A REGULAR SERIES RE-VIEWING FILMS YOU HAVE PROBABLY FORGOTTEN OR DISCOUNTED BUT WHICH RICHLY DESERVE A SECOND LIFE
ALI (2001) Director – Michael Mann. Screenwriters – Gregory Allen Howard (story), Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann. Starring – Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Jada Pinkett Smith
A legend, an icon, The Greatest™ passed away last week, so there was only one film up for contention as the next Forgotten Classic. Ali came and went some fifteen years ago, a deep, exceedingly grown-up sports biopic that should be a mainstay on channels right about now but which you may be hard pressed to find.
It can easily be argued that in a role of a lifetime, Will Smith reached the apogee of his career. The reserved, thoughtful and compassionate portrayal of perhaps the most famous man on the planet marks his greatest performance. The decline of Smith’s career – he’s back, looking very bored, in a genre ensemble piece with the forthcoming Suicide Squad – with poor choices and box office bombs is another article entire and, perhaps if he were still a big draw capable of opening movies, Ali would have a much greater footprint and legacy. And that’s a real shame.
In a life as full and eventful as Ali’s, a full-life biopic would be twelve hours long minimum and Michael Mann wisely chooses not to even try such an approach, instead opting to attempt to put on screen the pertinent parts of the boxers life between 1964-74. And even with a lengthy 165 minute running time, that proves difficult. It was a brave if obvious choice, the film culminating in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, treading a very similar path to the 1998 classic documentary When We Were Kings (a perfect companion, double-bill piece). But it makes perfect sense, taking us from Ali as Cassius Clay through his conversion to Islam, name change, refusal to be drafted to Vietnam, his three year ban at his peak and his comeback.
We’ll get to Will Smith’s performance in a bit but, regardless of how good it is, Ali‘s casting of the supporting characters in his life adds depth and layers. Howard Cosell was the boxing commentator who became close to Ali, and also the subject of much good-natured taunting at press conferences. If you aren’t aware of his bad hairpiece or stilting delivery, John Voight’s performance can come across as a little bizarre but a brief comparison to the real Cosell reveals how spot-on it is. Who knew Voight could be such a character actor? Ron Silver as long-time trainer and cornerman Angelo Dundee provides gravitas and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, Jeffrey Wright as biographer/photographer Howard Bingham and especially Jamie Foxx as Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, one of Ali’s inner circle prone to drink, all round-out a superb ensemble supporting cast. And as in life, where they shone but were dimmed by Ali, so are the actors by Will Smith.
Will Smith looks NOTHING like Muhammad Ali. And he intelligently doesn’t try to do an imitation of the man, for that way lies failure in any biopic. The mannerisms are there, the comical frowning and the patter of course, but his voice – low and modulated and drawling – doesn’t really sound that much like Ali and his fists can’t match The Greatest for speed. But he is Ali, getting beneath the skin of the fighter and showing his vulnerability, his humanity and compassion. The role was a poisoned chalice before he took it up – who could be Ali but Ali? – but his performance has never been given the respect it so deserves. Smith lost out that years’ Best Actor Oscar to Russell Crowe for Gladiator, another fine performance for sure, but not one worthy to stand toe-to-toe with this. Maybe Smith seemed a little to try-hard, a little too keen to bag the golden statue. Well, whoever said the Oscars were fair or right anyway?
One of the criticisms levelled at Ali and director Mann was the films seeming unwillingness to show the boxer in full light, warts and all. And that’s pretty fair; Ali was no saint, instead a serial adulterer who worked his way through four wives with nine children between them. But Mann was hampered, for whilst it’s easy to show how unpopular and incendiary the boxer was in the 60’s with his refusal of the draft and thunderbolt statements such as “No Vietcong ever called me nigger!”, in 2001 he was simply The Greatest and had been for decades. Had Mann tried to film what his infidelities had done to his relationships, it would have been a very different film, one that possibly wouldn’t have won the cooperation of the Ali family and probably wouldn’t have got made. It was also missing the point, for Ali is the story of the man and Ali and the myth are so intertwined it would not have been possible to show him as anything other than what he was to the masses – The Greatest, The Champ.
Mann also took flack for not showing enough boxing. This is a boxing movie right? Where are the fights? But this is also wholly unfair. Ali is about the man, not just the boxer and who he was and what he accomplished was not solely in the ring. That said, the depiction of the Rumble in the Jungle at the film’s end does feel truncated, especially when you know the fight itself lasted eight rounds and almost half an hour but occupies mere minutes on screen. A missed opportunity, having an extended fight to close the movie, really showing the punishment Ali took (as well as it’s toll) would have been a perfect bookend to the film’s start, and the long, slow montages that introduced us to this most fascinating of men.
Yet it’s a small criticism. Ali is not perfect, but then neither was the man. Now he’s gone, and regardless of what Will Smith does or doesn’t do in future years, Ali the film needs to be re-evaluated for the classic it is. There was only one Ali and there is only one Ali. Even if you have only a fleeting knowledge of the man, the boxer and the legend, seek it out and learn what can be accomplished with drive, self-belief and hard work. You will be missed Champ.