Muhammad Ali had a rare gift as a boxer. In his prime, he had the fastest hands of any heavyweight ever. Equally important was he was evasive enough to not get hit. There was also that rampaging ego of his, proclaiming himself to be “the greatest.” There was something even more impressive about the man: his character. His biggest fight wasn’t even in the ring; it was when he refused induction into the military after being drafted. His decision took away his championship, got him banned for three years. It also turned him into a cultural icon and political activist.
With the legend’s passing, “Ali,” directed by Michael Mann, is coming back to theaters, and it is a film worth watching on the big screen. Will Smith initial declined the role until Ali himself called and told Smith he was the only actor pretty enough to portray the champ.
The film covers a ten-year span, from 1964, when he defeated reigning champion Sonny Liston and won the world heavyweight championship as Cassius Clay, through 1974, when as Muhammad Ali, he fought in the Rumble in the Jungle. When he went into the ring against George Foreman in Zaire, he was 32, the challenger 24. The boxing sequences are convincing looking and sounding. There are times when you can feel the punches being thrown.
Smith captures much of Ali’s charisma, his poetic speeches, his brash, infectious personality. There is no doubt that Ali the man was unafraid to speak his mind at a time when it was dangerous for an African-American to do so. There is courage in Smith’s voice as he pulls off the difficult task of capturing the ego and charm of Ali. In reality, Ali made as many enemies as he did admirers due to his outspoken nature. Smith walks the tightrope of Ali’s lovability and alienating truth. The ability to be charming and friendly to a child, to hold a room full of skeptics in the palm of his hand and predict when he would put a challenger away, then deliver.
The screenplay by Eric Roth and director Mann supposedly came in at around 200 pages, covering his entire life. The finished product was shorter and more focused. It still found room to show Ali’s refusal to take an offer from the government to accept induction into the service with a guarantee that he would be nowhere near combat, as long as he kept quiet. “No Viet Cong ever called me n**ger,” Ali said to anyone who would listen. His position would cost him his title, alienate him from the Nation of Islam and deny him the ability to box until the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in his favor.
The people in Ali’s life get touched on, but most are left undeveloped. The exception being Jon Voight as Howard Cosell. There was a time when the man with the whiny voice, bombastic nature and the world’s worst toupee ruled the boxing world’s broadcasting wing. Cosell loves Ali and the two create a bond, a sometimes acerbic one. Smith and Voight play the pair as if Cosell is the only person willing to speak the truth to Ali, however harsh it was. Jamie Foxx is Bundini Brown, Ali’s friend/right hand man. Brown in a self-destructive moment once sold Ali’s championship “and put in my arm.” I would have enjoyed seeing his friendship with Ali touched on more on screen. Actors portraying Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad as well as trainer Angelo Dundee and Ali’s father Cassius Clay Sr. waft through, but this is Smith’s film to carry. For the most part, he does.