailer starts by calling Mann's movie "one of the most frustrating disappointment in recent years" and writes that Mann simply skips all things about Ali that no longer fit his current image. In other words, the portrayal of Ali in the film is very mild and agreeable. Sailer feels a lot of the Ali-Frazier verbal fights are "covered up." Also, the film fails to show Ali's mental capacity; the author claims Muhammad Ali was illiterate in the 1960s -- and scored low on IQ tests, and this is not the Ali that is portrayed in the film. Sailer ends by referring to Mann's portrayal of Ali as a "glum treatment."
Morgenstern, Joe. "Film: Lavish, Disjointed 'Ali' Might be the Prettiest, but it isn't the Greatest -- Biopic Gets the Details Right, but Overlooks Fighter's Spark." Wall Street Journal 28 December 2001: W1.