The Greatest. Cassius Clay (Smith, left) floats like a butterfly then stings like a bee...
dir Michael Mann
scr Stephen J Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann
with Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, Michael Michele, Jeffrey Wright, Ron Silver, Giancarlo Esposito, Mykelti Williamson, Joe Morton
release US 25.Dec.01; UK 15.Feb.02
Columbia 01/US 2h30
Michael Mann tries something new with this bio about sporting legend Mohammad Ali, combining an eerily authentic performance by Smith with an examination of very private moments and a sharp intelligence that demands that viewers engage their brains as well as their hearts. The result is like a blast of fresh air--powerful, sometimes perplexing, unexpectedly intimate. And Smith completely inhabits Ali from his first title bout with Sonny Liston in 1964, through his tumultuous marriages, his controversial conversion to Islam and his refusal to fight in Vietnam, up to the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974.
The film captures complex intricacies of his relationships--most notably with Malcolm X (Van Peebles), Howard Cosell (Voight), his trainer (Foxx) and three women (Pinkett Smith, Gaye and Michele). It loosely traces the world at large around Ali, but overall stays focussed on the man himself. And what emerges is a marvellously intimate portrait, admiring yet not worshipful, and most importantly leaving the enigma intact. This refusal to fill in the gaps can be irritating (more than one cut leaves us wondering where and when we are now--sometimes we never know), but it also keeps us engaged, letting the details wash over us, filling in subtle shades of personality and intrigue in just the right balance. Smith's performance is both a dead-on impersonation and a strong creation of a new character we've never seen before. And the film has just the right balance of humour and pathos, drama and romance. By the time we reach the climactic Foreman-Ali bout in Zaire, there's been maybe a bit too much boxing action, even if all of it is integral. Yet as the story builds and Ali confronts his own image and celebrity, the film never takes the easy or obvious road. Big, bold ... and surprisingly moving.
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