Movie Review: Ali

By Erik Petersen
Movie Magazine International
Directed by Michael Mann, “Ali” takes place from 1964 to 1974, the most tumultuous period in the boxing legend’s career. Writer Gregory Allen Howard’s script tackles everything from Ali’s relationship with the Nation of Islam, his political stance on Vietnam and the assassinations of Doctor King and Malcolm X, with several fights and a court battle thrown in for good measure. Mr. Mann’s certainly a great storyteller but his one weakness tends to be indulgence. Like his film “Heat”, “Ali” is at times sprawling and slightly bloated.

Will Smith stars as Mohammed Ali and for the most part he gets it right. He’s clearly spent the requisite time in the gym sculpting his body and learning how to move in the ring. The make-up and costume people have also done their jobs; from the larger forehead and squared-off fade to the retro suits he looks the part. He’s even adopted the bouncing vocal cadence that the champ was so well known for. In what is surely one of the nearly insurmountable acting challenges he manages to pull off a great performance.

Unfortunately a performance is what it is, and as good as it is, which is quite good at times, it cannot compare with the real business. If you ever seen the brilliant documentary “When We Were Kings” or any of Ali’s fights you know there’s an unmatched combustion that happens when two men enter a ring that can’t be duplicated by Hollywood. The real weigh-ins, press conferences and fights were the stuff cinema dreams of. For example there’s no way to possibly make Don King more of a character than he already is. After all, how do you portray someone on a thirty-foot screen whose already larger life?

Certainly the greatest victory in “Ali” is by the supporting cast. Jon Voight as Howard Cosell manages to capture Cosell perfectly, hitting just the right notes, with make-up, toupee and a rayon sport coat carrying the rest of the load. In fact the verbal sparring between Ali and Cosell provides some of the films funniest moments. Their off-camera conversations convey a touching relationship that in truth both men relished.

But the strongest performance comes from an unlikely source. Jamie Foxx plays Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, Ali’s corner man. He’s a black, gospel spewing half-Jewish drunk who manages to grab the biggest laughs and elicit the greatest sympathy. He outshines the entire cast, including Mr. Smith. For the role he added an easy twenty-five pounds and shaved a bald patch into a burgeoning Afro. When he returns after being banished from Ali’s camp, having traded his flashy hipster threads for sober, thick framed glasses and a dull brown wind breaker, you almost weep with empathy as he quietly begs forgiveness, the heartfelt resolve emanating from his very being. It’s a moving performance worthy of an Oscar.

For a younger generation with no memory of the legend “Ali” may be an epiphany. With the current shape of boxing and with professional athletes in general in such a sad state it’s a reminder of a time when they could stand for something more than a shoe endorsement. Ali was forced to make difficult choices, about his religion, about Vietnam and about race that in the hyper marketed world of professional sports today simply aren’t relevant. I’m Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine
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USA - 2001