18 July 2005 | mstomaso
Meet the man behind the gloves and the poetry
Muhammad Ali is a heroic character with legendary wit, humanity, and boxing skill. Always a fighter and always a lover, Ali's life is a subtle and clever story of dignity, strength, and compassion. And Ali himself wrote that story. This film profoundly reminds me of an autobiography Ali wrote several years ago with the help of a friend. Never afraid to do what needed to be done to get where he wanted to go, Ali was never a stranger to controversy, flambuoyance, acid wit, and an outspoken promotion of truth - even when most of his own fans couldn't see it. This film captures the champ's many battles, not the least of which are the internal battles he wages with himself over politics, his ego, money and his own destructive patterns in relationships with women. But thankfully, it does so in a respectful way which does not compromise the man's heroism, nor does it spare the audience of the laughter, mischief and joy Ali became so well known for.
Michael Mann's film has relatively little boxing in it, and is in no way a chronicle of Ali's career. A better choice for that subject is "The Greatest" - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076111/combined starring Ali himself, or one of the many documentaries on Ali. This film is about how and why Ali is who he is, and how he drove himself and everybody around him to reach phenomenal heights. It features the beginnings of Ali's career and follows him through the most difficult part of his career, when he fought the US government over the Viet Nam war, fought his own religious establishment over his outspokenness, and even fought against hypocritical promoters he relied on who were bent on exploiting the third world. Too intelligent to just be a prize fighter, too passionate to just shut up, and too faithful to give up his religion when it gave up on him, Ali just kept on driving. The film ends after Ali's fight against George Foreman in 1977, so it does not cover his entire career, and does not discuss his more recent activities. His life since retiring from boxing is equally interesting, in my opinion, but since Mann wanted to depict the most dramatic and challenging aspects of the Ali legend, I can't blame him for his choice of time frame.
The cast is very strong. Will Smith gives a fine performance wonderfully recasting Ali's wonderful facial expressions, gestures, physical style and speech pattern, Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver and Mario Van Peebles are all excellent in their supporting roles. And the boxers are all very believable. They even look like the people they play. Smith doesn't really look anything like Ali, and you are occasionally aware (mainly through Smith's imitation of the greatest's very unique speech) that you are watching an imitation, but this does not in any way detract from the film.
Highly recommended for those interested in real-life drama and heroism, the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and the intelligent and political side of American sports. NOT recommended for fans of boxing movies and action films. This is a slow moving, intense drama and neither a feel-good film nor a slug-fest.