"I am the Greatest."
That's what Ali used to say, even using
it for the title of the first bio-pic made about him, starring him.
Despite the tremendous importance of his life story, the film quickly
became nothing more than a punchline/footnote in his career. Ali failed
at playing Ali.
So it seems like some sort of hubris that
director Michael Mann would attempt to capture this man on film with
someone other than The Greatest. More than a few of us had to be startled
by his choice. Will Smith? The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Sure, he can
punch out alien invaders, but Sonny Liston? Not a chance.
Actually, as annoying as Smith's own recent
boasting has become, Ali has the stuff, capturing the man, the
myth, and the time. While it falls a little short of its ambition, well,
man's reach must ever exceed his grasp, else what is bragging for?
The film covers a turbulent time in the
life of both Ali and the nation. Starting in 1964, Mann weaves a complex
tapestry of the times. A young boxer named Cassius Clay (Smith), soon
to be Muhammed Ali, trains for his title shot, while the nation grooves
to the music of Sam Cooke, and soon, The Beatles. Intercut with this
are scenes of Clay's youth and the racism that shaped his attitudes.
So smooth and engrossing are the images that you hardly notice that
little actual dialogue occurs. And yet, Mann gives you a strong sense
of the forces at work, while introducing the major players in an almost
Unfortunately, as a result many characters
only barely register. Ron Silver and Paul Rodriguez play two of Ali's
trainers, and only boxing fans would know who they actually are, so
thinly drawn are they. Ali's wives fare little better, like Silver and
Rodriguez cast for their recognizability to make up for the lack of
But Mann has always been a director more
interested in image, and with this subject he deals with a man who has
lost himself in the character he created. As such, only those people
also trapped in their personas can have a hope of holding any screen
time. Mario Van Peebles makes a strong impression as the iconic Malcolm
X, a man killed for refusing to remain static in his views on race.
In another of his long line of late career Lon Chaney moves, Jon Voight
fully inhabits Howard Cosell without resorting to the cheap impersonation
that even Cosell became at the end of his life.
While charting Ali's rise, fall, and amazing
rise again, the film examines what happens when a public persona takes
over. Seemingly politically unaware, the self-proclaimed "people's champion"
(long before The Rock) repudiates those his religion dictates he must,
including Malcolm X and eventually his first wife. Privately, these
acts tear him apart, but as a Muslim and a champion, he knows he has
an image to maintain.
Impressively, the film does not paint
the image of a perfect man, either. Ali's refusal to submit to the draft
may have been less political conviction than just not wanting to stop
boxing, and the script leaves that an open question. (Ironically, he
did get banned from boxing for a time as a result.) Forces conspire
to make him a political symbol while he sits haplessly by, just trying
to be himself. But by the time Ali gets his shot in Zaire (the famed
"Rumble in the Jungle"), it is clear that this is a man struggling to
be as big as the legend he has created for himself.
Of course, the strength of a film about
a boxer has to rest in its boxing scenes, and this film delivers. Each
key fight has a poetry, grace, and grip to it. Somehow the emotional
stakes come through each time, and even though these are recreations,
they carry high drama.
At the center of it all stands Smith,
in one of the best performances of the year. He trained hard, and it
shows, appropriating Ali's style both physically and vocally. If he
still looks a little small, it's only because Ali is a great bear of
a man that Smith could never really be. But close your eyes, and you
will swear that Muhammed Ali walks across that screen. Open them, and
you may still have that conviction. Heavy-lidded, strangely low-key
until he roars with pride, Will Smith truly has become Ali.
It's not a performance in a vacuum, either,
as he shows real connection with everyone in his life. In particular
the affection between Ali and Cosell comes off as surprising but utterly
Because of the tremendous scope of the
film, even in only capturing ten years of the champ's life, you may
need to wait for DVD or hit the library to have a hope of catching everything
that's going on. (The choice of Sam Cooke at the beginning, for example,
may be because Cooke was shot and killed in 1964 by a white hotel owner
who allegedly resented the black man's success.) It's a dense, detailed
film that will sweep you along. You'll just wish you knew more about
What's It Worth? $7.50