American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Ali" is a long, flat, curiously muted film about the heavyweight champion. 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. The film is long and plays longer, because it permits itself sequences that are drawn out to inexplicable lengths while hurrying past others that should have been dramatic high points. It feels like an unfinished rough cut that might play better after editing.
Consider, for example, a training sequence set in Zaire, after Ali travels there for "The Rumble in the Jungle." He begins his morning run, which takes him past a panorama of daily life. All very well. But he runs and runs and runs, long after any possible point has been made--and runs some more. This is the kind of extended scene you see in an early assembly of a film, before the heavy lifting has started in the editing room.
The film considers 10 years in the life of Ali, from 1964, when he won the world heavyweight championship as Cassius Clay, to 1974, when as Muhammad Ali, he fought in the Rumble. This is the key decade in Ali's life, cut in half by three years when he was barred from boxing because of his refusal to be drafted.
Although many mistakenly believe he refused to serve because of guidance from the Nation of Islam, the film makes it clear that he took his stand on principle, and it cost him both his title and his religion; the Nation of Islam disapproved of his decision, and suspended him. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in his favor, he had lost what should have been his prime years as a young fighter. When he went into the ring against George Foreman in Zaire, he was 32, the challenger 24.