Will Smith delivers a knock-out punch as Muhammed Ali in this outstanding film that follows the champ from his first heavyweight title to the “Rumble in the Jungle” when he won the title again by defeating George Foreman in Zaire.
Smith is a great choice to play Ali. Both have pretty faces and easy charm that mask the ferocity and fury that it takes to make it all the way to the top. Ali never trained harder for a fight than Smith did for this role, spending two years packing on muscle and throwing — and receiving — real punches in the ring. Smith perfectly captures Ali’s Kentucky drawl. Like his fighting style, it can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Director Michael Mann strikes just the right balance between the personal and the political, setting Ali’s struggles in the context of the racial conflicts of his era but never losing sight of the fact that it is one man’s story.
Ali repeatedly tells those around him that he will be the champ his own way, and we see him try to figure out what that way will be. He won’t be the white man’s idea of a “good Negro,” like Joe Louis. He will become a Muslim, let Elijah Muhammed’s son be his manager and even shun his friend Malcolm X when told to. But he knows that they need him more than he needs them, and he will be a Muslim his way, too. He will be more faithful to his refusal to fight than he will be to any of the women in his life. And he will use the force of his personality — more powerful than any punch — to go the distance and get the title. No one can stop him.
Even limited to only 10 years in Ali’s life, the story spills out of the screen, with achingly brief glimpses of some of the key characters in Ali’s life. This is a double loss, because these small roles are played by some of the most brilliant – and under-used actors — working today, including Jeffrey Wright as Ali’s photographer, LeVar Burton glimpsed briefly as Martin Luther King, Joe Morton as Ali’s lawyer, and Giancarlo Esposito as Ali’s father. John Voight struggles under far too much rubber make-up but makes a fine impression as Howard Cosell, the sportscaster who was Ali’s favorite straight man and one of his truest friends. Mario van Peebles is quietly magnetic as Malcolm X, and Ron Silver marshals his intensity just right as trainer Angelo Dundee. Mykelti Williamson is jubilantly entertaining as Don King.
Mann, as always, gives us brilliantly revealing moments. Before a fight, Dundee quietly loads his pockets with first aid equipment, knowing that the brilliantly healthy and fit fighter will soon be needing it between rounds. And in one of the most heartbreaking movie moments of the year, Ali hugs the just-defeated Jerry Quarry. That moment even more devastating for those aware of Quarry’s ultimate fate – he became severely impaired from injuries sustained in boxing matches and died at age 53. It is impossible to watch the movie without thinking of Ali’s own injuries and feeling the loss of the resplendently vigorous champ he once was.
Parents should know that in addition to brutal fight scenes, the movie includes a character who is a drug addict, drinking and smoking, a sexual situation and sexual references (including adultery) and some strong language. The issue of racial and religious intolerance is forthrightly presented.
Families who see this movie should talk about the conflict Ali faced when he was drafted. How did he decide what to do? How did he stay true to himself? What was the biggest challenge? When his wife told him not to trust the fight promoters who “talk black, act white, and think green,” who was right?
Families who enjoy this movie should be sure to watch the brilliant Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings to see what really went on in the Rumble in the Jungle. Smith’s performance is brilliant, but it can never match the real-life champ’s inimitable style. Of some additional interest is Ali’s performance as himself in a mediocre film called “The Greatest.”
There are many outstanding boxing films, including Rocky, Raging Bull, (for mature audiences only), Golden Boy, Requiem for a Heavyweight,and Body and Soul (with John Garfield and a rare screen performance by stage actor Canada Lee).