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USA 2001
Directed by
Michael Mann
157 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Drew Arthurson
4 stars


Synopsis: From Mohammad Ali's upset victory (as Cassius Clay) over Sonny Liston in 1964, through to his reclamation of the heavyweight title belt after defeating George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, we follow the peaks and troughs of Ali's life out of the ring, from his friendship with Malcolm X, numerous marriages, refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and embracing of Islam.

Michael Mann's passionate reconstruction of ten years in the life of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, is a remarkable evocation of a unique and gifted individual. Much has been said about the opening fifteen minutes of the film, as Mann splices segments of Ali training together with crooner Sam Cooke performing, 'Bring it On Home to Me', to an adoring audience. This energetic sport/pop fusion is a remarkable exercise in directorial flair and encapsulates both the spirited nature and chilling racism of the time. When we first see Ali (Will Smith), he is running silently through the city streets after dark. A white officer leans out of a police cruiser and remarks, 'What are you running from, son?' It is from small moments like these, away from the ring, that Ali draws its strength. Mann gives Smith both the screen-time and meticulous direction to portray Ali as an insightful, spontaneous, often contradictory, human being. Smith, who spent two years researching and preparing for the role, pulls no punches (so to speak), and is backed up by some outstanding supporting actors; including an over made-up and competely unrecognisable Jon Voigt, who plays Howard Cosell, the ABC veteran sports journalist and confidante to Ali, and Jamie Foxx, in the role of Bundini Brown.

Mann captures the fight scenes with bold, classic flourishes, as the camera circles the ring or moves in close to the fighters showing us the brutal strategies of professional boxing. (The actors who play Liston, Frazier and Foreman are all pro boxers themselves). Unlike Raging Bull, (1980) where the majority of violence was restricted to life away from the ring, the fights in Ali are vividly re-enacted, though not overplayed thanks to Mann's judicious direction.

Like his brooding study of whistleblower Jeffrey Weigand in The Insider (1999), Mann ensures that whilst his subject, Ali, is the drawcard, he is framed by a dramatic, imposing backdrop, this time the embattled Establishment (of boxing and wider American society) and their efforts to discredit him socially and punish him professionally, due to his demands for equal rights for blacks and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

Leon Gast's exceptional 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings,  which concerned the Ali/Foreman 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout anticipated some aspects of Mann's film but nevertheless, Ali is an outstanding achievement.






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