Ali (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner19/02/2002

Four out of five stars
Running time: 160 mins

Stylish, impressively shot biopic with a stunning, deservedly Oscar-nominated performance by Will Smith.

Michael Mann’s long-awaited biopic of Muhammad Ali will no doubt get an extra box-office boost by virtue of the fact that its star has just been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, though sadly the film failed to pull off nominations for Best Picture or for its director.

However, it remains a stylish and impressively shot film, though the tagline ("Forget what you think you know") is distinctly misleading, as you never actually find out anything about Ali that you couldn’t have found out elsewhere.

In fact, the film only spans ten years – the period from 1964 (Ali’s shock defeat of reigning champion Sonny Liston) to 1974 and the "Rumble In The Jungle", which is also the subject of Leon Gast’s acclaimed documentary When We Were Kings. As such, the main events of the film include Ali’s involvement with the Nation of Islam and his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

A biopic such as this, where the central figure is as well-known and as Well loved as Ali was, is inevitably going to stand or fall on its central performance. Thankfully, Will Smith responds with a terrific, deservedly Oscar-nominated performance that captures the essence of Ali.

The actor worked for a year preparing for the role, which included learning to box for real, gaining 30 pounds of extra muscle and getting his unique vocal rhythms and delivery just right. It’s an incredible performance, with not a trace remaining of ‘Will Smith: Movie Star’. He also captures Ali’s own unique style of rhyming humour – every one of the training / press conference scenes are a highlight.

The supporting performances are equally impressive, particularly an unrecognisable Jon Voight (also Oscar-nominated) as sports announcer Howard Cosell, with whom Ali formed a lasting and touching friendship.

There’s good support too from Jamie Foxx (as ‘Bundini’), Mario Van Peebles (impressive as Malcolm X), Mykelti Williamson (as Don King, of whom someone says "that man talks black, lives white and thinks green"), Giancarlo Esposito (as Ali’s father) and Jada Pinkett, Michael Michele and Nona Gaye as Ali’s wives.

As you’d expect from the man behind Heat and The Insider, Mann’s direction is stylish and impressive – the opening montage sequence, including flashbacks and Ali’s training procedures, is beautifully intercut with a show-stopping stage performance by soul legend Sam Cooke (David Elliott) and is a definite highlight of the film, as is the recreation of Ali’s arrival in Zaire ("A-li! Bum-a-ye!").

The fight scenes are also exciting and impressively-handled – they have a different feel to similar scenes in other boxing films, largely due to Mann’s use of handheld DV cameras to get a ‘gloves-eye-view’ of the punches, but also because care has been taken to recreate the fights as opposed to having every punch connect, Rocky-style.

This is not to say that the film is without flaws. Certain elements of Ali’s life (principally the details of his relationships and the political machinations behind the decision to strip him of his title) are glossed over and for all the film’s claims to the contrary we never really learn anything new about Ali himself.

Having said that, Ali remains an extremely enjoyable, frequently exhilarating film to watch and Smith’s performance has to be seen to be believed. Highly recommended.

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Content updated: 18/10/2017 12:08

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