Review by Tim Minor
'Ali' the film urges us to "Forget what you think you know" and I for one forgot all I thought I knew about Will Smith. If you laughed along when he portrayed the Fresh-faced Prince of Bel-Air and enjoyed the silliness of "Men In Black" then it will be a new Will Smith that you see take to the ring in Ali.
Not only did Smith gain an astonishing 35 pounds for the part and wear prosthetics to hide his trademark ears; he has also developed into a heavyweight acting talent. After agreeing to take the role on (having previously rejected it due to being "petrified") it took Smith a year to prepare for shooting. With guidance from Academy Award nominee director Michael Mann ("Heat", "The Insider", "Last Of The Mohicans"), Smith and his team of voice coaches, boxers, trainers and technical advisors began the process of reproducing Ali's speech, mannerisms and "sting like a bee" boxing style.
The film couldn't hope to cover the entirety of the Muhammad Ali phenomenon, so instead the story focuses on ten years of Ali's career. From the defeat of the unbeatable Sonny Liston in 1964 to the famous "Rumble In The Jungle" against George Foreman in 1974 we are treated to a uniquely personal view of Muhammad Ali. As Smith notes in interview "You see the rise and fall, not through the headlines, but through his friends' eyes and his own eyes."
After Cassius Clay's (as he was then known) fight success we are introduced to his friendship with Malcolm X (played here by Mario Van Peebles) and his complex relationship with The Nation Of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and Allah. His conversion to Islam and the power he displayed in the ring lead to his "rebirth" and it is at this point that Clay takes on the moniker Muhammad Ali meaning "worthy of high praise".
But it's not long before trouble looms and it's on the way into a post-fight interview that Ali learns he is facing the draft to fight in the Vietnam War. However, Ali refuses his Army induction in 1967 and his Championship title is subsequently removed.
Stripped of his title and with a five-year jail sentence hanging over his head, Ali's case is dragged through the courts and he quickly realises that he cannot rely on the support of The Nation Of Islam when they reject his membership.
But Ali fought on and his spirit was undiminished. Having to chase fights in states that allowed him to compete without a valid licence became increasingly difficult and soon Ali entered into a period of exile. Missing here is any discussion of how these 3 1/2 years out of the spotlight eroded the extraordinary motor skills that made him such a great athlete.
Wonderfully emotional scenes and a powerful soundtrack permeate the movie and in Kinshasa, Zaire where Ali trains for his title bout with George Foreman we are treated to a Rocky-esque run through the streets with adults and children trailing after him shouting "Ali! Bumaye!" (Ali! Kill him!). But it is never cheesy and when we see the tin shacks and the deprivation that stands as a backdrop to the kleptomaniac government of Mabuto, the results are moving.
Eventually Muhammad Ali triumphs in the "Rumble In The Jungle". It is here, and in every fight scene we see the extent to which Smith has pulled his off best performance to date. Where Ali worked with elegant cruelty, Smith is persuasive. He moves around opponents with a litheness and grace unexpected in most prizefighters, let alone movie stars.
Ali, the story of the greatest athlete ever to step into the ring - it's truly a knockout!
Ali opens in London on February 15th and nationwide on February 22nd.