Michael Mann directs Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Jon Voight in this powerful look at 10 key years in the boxing icon’s life.
Watched for obvious reasons in a double bill with When We Were Kings this week but really I need none to put on Mann’s mutely received epic. Take the obvious body size issues out of the equation and I marvel at Will Smith’s casting against type here. Casting against type? “Smith as Ali” is perfect casting on paper but Mann focuses on the uncertain, nervous real man behind the cool and boisterous public persona which stretches Smith well out his comfort zone. The movie works as a celebration of his life but it’s one that demands political context and grindingly delivers. One that lurches into effective near constant paranoia as pretty much everyone but Ali’s cornermen plot around him to use or restrict his unparalleled significance in black America. One that adds and makes the audience share what a slog his training, stances and need to rely on unreliable power structure (American democracy, corrupt promoters, the fickle Nation of Islam) proved to be – long, arduous joyless takes are often the order of the day and for good reason. Uncertain! Demanding! Paranoid! Slog! Hardly what audiences wanting to see the Fresh Prince rap at press conferences, win historical fights and stick it to the man were hoping for – though that is included too. Once you recalibrate in your own head that this is an examination of a man rather than an ode to a hero there is so much bravura filmmaking on display it is hard to find fault with this overlooked modern classic. The opening montage mixing training, doubts, a Sam Cooke performance and Ali’s childhood all building to his first significant win – just wow! The fights put you in the ring in a way no director ever managed before – The Fighter, Warrior and Creed owe Mann an unrepyable debt. And then you have both Smith and Jon Voigt delivering career best acting, captured often in intrusive extreme close up. An exhaustive slice of cinematic brilliance.