“I”m a bad man, I”m a bad man.”
One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to Michael Mann”s beautiful biography of the beautiful boxer Muhammad Ali is the amazing effect of irony these words create coming out of Ali”s mouth. Many may have painted the former Cassius Clay as a bad man for his ties to Malcolm X or for his unwillingness to fight in Vietnam, but Ali is a good man a hero who has brought smiles to peoples” faces in his real life and now through Will Smith”s exquisite performance.
Will Smith is Muhammad Ali in every facet of the man. This is physically obvious in Smith”s weight gain of 30 pounds and Smith”s authentic boxing style in the ring. Smith has also nailed the voice and speech patterns of “The Greatest.” But the beauty of Smith”s performance is truly visible in the private Ali turning into the public Ali.
While Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) has authentically recreated some of the most important bouts in boxing history which gave Ali fame, it is the personal Ali, fighting through decisions about family, religion and boxing that is the most powerful. The fact that the film succeeds is due to directly to Smith himself, because even though he has an amazing supporting cast, they are there to simply provide support to this portrait of a man the camera rarely leaves Smith, usually putting his face and thus his emotions in the forefront of the screen.
“Ali” is not going to show every detail or provide the names of everyone in Ali”s life what the film does is show the man at his most tumultuous times during a very important decade of his life, 1964-1974. Championship fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman pass through this time just as marriages to Ali”s first three wives do. We see Ali”s association with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and his grief over the assassination of the Civil Rights leader. We also witness Ali give up three-and-a-half years of his boxing prime because he will not fight a war he does not understand when the United States will not even fight for Ali”s people in his own country. And in one of the most important and tender relationships seen in the film, Ali”s humorous and touching friendship with sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) is explored through on-air interviews and personal, intimate conversations.
Voight”s eerily genuine portrayal of Cosell leads the long list of wonderful supporting characters that fill the nearly three-hours-long “Ali.” Former comedian Jamie Foxx shows a great talent for mixing humor with sadness in the role of Ali corner man Drew “Bundini” Brown and Nona Gaye, daughter of singer Marvin, is equally wonderful tackling the largest role among the three wives, that of second wife Belinda.
One of the few complaints for “Ali” is that in placing such an all-encompassing focus on Smith as Ali, some other great actors in supporting roles do not seem to get enough screen time themselves. It is difficult to ask a three-hour film to be longer, but the performances of Jeffrey Wright as Ali friend Howard Bingham, Mykelti Williamson as Don King, Ron Silver as trainer Angelo Dundee and Jada Pinkett-Smith and Michael Michelle as Ali”s other wives are so good that we want more of them.
The same can be said of Ali himself, in that it leaves us hungry for more Mann has geniously crafted the story so it only contains ten years and that it does not answer all our questions. Ali is more than just a boxer and he has meant so much to the growth of this country. Not everyone understands this, but everyone should. “Ali” warms your tastebuds for more knowledge of Ali”s youth and then Ali”s present. “Ali” is not a perfect film, but being great is good enough in a profile of “the Greatest.”