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:: Ali

Director Michael Mann (The Insider) chronicles ten years in the life of the great Muhammed Ali. It’s a difficult process to undertake because so much happened to the former boxing heavyweight champ and, to provide those pivotal moments in 156 minutes, requires great balance in the presentation of the facts.

Will Smith is tasked to play the role of the charismatic Ali. He took much convincing to take the role, but he gives an outstanding performance, all things considered. Whatever little flaws there may be in the life story, Smith’s enthusiasm (he also helped fund the film) leads to the impression that Ali’s personality is on parade even though Smith doesn’t look like Ali. Smith made the effort to learn the speech patterns and mannerisms, and Ali’s unique boxing style.

Mann starts the story from 1964 when the 22-year-old Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Title. Mann, who kept us riveted with “The Insider”, would have been aware that as story about a boxer lives or dies by the fight sequences. There have been some memorable fight movies. He defines the moments well, with well-placed edits and the rich photography. He places great visuals on the fighters’ movements throughout the bout.

Many events occurred in the next ten years. Cassius Clay established himself in the Islamic world and changed his name to Muhammed Ali. He divided himself from one-time friend Malcolm X, was a womaniser (he had three wives), and showed scorn for the Vietnam War, in dodging the draft. He then returned and reached his crowning glory by defeating George Foreman in Zaire, Africa to become the champ again.

Mann excels more so with the opening segment: the introduction to Cassius Clay in training and establishing the period in order to set the mood for the film. It tends to slow down as the “Rumble In The Jungle” (Ali v Foreman fight) sequences lose the crisp editing. Audiences may better remember the Ali-Foreman fight as part of the award-winning documentary “When We Were Kings”. However, despite the tired ending and some unexplained aspects, Ali is still visually entertaining. The music score recreates the 60s and 70s effectively also.

Will Smith deserves acclaim for the emotional depth he brings into his portrayal. His re-creation of Ali’s poetic boxing style is superb and he thoroughly deserves his Academy Award Best Actor nomination. Then, there is the wonderful Jon Voight. His interpretation of the legendary American broadcaster Howard Cosell has to be seen to be believed. Cosell had an on-screen sparring battle with Ali, but an off-screen friendship. Voight is unrecognisable as the charismatic Cosell, but the voice and inflection are perfect.

There are inherent problems in making a biographical feature film about a legendary figure who is still alive. White America didn’t really revere Ali – he was seen as rebellious and divisive. But the majority view softened considerably with Ali’s age and his suffering of Parkinson’s disease. So this is a straightforward account of events without a total insight into character motivation. There is more than enough, however, to justify interest and to educate younger people about one of the 20th century’s greatest sportsmen.

Screening on general release