Doing justice to a celebrity as dynamic and complex as Muhammad Ali required guts and ambition. Step forward Michael Mann. The moment he threw his hat into the ring, controversially landing the project at the expense of Spike Lee, it seemed obvious we'd get a movie that would dig beneath the surface. This would be a film that wouldn't simply concentrate on Ali's sporting life, it would look beyond the obvious story of a battling heavyweight champion. (If you want that, watch the Rocky series.) No, Mann was going to go the distance, showing us Ali the spokesman, Ali the icon, Ali the human being.
And he does, to a point. Mann's movie is almost as slick, engrossing and enjoyable as the hype would have you believe. That said, it ultimately lacks the narrative coherence of his last Oscar-baiter, The Insider,and doesn't shake things up as much as Lee undoubtedly would have done. The main problem is that Mann resists going for a warts 'n' all portrayal, choosing to show restraint when it comes to private and family matters. Yes, the film shows the Ali beneath the bluster, but the poster's tagline "Forget what you know" suggests revelations that never come - there's nothing here that hasn't already been covered in the many biographies written on The Greatest.
Furthermore, Mann largely avoids the US government's fear of Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam, and only superficially looks at the way the Nation cut him adrift as his problems dodging the Vietnam draft increased. He also skates over Ali's ignorance of how much the government feared his hero status with blacks and whites alike, and the official attempts to quell his popularity.
Yet in other ways, Mann's biopic - which sensibly limits itself to concentrating on a 10-year period, from Ali's shock 1964 defeat of Sonny Liston to the exhilarating 1974 Rumble In The Jungle - is scintillating stuff. Take Will Smith's central performance. Physically transforming himself by gaining 30lbs of muscle, he admirably rises to the challenge of playing one of the most flamboyant icons of the 20th century. And not only does he look the part in the ring, where he does indeed float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, he also carries the film's dramatic weight outside it. Smith has nailed the voice, the charm, the body language - he has, in short, become Ali as much as any actor possibly could. The film also captures the champ's touching relationship and bombastic rapport with TV sports commentator Howard Cosell (an unrecognisable but superb Jon Voight), their scenes together nothing short of superb.
But it's the boxing sequences that live longest in the memory. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki finds poetry in the fisticuffs, and the climactic clash with George Foreman is infused with the kind of epic grandeur that Mann brought to Heat. You'll be knocked clean off your feet.
Will Smith delivers a performance filled with passion and humour, while Michael Mann proves once more that when it comes to visuals he has a painter's eye. Could go the distance come Oscar time.
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