Ali examines ten years in the life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. It begins with a young, cocky, 22 year old Cassius Clay as he wins his first title fight against Sonny Liston. And ends with an older, wiser (but still cocky) 32 year old Muhammad Ali and his "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman to regain the title.
The film attempts to reveal more about the man than the boxer and therefore most of the story is told out of the ring. It chronicles Clay's religious beliefs, his associations with the Nation of Islam, his refusal to be drafted in the Vietnam War and how the American government stripped him of his boxing title and revoked his fighting license. We learn about his weakness for beautiful women (and his inability to be faithful), his relationships with his family and friends: Malcolm X, Muslim minister and human rights activist, and Howard Cossel the TV sports commentator.
Will Smith switches on the Ali charm and, during the pre-fight weigh-ins and television appearances we see the trademark over-the-top rhyming performances: Smith spouts Ali's famous lines with aplomb - the casting here is excellent. Smith's performance never descends into caricature or impression. You may notice, however, a hint of the 'Fresh Prince' in the performance (a line here, an intonation there) of Smith's alter ego. The Fresh Prince seems to owe a debt to the fast talking, confident Muhammad Ali.
Smith still manages to capture the more contemplative and personal side of Ali. We understand his solid faith, his loyalty to the Nation of Islam, and we see his gradual dissatisfaction of it as they use his name and fame for their own agendas. We feel Ali's anguish at being stripped of his title and his boxing license.
Smith received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali. For large portions of the film, Will Smith is invisible, and all you see is Ali. If only he could have sustained it for the whole film then he would probably have won the Oscar.
Michael Mann, through his direction, has created a memorable and beautifully photographed movie. The film's initial sequence shows Cassius Clay as a child confused about a blue eyed, white skinned Jesus; as a tense young man with his family in the build up to a fight; it shows his interactions with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam; interspersed with the action in the ring versus Sonny Liston. This sequence pulls the audience quickly into the boxing world, and easily into the mindset of Cassius Clay. After this, the film settles into a linear and chronological format to tell the rest of the story. Although this format is thoughtful and well paced, it doesn't match that first incredible sequence when Clay boxes his way to his first world title.
The boxing scenes are believable. These are not cartoon-like Rocky heroics. These are not hyper-real Raging Bull brutality. The fight scenes are choreographed and recognisable as faithful representations of Ali's actual bouts. They do more than enough to convey the skills and dangers of professional boxing. Mann pulls out his bag of tricks here: slow motion impacts and jarring first person views of being pummeled are inter-cut with the long shots and two person close ups.
There is a problem inherent in biopics like this: what, as a filmmaker, do you show and what do you leave out? How do you condense a life (or even a decade) into a film under three hours that contains everything you want to show and say about a persons life during that time? How much truth and how much dramatic license do you use?
The filmmakers made their choices about the portion of Ali's life they wished to portray. They had to end the film somewhere: Ali went on to lose and gain the title twice more (a record four times) than the events show in the film, and Ali's subsequent Parkinson's Syndrome is never mentioned. For all its 157 minutes the film holds the attention and brings Muhammad Ali, not as the mythical boxing loudmouth, but as a man - a talented and gutsy man who fought many more fights in his life than those we saw televised in the ring.