Intermittently impressive but, in the end, disappointingly superfluous biopic of the 20th century’s most charismatic sportsman, Muhammad Ali (Will Smith). The film spans the ten crucial years leading up to the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, where Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight boxing title he’d forfeited when refusing to serve in Vietnam. When he’s on form, Mann can be a delight to watch, and there are flashes of his trademark bravura control of sound and image here, in particular the opening sequence set to a Sam Cooke medley. Cutting between shots of the young Ali training in a gym and jogging through a nocturnal inner-city with impressionistic flashes of his childhood, Mann out-Scorseses Scorsese in terms of stylish swagger, setting up the expectation that were about to witness some kind of groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece.
But when he actually has to get down to business and tell Ali’s remarkable story, Mann founders — it’s seldom a positive sign when four screenwriters are credited, and the script is what lets this over-ambitious project badly down. Attempting to cover every angle of Ali’s crowded life, the film ends up having to give too many elements (his romances, his religion, his politics) the most cursory treatment, and its often difficult to work out who’s who and whats what — the film never builds up anything like a coherent, persuasive narrative flow and, like so many biopics, ends up jaggedly episodic.
Many supporting characters, such as Jeffrey Wright’s omnipresent photographer Howard Bingham, have frustratingly little to do, which means the central role of Ali is even more crucial than would otherwise be the case. Smith, though he works very hard to get the champ’s distinctive vocal inflections spot on, can’t do much to make this unexpectedly humourless character especially believable or interesting. Jon Voight, however, is a constant delight as Ali’s sportscaster pal Howard Cosell. Kitted out with elaborate wig and facial prosthetics, he seems to be having a ball, and his appearances provide regular uplifts to an otherwise downbeat — film similar welcome energy is provided by Mykelti Williamsons suitably outrageous version of promoter Don King.
Apparently aware of his own control-freak tendencies, Mann here resorts to some desperate tactics in an effort to loosen himself up — even occasionally abandoning his usual pristine look in favour of shaky, grainy, hand-held digital video: an interesting experiment, but one that ends up feeling forced and arbitrary. In the crucial fight sequences, meanwhile, he’s clearly trying to distance himself from the Raging Bull school of artiness, but the editing is too choppy and the addition of up-tempo music is uncomfortably reminiscent of Rocky. While Ron Shelton’s Play It To The Bone may not be an especially great film, it remains easily the most authentic ring recreation in recent years, with the directors’ enthusiasm for and knowledge of the sport evident in every shot of the climactic, epic bout. Mann, on the other hand, doesn’t seem especially interested in boxing at all.
After such a strong start, its sad to see Ali running out of gas so long before the finish line — it doesn’t help that the lengthy Kinshasa conclusion is such a pale rehash of the far superior documentary that chronicled the same event, When We Were Kings. Surely most viewers interested in Ali would already have seen that Oscar-winning picture… so why bother?
9th March, 2002
(seen 26th February, UGC Boldon)
US 2001 : Michael Mann : 158 mins