One of he most difficult film genres to master is that of the biography. This difficulty is compounded greatly when the subject is a living legend like Muhammad Ali. So many people are familiar with the champ. After all, this is a man that has been at the center of much controversy and has had most of his professional life documented to the tiny piece of trivia. The film Ali takes on the life of the champ during the decade between his wining the title in 1964 to his regaining it in the famous Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974. This should have been the peak of Alis career but instead it was a turbulent series of problems far greater than any boxing match could provide. First of all Cassius Clay (Will Smith) converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He was also drafted during the peak of the war in Viet Nam. Bound by his sense of ethics Ali declines induction into the armed services, which resulted in the loss of his title and license to box. He was offered an easy time in the Army, no Viet Nam, touring bases boxing and not having to fight, but Ali would not be part of it. His legal troubles eventual entered into his religion and he was suspended from practicing it. Throughout the difficult times a few people remained true as his friends. His father Cassius Clay Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito), although upset with the name change always stood beside his son. There was also Alis long time friend and sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) who in spite of the constant ragging by Ali remained a true and trusted friend. One thing that stands out in this film is the integrity of this man. You may not agree with the choices he made but you have to admire a man that is willing to put everything, and I mean everything, on the line rather than compromise his own ethics. Ali could have avoided a lot of the problems that resulted in his losing the most important years in his professional life but he instead choose to follow his beliefs. In one scene when he is beginning ot regain his right to box the Nation of Islam rescinds his suspension. Ali states in his straightforward manner that not only did he never stop being the champ he never ceased being a Muslim. The one problem the story has is during the first third of the film there is too much concentration on his relationship with Malcolm X, often focusing too much on X and not enough on Ali. This gave a disjointed, meandering feel to the film. Fortunately, the film pulls together a bit towards the end.
Will Smith nailed this role, pure and simple. There are moments while watching the movie that I was convinced that a few frames of newsreel footage were inserted. Of course it wasnt but Smith had a way of holding his body and an expression on his face that captured completely Ali. Smith trained hard for this role and it shows. He is more buff than in any film he has ever done. The boxing scenes where among the most realistic ones ever presented on film. There was one rather hypocritical aspect to the life of Ali. With his overwhelming drive to do what he felt was ethical he had an eye for the ladies. While his cheating nature was not hidden in the flick it did not account for more than a few scenes. The supporting roles of this film were extremely well cast. The only problem was the portrayal of Malcolm X by Mario Van Peeples. Since Denzil Washington previously did the role in such a masterful manner any actor would be hard pressed to play this character. Jamie Foxx, know mostly for silly comedies hands in a performance that helps to tie the film together. He played Alis long time friend and trainer Bunduni Brown. Brown struggled with drug addiction in scenes that show that Foxx can really act. Then there was Jon Voight as Howard Cosell. In spite of the very heavy makeup this gem of American film hands in a performance that blew me away. The verbal jabs that made ABC sports news were presented with documentary accuracy. The real key to this role was how it showed the real friendship and respect the men held for each other.
The writer/director of this biopic is Michael Mann. Mann is certainly on a role of late with films like Heat and the Insider under his belt. He doesnt use a lot of overt cinema tricks to present the story. His straightforward style punches the audience as hard as Ali laid into his opponents. Mann combines the use of lighting, perfect framing and a control of the encompassing sound to bring you into the life of Ali. As stated previously, the first third of the movie rambles too much with the focus on the wrong character. Mann manages to bring matters under control for a smashing ending. The Rumble in the Jungle creates the perfect vehicle for the conclusion, showing Alis triumph over everything that attempted to drag him down. This is yet another film that will be butchered when presented in the notorious pan and scan. Mann sets the stage for group shots so that the audience receives not only the impact of the actor presenting the dialogue but also the reaction of those around him.
The disc is a lightweight on the extras but weighs in heavyweight for the presentation of the film. The Dolby 5.1 audio is reference quality. In the crowd scenes you can hear individual hands clapping, each voice as they shout for the champ. The sub woofer is not overused. Too many films feel the sub woofer must constantly pound away. Here it is used dramatically to punctuate the action. The video is anamorphic 2.35:1 and is crisp and clear. There are no artifacts or defects present. I did notice a little breakup in a few of the darker scenes but nothing that really detracted from the enjoyment of the film. Get this film and then watch Muhammad Ali: Through The Eyes Of The World. Between the two you will get a different perspective on this man than you ever had before.