Ali (2001)

ali IMDb

I had never actually seen Ali until a few days ago. This was one of Sally’s movies that I had never got around to watching. I had only heard good things about it, mostly about Will Smith’s portrayal of Mohammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time.

The film follows Ali’s rise to fame in the mid 60s– his controversial decision to not let himself be drafted into the Vietnam War that saw him stripped of all boxing titles and banned from competing in the United States, up until the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against George Foreman (Charles Shufford). The film chronicles all of Ali’s failed marriages during this time, the questionable influence Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) had on him, and his decision to turn his back on Christianity and become a Muslim.

Bio pics are always difficult, especially when someone has lived such a full life like Ali. The end result feels like the movie bites off more than it can chew, trying to cover too much of Ali’s life in a three hour window. Ali’s life was too complicated for it to be adequately covered in one movie. I feel like the film would have been better served concentrating on a smaller chunk of his life and really delving into it. As it is, Ali feels like a highlights package of his life and not the in depth critique I hoped for.

In saying that, Smith is a revelation as the cocky boxer. He was rightly given a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this performance, and it showed that Smith could be much more than the laid back jokester he had become pigeon holed as. Smith is able to capture the swagger that Ali always had perfectly. The rest of the cast is also good. Jada Pinkett Smith plays one of Ali’s wives, and Jon Voight is almost unrecognisable as the broadcaster Howard Cosell. He does a good impression of the real life reporter and one of the few people in the media that treated Ali well after his decision to draft dodge and become a Muslim.

Ali does try to tell too large of a story in the allotted time, but strong performances from Smith still make this film enjoyable.

Rating: B-

Ali is a movie that has long sat on my shelf, but I never got around to watching it. It was a freebie with my first laptop and given the lackluster choices available, I settled on this. I’d heard it was good and I’ve always loved Will Smith, so why not?

This is not a perfect film. It’s good, but I feel like it bites off more than it can chew. Obviously, Muhammad Ali’s life is far too large and complicated to fit into a single movie. Ali focuses on a decade of his career and personal life, but still packs a lot of events into two and a half hours. The audience is shown Cassius Clay winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston; his relationship with Malcolm X; conversion to Islam; loss of his title, suspension, and jail time for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War; and the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman. The scope of the story is nearly a large as Ali’s persona, and the film sometimes suffers for it.

Much of the focus is on boxing, naturally, but I found myself more interested in the non-sporting aspects. This is more a personal preference, because the boxing scenes are very well done. The film lets the actors actually duke it out rather than rely on stage fighting. The result is impressive, lending some real authenticity to the on screen matches. Still, I’d rather have dug deeper into Ali’s conversion to Islam or anti-Vietnam sentiments, or even his friendship with sportscaster Howard Cosell.

Despite the problems with its plot, the performances in Ali make it worth at least one watch. Will Smith is amazing a Muhammad Ali. He nails the speech and bravado of the boxer, hitting the perfect dramatic and comedic notes in his performance. This is the type of film that makes me wish Smith would make more dramas. Another stand out is Jon Voight. The actor is nearly unreconizable as Cosell. This performance could easily have been nothing more than a really good impression, but Voight actually becomes the sportscaster.

Ali was always going to be a difficult film to make. Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous athletes of all time, with a career and personal life that intersected with American history in ways that few personalities have. This movie doesn’t seem long enough to do the real life Ali justice. It attempts to hit too many notes, instead of delving deeper into a few aspects of this remarkable story. The only thing that saves Ali are its strong performances. See it once for Will Smith, but I don’t feel it warrants a second viewing.

Rating: B-

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