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June 1, 2014

Ali (2001)
Director: Michael Mann
Actors: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight

Synopsis: The life of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) from the years between 1964 when he first won the Heavyweight world title as Cassius Clay, to 1975 when he took on the fearsome George Foreman in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Kinshasa, Zaire.

Review: Michael Mann deserves credit for tackling earnestly and with no little diligence what might seem to be the cinematic impossible – a genuinely unclichéd and illuminating charting of the life and times of arguably the most iconic sportsman of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali.

In many respects, ‘earnest’ is the appropriate prism through which to view the work, because perhaps its greatest flaw is that it’s a little too hamstrung, a little too reverent of its subject matter, a little too self-aware of playing against the conventional, mythologised view of Ali in the public consciousness. Throughout Ali, Mann gives the sense that he’s battling with the material somewhat, struggling to shape it and find its best tenor. After all, let’s not forget Ali was sandwiched between a genuinely golden period for Mann – preceded by the grandiose Heat and marvellous parable of the conscience, The Insider, and followed by two hugely entertaining and ingenious genre efforts, Collateral and Miami Vice. Thus, in Ali we can see Mann falling back on his trademark stock mode of the time – a moody, existential ambience, a protagonist filmed against sultry urban skies, a feel for the macrocosmic with sudden cuts to an as yet unintroduced group of serious looking antagonists (attesting to the scope and complexity of the narrative and its players), and of course music….lots of music.

Even Will Smith’s performance as Ali fits into this concentric image of Ali as underplayed and restrained. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Smith appears overwhelmed or awed by the role, but I think he takes the wise and sensible option of not trying to impersonate Ali per se, but rather tonally build an impression of Ali from his own natural register – much like how Mann tries to merge Ali with his consummate command of the medium at the time. (May 2014)

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