Lord in the rings
When considering a living legend like Muhammad Ali, it’s obvious that a single film does not provide enough time to cover his entire life, even if that film is more than 2 1/2 hours long.
You are looking at one major career, a life overflowing with promising film material, so only a mini-series or Lord of the Rings style trilogy seem like viable options to depict all of Ali’s rises and falls.
With his ambitious biopic, Ali, director Michael Mann chooses to focus on the 10-year period of 1964 to 1974, and the results are a well acted, beautiful looking and forgivably incomplete movie.
Mann shoots for a poetic, glossy tribute to The Greatest, starting with a Sam Cooke concert, inter-cutting it with quick scenes of Ali’s childhood, and a young Cassius Clay (Will Smith) training for the time where he will invade the national consciousness, change his name, and take over the sporting world.
We see Clay step into the ring with Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) and proceed to kick his ass in legendary style. He becomes the heavyweight champion and begins his cosmically arrogant reign with the new name, Muhammad Ali. Mann takes us through Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X (played impressively by Mario Van Peebles), his refusal to go into the army and subsequent banishment from the ring. After his triumphant return to boxing, the film concludes with The Rumble in the Jungle, that legendary showdown with George Foreman in Africa.
Mann’s filmmaking—highly stylized, lush and heavy on the slow motion sequences—is a nice fit for a larger-than-life subject like Ali. Smith does a good job, positively nailing the physical aspects of the man and not going for total mimicry on the verbal side. There’s but a slight hint of Ali’s intonation in Smith’s vocal delivery, enough to make us forget we’re watching Will Smith, and certainly enough to create a convincing portrait of The Greatest. Most impressive is Smith’s recreation of Ali’s footwork in the ring, lending credence to the realistic staging of battles with Liston, Joe Frazier (James Toney) and Foreman.
Jon Voight is an absolute freak-out as Howard Cosell. For the second time this year—he was FDR in Pearl Harbor—he immerses himself in prosthetic make-up and captures the mannerisms of a historical figure with expert marksmanship. The relationship between Ali and Cosell as portrayed in this film is believable, one of antagonism in front of the camera and close friendship behind the scenes.
The 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings, Ron Gast’s fascinating account of the Rumble in the Jungle, had the benefit of Ali himself terrorizing George Foreman, and nothing can beat that for sheer drama. That said, Mann does an excellent job capturing the setting and a good share of the tensions leading up to perhaps the greatest boxing match of all time. The sight and sound of George Foreman hacking away at a heavy bag like a lumberjack chopping a tree is uncanny.
The film shows some of Ali’s dark side, including a rather unfortunate moment where he abandons Malcolm X shortly before his assassination, but it does seem to be a little scared of going too true-to-life (apparently he was more of a womanizer than this movie depicts). Ali cooperated with the production, so I suppose Mann didn’t want to piss him off, which would’ve resulted in an unauthorized biography.
If you’re looking for the whole Ali story, you’ll have to comb your own memory banks, watch ESPN Classic, or pull some stories out of your father. One movie can’t tell it all, but Mann’s Ali is an entertaining, interesting sample of a decade in an extraordinary life.