Based on a true story. In the early 1960s, boxer Cassius Clay (Will Smith) emerges from the racially segregated town of Louisville, Kentucky, to win the world heavyweight title. Converted to Islam by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall), Clay changes his name to Muhammad Ali and becomes active in the civil rights movement. Ali's refusal to enlist for service in Vietnam and his connections with militant black leader Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) make Ali an outcast in boxing. Ali's stunning comeback is completed in 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, where he fights George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
A second look at Michael Mann's biopic of the legendary Ali confirms the impression I had watching this in a cinema. As well made as it is and Will Smith's bravura performance nothwithstanding, it still runs a very distant second to the real archival footage of Ali most of us have seen. No recreation could even come close to matching the drama and showmanship throbbing through the real man's veins. Smith, who may not look much Ali, does as well as any actor could with an impossible task but, even at 150 minutes, there's an incomplete feel to this highly selective life story that stops way before Ali embarrassed himself in
exhibition fights against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki and made an ill-advised title tilt at the age of 40. That aside, there's still plenty to admire here, particularly Jon Voight's wonderful performance as sportscaster Howard Cosell. The man with the worst rug on TV was Ali's sole, solid white supporter through all the bad times and it's good to see him rewarded with a moment in the sun.
Michael Mann's direction is as fluid and his camera as supremely well framed as ever in this technically spot-on transfer that retains the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. All the blood and bruises of Ali's encounters with Foreman, Smokin' Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston and the rest are vividly filmed and you'll feel every punch if you have surround sound hooked up at home. The extras are OK - 25 minutes of behind the scenes footage and interviews, Will Smith interviewed by Rove McManus and a reasonably detailed biog of Muhammad Ali - but a commentary track would have been welcome. (This is a lively enough movie-watching experience but if you want to know everything, head straight for the stunning 6-hour, double disc documentary Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story.)
Published August 15, 2002