Film Review: Ali
So does it float like a butterfly or sting like a bee?
Ali is a brave attempt to capture the life of one of the most enduring heroes of the 20th century on the big screen. It features a strong lead performance from Will Smith and does provide a useful introduction to the legend that is Muhammad Ali. Ultimately though the film proves to be as evasive and frustrating as the boxer himself was in the ring. There is just far too much drama, tragedy and heroism in the life of Ali to cram into two and a half hours.
Muhammad Ali was a sporting legend and heavyweight champion of the world three times, in an era when that title meant a hell of a lot more than it does today. The film follows Ali's boxing career starting with his first world heavyweight title fight in 1964 - as the brash, bold 22 year old Cassius Clay ? against the lethal punching power of Sonny Liston and concluding with the legendary Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire ten years later against the fearsome George Foreman. The film also features the first Ali ? Frazier battle and the infamous ?What's my name? bout against Ernie Terrell. However, Ali transcended the sporting arena.
The director Michael Mann explores Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Civil Rights movement, focuses on the bizarre hold Elijah Muhammad and the fundamentalist Nation of Islam held over him and highlights Ali's anti-establishment stance against the Vietnam War and the draft. The film also alludes to Ali's troubled personal life including his infamous womanising and resulting marital difficulties. It touches on his religious conflicts, his troubled relationship with his father and the role the media ? in particular ABC broadcasting legend Howard Cosell ? played in the creation of Ali the legend. However in trying to cover too much the film comes across as a little segmented and disjointed. It doesn't flow or move with anything like the style and grace of the boxer himself.
One man who cannot be faulted for this is Will Smith, the somewhat surprising choice to play the part of Ali. There was a large degree of trepidation amongst Ali fans when Smith was cast in the role. Prior to this he was the star of dodgy TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and sci-fi blockbusters, Men in Black and Independence Day. Many observers felt he was too lightweight in both physical and acting terms to do justice to the role of Ali. In fairness to Smith he has pulled it off and with some style. He spent over a year training with professional boxers to fill out for the role and at times in the movie he does bear an uncanny resemblance to Ali. The supporting cast is just that with Smith undoubtedly the star of the show. Jon Voight does deliver an assured performance as Howard Cosell, the ABC broadcaster who suffered more than most from Ali's caustic turn of phrase. The fight scenes are compelling if a little drawn out at times.
The many Ali fans out there may well be disappointed as it fails to provide any fresh insights and provides merely a snapshot of the man and a period of his life that has already been well documented in print and in numerous documentaries. Go and see this if you know nothing of Muhammad Ali. If you are a fan or want to see the real thing rent the excellent 1996 documentary 'When We Were Kings' for an intimate portrait of Ali.