Movie Review by Toby White
Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver
Director: Michael Mann
So it’s here, the much-anticipated ALI is the biopic of the sportsman who needs no introduction.
When dealing with subject matter such as this, there are always likely to be cynics. In this instance, most have criticised Smith’s performance, saying he doesn’t have the charisma of the man he’s portraying, he’s half his size etc. I beg to differ. Smith studied Ali for over a year, perfecting his speech patterns, his mannerisms, his physique, and he does pull it off remarkably. His take on the man binds the story and, for that matter, the other actors – the comic asides with Jon Voight, as the commentator Howard Cossell, are wonderful moments and his friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) is touching. In fact, if it wasn’t for Will Smith’s performance, I fear the film would suffer hugely. And herein lies its anomaly. In fact, overall I would say the film suffers from its own self-indulgence. At two and a half hours, it’s certainly long and rightly so because there is so much material to cover (despite being only ten years of Ali’s life). Although this shouldn’t count against it, it does. It feels disjointed, incongruous and, ironically, there’s no sense of time. Despite being book-ended by two significant sporting moments, the middle section feels muddled while the political issues, his relationships, the womanising and, of course, the religious debate, are all explored and explained. Some of them contribute significantly to establish a context while others are discussed almost out of obligation and they clog up the passage of the story.
But Ali was, after all, a boxer and, boy, there are boxing sequences in this film. From the 1964 bout with Sonny Liston through to the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman ten years later where Ali went the distance, taking the hits and wearing down his opponent to then finish him off in the last round. This is the stuff legends are made of ! In each of these fight sequences, Mann’s direction is crisp and polished and their choreography is mesmerising. The realism is, in part, due to its authenticity: Smith and his opponents really are hitting each other!
Perhaps this is one of those instances where the hype overtakes the film’s own credibility. Anticipation is built up so much that its delivery can never measure up to expectation. But we still go and see these movies only to be disappointed by them. So I’m not going to try to steer you away from it. More that I’m trying to play the hype down so that the disappointment is dissipated. Besides, when you’re the only one who decided not to see it because you didn’t want to pander to the marketing machine, you’ll thank me because you won’t feel left out of the conversation.