“Forget What You Think You Know”
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight
Synopsis: Biopic of Muhammad Ali, from his victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire in 1974.
Most generations produce a handful of genuine greats in various fields of endeavour, whether politics, the arts, science or sport. A few of these greats – particularly in sport and the arts – are larger than life figures, and it’s their unique character, their dedication, self-belief and hunger, that plays a key part in their success. No character was bigger than Muhammad Ali, the three-time world Heavyweight boxing champion whose principled stands against racial inequality and national conscription made him an icon of the ‘60s counterculture. It’s surprising then that, apart from the little-seen The Greatest, the 1977 biopic hurriedly produced to cash in on the runaway success of Rocky in which Ali played himself, there had been no serious attempt to capture the man’s story on film until Michael Mann’s flawed but fascinating effort. The screenplay for this version was actually kicking around Hollywood for the best part of a decade with Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Norman Jewison all in the frame to direct at some point, and Denzel Washington briefly attached to play Ali. Will Smith (Wild Wild West, Men in Black II) originally passed on the opportunity for which he would receive an Academy Award nomination, changing his mind only after receiving a phone call from Ali himself, who insisted that Smith was the only actor pretty enough to play him.
The film follows Ali’s career from 1964, when, under his birth name of Cassius Clay, he pulled off the shock defeat of reigning champion and odds-on favourite, Sonny Liston (former boxer Michael Bentt), to win the World Heavyweight title, to 1974 when he reclaimed the title from George Foreman (Charles Shufford, another former boxer), another hot favourite, in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire. In between these two key moments of his professional career, Ali’s life was a tumultuous roller-coaster ride in which he renounced Christianity to become a Muslim, saw two marriages fail, faced a five year prison sentence for refusing to submit to conscription and fight in Vietnam, and a subsequent ban from fighting which lasted nearly four years.
Mann employs a kind of semi-documentary style to create an intimacy and immediacy as he chronicles the unstoppable momentum of Ali’s life and career as he powered from the ranks to forge an unstoppable career and reputation. Emmanuel Lubezki’s handheld camera observes the journey from oblique angles and through a forest of heads and shoulders, a spectator jostling for the best viewpoint it can – until, that is, it climbs into the ring with Ali and his latest opponent and zooms in close to capture every bone-crunching punch, every bruise and abrasion, every spray of sweat flying from a battered face. It’s common practice in a boxing movie to use a ringside or radio commentator to explain what’s going on in the ring, as if it’s audience is incapable of figuring out what’s going on, or the director feels the images alone are not enough to create the required level of excitement, and at first it seems as though Mann is going to follow the same tired routine as Howard Cosell, played by an unrecognisable Jon Voight (The Rainmaker, Enemy of the State), gives us a blow-by-blow account of Cassius Clay’s shock defeat of Liston. Fortunately, it’s a device to introduce us to Cosell and initiate his close, almost fatherly relationship with Ali, and the rest of the fights rely on their bruising intensity alone to immerse us in the physical reality of the fighters’ monumental struggles. It’s impossible to get a true flavour of a fight unless one sits ringside, but surely films like Ali are the closest one can otherwise come to the actual experience.
Outside of the ring, things aren’t quite so fluent. Smith does well to dispel all memories of his lightweight comic persona, and has no problem switching seamlessly from the boisterous tones and cadence of the showman to the more measured delivery of his calmer private moments, but Ali is the only character with any real depth. In order to gain any meaningful insight into the man we have to know something about the people who are important to him, but this is something the screenplay fails to do. Characters that had a major influence on Ali’s life flit in and out like interested passers-by. His relationship with fellow Muslim and influential black civil rights leader Malcolm X, played by Mario Van Peebles (Posse), a C-list actor who, to use a boxing metaphor, is punching way above his weight, is portrayed as a rather ordinary friendship, ultimately of little import or consequence in Ali’s life. Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), the man who trained Ali in nearly all of his professional fights, is nothing more than a peripheral figure, given meagre screen time and few lines, but Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx – Django Unchained, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) the intemperate assistant corner-man who sold Ali’s world title belt for drugs, has a major part. Brown does at least serve to illustrate Ali’s forgiving nature, but too much of his time onscreen feels like dead time which could have been put to better use, particularly when one considers how little time is devoted to Ali’s flaws.
While it would be unfair to describe Ali as a whitewash, there’s a distinct feeling that the man’s failings are introduced and acknowledged simply in order to get them out of the way. His inveterate womanising is an afterthought introduced (by Ali himself) late into the film, and his sometimes vicious ridiculing of his opponents (Frasier in particular) is toned down to such a degree that it comes across as nothing more than playful joshing. But then, we don’t want to see a film that denigrates our heroes any more than we want to see Ali prematurely reduced to a tremulous, shambling shadow of the man he once was. Ali the film ends with his victory over Foreman, and although it glosses over Ali’s arrival at the tactics he employed to defeat Foreman, it nevertheless provides a suitably uplifting finale with which to conclude an examination of a great fighter’s life.
(Reviewed 12th March 2016)
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