2001 - R - 157 Mins.
|Director: Michael Mann|
|Producer: James Lassiter, Jon Peters, Paul Ardaji, A. Kitman Ho, Michael Mann|
|Written By: Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann|
|Starring: Will Smith,
Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver |
|Review by: James O'Ehley
Where is Muhammad Ali when you need him?
With America embroiled in one of its most ill-advised foreign ventures (Iraq) since the Vietnam war, who is there to stand up to George W. Bush besides Michael Moore at this year’s Oscars ceremony?
During the Vietnam War, world-boxing champ Ali probably made the bravest decision of his life: the principled stand not to be inducted into the U.S. army .Like he said: ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.’
OK, it was pretty brave to take on the likes of George Foreman too.
The point is however that there was actually a time in which the world-boxing champ took a principled political stand and didn’t date rape women, bite opponents’ ears and so on. Who would have thought?
The decision cost Ali (then at the height of his powers) several years of his career. He was however lucky that his career wasn’t destroyed altogether and that he didn’t go to jail.
This 2001 movie covers ten years of Ali’s life – from becoming world champion, refusing to fight in Vietnam to the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight in Africa.
It is directed by Michael Mann (“The Insider”, “Last of the Mohicans”) and stars the unlikely Will Smith as Ali.
I take everything bad I have ever said about Smith: his performance goes beyond a surprisingly good impersonation of the former boxing champion. I’ll never mention “Wild Wild West” again either. Smith shows in this movie that he can do serious instead of just sitcom-style sassing in movies like “Men in Black”.
The movie is similar to Mann’s “The Insider”. Technically it is impressive: the photography and music is excellent. Mann is into myth making and the cinematic spaces are wide open and the music (mostly by ex-‘Dead Can Dance’ members Lisa Gerrard and Michael Burke) is suitably portentous.
Whether this style of filmmaking is suited to telling the larger than life story of Muhammad Ali is debatable though. No matter how good Smith and the other actors are, they seem at times dwarfed by the movie itself.
I enjoyed ‘Ali’ for its stylistic flourishes, but to be honest if you want to learn more about the man himself then you’re better advised to check out “When we were Kings”, a brilliant documentary about the infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight.
This movie brings home just what a charismatic figure Ali was and even if you (like me) don’t really like boxing, you will actually find yourself holding your breath during its climactic boxing match. Unlike “Ali”, “When we were Kings” actually provides one with a context for both the fight and the times in which it took place.
Also, if you want to know more about the radical Black politics of the 1960s (merely hinted at in “Ali”) then check out Spike Lee’s surprisingly balanced early 1990s biopic of “Malcolm X” starring Denzil Washington.
Only after you have seen the above movies would I recommend you check out “Ali” (and don’t get me wrong: it is worth seeing).
Taken on its own it is overlong and while it has some moments of grandeur, it lacks context – a context better provided by the above movies. Besides, “When we were Kings” features the real thing – Muhammad Ali himself!