Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see - Muhammad Ali
"Ali" is the biopic based on the life of legendary heavy weight boxer Muhammad Ali from the period 1964, where he clashed with the infamous Sonny Liston, through a decade to 1974 and the now famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' fight against George Foreman.
The first time I sat down to watch "Ali" I actually turned it off after about 15 minutes as it was nothing like what I had expected. Not only did I expect a full biopic of his life from his early days but I also had become accustomed to the glitzy, highly polished biopics which Hollywood usually churns out and "Ali" is nothing of the sorts. Instead "Ali" concentrates solely on a turbulent ten year period in the fighter's life where he finds himself fighting for his boxing licence in the courts after refusing to go to war for America. But also, the whole movie has a much rougher feel to it and at times it feels like you are watching an unedited, rough cut of a movie. Saying that, I recently revisited "Ali" and can now appreciate it fully as quite a masterful film, which although is by no means perfect, actually shows what is in my opinion a much more honest account of his life and one which doesn't need a highly polished production to deliver a powerful story.
As previously mentioned "Ali" just covers a small period of the boxer's life, but it as a period which was one of the most turbulent. The film covers in detail his conversion to Islam, his troubled personal life which saw the failure of his marriage and also his fight for the right to box after falling foul of the law when he refused the American draft. Whilst this single decade is obviously a bit of a disappointment, especially as the years prior and post this era have been just as dramatic, it allows the film to really go into significant depth of what happened. I have to admit that I wasn't around for this era and only really know about the legend from more recent appearances and also from the countless books which chronicle his life, but it is really fascinating to see the troubles he went through. One of the best things about the film is that it disperses with the usual glitz which dominates biopics and its rawness allows the whole emphasis of the film to be on the story. It must have taken a lot of courage for director Michael Mann to not only make a film about someone who is still alive but also do it in such a manner that bucks the usual trend. It's also interesting to see the depth of Ali's relationships with all those around him from Malcolm X, to other boxers and most significantly his team who helped him train. The whole film surprising manages to hit an emotional note as you see a side of Ali which was somewhat different to the public persona which many of us only know.
Of course with a movie about one of the most iconic boxers of all time the film is going to have a few action sequences featuring the actual fights and training sessions. Compared to other boxing films, such as "Rocky" and "Cinderella Man ", the fight scenes feel a bit under worked, but then for me they actually fitted in with the general rawness of the film. There were very few moments when it felt like a fight was overly choreographed and there were definitely no moments of over the top posing, although watching Will Smith bring alive the Ali shuffle and his general showman ship in the ring was an absolute delight. Again I feel Michael Mann has done a brilliant job of recreating these fight sequences and some of the clever camera angles he uses really makes you feel like you are in the middle of the ring getting smacked senseless. Likewise with the training sessions, they don't feel like they are a fitness DVD which is the usual case with boxing films, but are far more realistic, displaying the intensity and emotion of the moment rather than bulging biceps and quads. A lot of praise should also go to the numerous real boxers who were drafted in to play the parts of legendary boxers such as Sonny Liston and George Foreman. For men who are not trained actors they did a brilliant job of convincing me that they were the great men themselves and I am sure using these real boxers aided in making the fights more realistic.
One of the most memorable things to come out of this film is that Will Smith is more than capable of serious acting, quite a feat seeing that not only is Ali one of the most iconic sportsmen of the last century but also in the fact that he is still alive. I did wonder how effective Smith would be at playing a heavy weight boxer seeing that prior to the film he always looked slightly scrawny. But not only is his performance first rate but the amount of training he must have undertook to build his frame up to that of Ali's is impressive in its own right. When I say that not once do you feel that you are watching Will Smith perform is an understatement, it is as if Ali himself was appearing in the film. From his prowess in the ring, to his jive talking, poetic put downs of other boxers everything captured the legend of Muhammad Ali at his best. But it is not just Smith which makes this film so memorable, and performances from Jamie Foxx as well as Jon Voight really help make this such a great film. In fact I was unaware that Jon Voight actually appeared in the film as boxing commentator Howard Cossell and unless you knew this you really wouldn't recognize him. That is one of they keys to this film, even though it has some very prominent actors you never once feel that you are watching the actors but the actual men themselves. Special mention should go to Mario Van Peebles, who again I didn't realise appeared in the film, but puts in a stunning performance as Malcolm X.
If I had one real criticism of "Ali" is that at times it does drag it's feet, and at over 2 and a half hours long you do feel every moment of it. Whilst I can understand that director Michael Mann was aiming to make a different sort of biopic, one which worked on fact rather than poetic licence, it felt at times that some scenes were dragged out longer than necessary resulting in it losing some of the intensity of the drama. One such scene which although highly moving, is Ali running through the African ghettos in the lead up to the legendary 'Rumble in the Jungle', everything about it built up to a nice emotional high but then it went on for about 2 minutes too much. Despite this I still feel Mann has done a remarkable job of making a film which really puts you in touch with the focal character rather than attempting to woo you with Hollywood glam.
What this all boils down to is that "Ali" is a very memorable movie, one which manages to touch me no matter how many times I watch, with its raw, sometimes mean and moody production it differs from the majority of Hollywood Biopics and in doing so paints a much grittier picture than we have become accustomed to. Whilst it may not be everyone's cup of tea, it is well worth a viewing for two reasons. Firstly you learn a lot more about this Boxing legend than you would expect and also you get to witness one of Will Smith's best performances so far and one which I feel should have won him an Oscar.
Tags: Boxing Movies
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