Revisiting “Ali”; The Fresh Prince Meets The Greatest
Creating a biographical movie...a biopic as the kids call it...would be a mostly thankless task if not for the seemingly endless onslaught of awards that come with it. The formula is generally simple...focus on your subject, take him or her through some sort of driving incident that causes them to become who they, show some scenes honing their craft, document scenes actually doing their craft, capture the subject at their highest highs, their lowest lows....wrap it up with some onscreen text informing us of the main players' whereabouts, and boom...you got yourself a biopic.
There's nothing wrong with this cut and paste formula, as some, like the Johnny Cash-focused Walk the Line, play it perfectly. Other do something far beyond imagination, like the Bob Dylan piece I'm Not There, which featured 6 actors, including a woman and an African-American child, portraying the folk singer. The brilliant biopics, though, don't try to cram a person's entire life in a 2 hour crunch. Rather, they focus on the years that defined that person.
That's where Ali comes in.
Doing a movie on the entire life of the recently passed Muhammad Ali would take forever, and is better documented by the greatest himself, whether it's with documentaries like When We Were Kings or A.K.A. Cassius Clay. Ali even took on the task of playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest, which received mixed reviews. Ali, meant to be a big budget production documenting the most vital years of the boxer's life...the decade between 1964 and 1974, or, in terms of the Ali timeline, from the Sonny Liston fight to the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman (which, by the way, has to be one of the best boxing sequences ever put to film)...had been in production since 1993.
Of course, a figure as legendary and as iconic as the former Cassius Clay...an indescribable yet perfect blend of hip, wise-cracks, fast talking, power, strength and stoicism...had to be portrayed by someone with half of that. No one in their right mind would, or ever will, have as much as Ali himself did, but Will Smith came pretty damn close. The hip rebel, who rose to fame via The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Men in Black was understandably nervous about stepping into Ali's cinematic shoes, so much so that he initially turned down the role. However, it was a very special someone who persuaded him to take the role...no, not Jada Pinkett Smith, who portrays Ali's first wife Sonji.
It was Ali himself.
True to form, even in retirement, Ali had the perfect response...he said that Smith was the only one good looking to play him. Going into Ali, its easy to see worry behind him in the role. Sure, he had dealt with dramas before...heck, even a sports drama as The Legend of Bagger Vance was released a year before...but we were still dealing with the young actor who rejected The Matrix to star in Wild Wild West. However, Smith gets every scope of Ali's tremendous personality perfectly, not just the fighter....the talker, the dancer, the joker, the activist, the religious man...it's all on display as Smith puts on a tour de force performance, one that he still calls to this day the character he's most proud of (he earned a Best Actor nod at the 2002 Oscars, but understandably fell to Denzel Washington for Training Day). Smith dedication to the role began even before cameras were rolling, as Smith underwent the same training regiments that Ali went through during his career, and partook in his boxing sequences, choreographed numbers and realism solely missing from the modern boxing films of the day. The impact was so great on Ali that the actor was called upon to be a pallbearer at Ali's funeral.
Working on a script primarily penned by director Michael Mann (who gave us Heat and Collateral) and Eric Roth (who would co-write another sports related drama, Steven Spielberg's Munich three years later) doesn't sugarcoat the fact that throughout that decade, Ali wasn't just fighting opponents in the ring, but countless enemies outside of it as well. His fight against the United States government over his drafting into the Vietnam War is well documented, as is his subsequent falling out with the Nation of Islam. Through this period, it is actually a fiery friendship that stands out most in the film....that between Ali and Howard Cosell, played in another Oscar nominated turn by Jon Voight. In every biopic, there's always that one supporting character/figure that steals the show from the lead. In the aforementioned Walk the Line, for example, it's Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. Here, it's Voight, who captures the legendary Cosell's personality extremely well. The good part is, though, Voight knows he's not here to steal the show, that it's Ali's/Smith's movie. Just when you think Cosell is going to go over the top, he stops himself short. It also began a bit of career resurgence for Voight, and for that, we're thankful.
Ali is not the perfect biopic. Heck, there may be no such thing. But it brilliantly puts to screen what is very difficult to portray...the blessed, yet difficult times of the arguably the greatest heavyweight boxer the world will ever see. Mann depicts the vision his vision tremendously and Smith sends us back in a time machine. It's hard to watch sometimes...Ali's constantly changing wife situation is not brushed through quickly in this film...but it gives a sense of darkness behind the colorful character that Ali was. It shows us that, indeed, no one is perfect. But in Ali's world, that's what he was, and there was nothing wrong with it. After all...the decade of Ali just proved that it was indeed his world...and the rest of us were just along for the ride.
Ali is currently back in theaters on a limited release, and is also available to stream on HBOGo/HBONow.
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