Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Will Smith, Mario Van Peebles, Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Albert Hall, Mykelti Williamson, Jeffrey Wright.
Some twenty years ago I saw Tom Gries’ biopic on Muhammad Ali, appropriately titled The Greatest, which starred the great man playing himself. Although a sanitised version of Ali’s life given the circumstances of its production, The Greatest offered far more insight into the man widely acknowledged as the greatest boxer of all time, than this disappointing film from director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, etc).
Mann’s film is far more political in tone, and offers only a limited perspective on Ali. The film spans only a decade, beginning in 1964 when Cassius Clay, as he was then known, won the world heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston, and ends with him regaining the title from George Foreman in the bruising Rumble In The Jungle in Zaire in 1974. Much of Clay’s early, formative years and his childhood in the segregated American south is glossed over, and his throwing away of an Olympic Gold Medal in protest at his racist treatment in ignored altogether. And Ali’s sad battle with Parkinson’s Disease, which may have made a sad coda to this film, is also completely overlooked.
Instead what we get is a ponderous look at Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), his conversion to the Muslim religion and his name change, and his long battle with the US government over his refusal to enlist in the army and fight in Vietnam, a decision which saw him stripped of his title and banned from boxing for several years. But much of this was covered in the fabulous documentary When We Were Kings, which provided far more insight and clarity than Mann’s occasionally muddled film.
Four scriptwriters are credited here, but it seems like a case of too many cooks spoiling the mixture. The film runs for 170 minutes, and there are a number of dull spots that will have audiences ready to throw in the towel.
Will Smith doesn’t physically resemble Ali, and there a number of early reservations expressed at his casting. (Smith himself supposedly invested $20 million of his own money in the film when it looked like budget overruns were going to halt production.) However, he captures the essence of the man, his charismatic presence, his cocky swagger, confidence and arrogance, and his stunning performance becomes the centrepiece of this flawed film.
An unrecognizable Jon Voight is also excellent as veteran sports caster Howard Cosell, and he delivers a note-perfect performance that captures his distinctive style and presence. The heavyweight cast also boasts Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver as trainer Angelo Dundee, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Albert Hall, Mykelti Williamson (currently in the new tv series of The Fugitive) and Jeffrey Wright, although none of them really leave a lasting impression.
At times visually quite impressive, Ali is unfortunately no Raging Bull, and fails to be the knockout that one has come to expect from Mann.