Will Smith captures The Greatest in a film that misses the fire and passion of Muhammad Ali
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Will Smith (Muhammad Ali), Jamie Foxx (Drew Bundini Brown), Jon Voight (Howard Cosell), Mario van Peebles (Malcolm X), Ron Silver (Angelo Dundee), Jeffrey Wright (Howard Bingham), Mykelti Williamson (Don King), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sonji Roy), Nona Gaye (Khalilah Ali), Michael Michele (Veronica Porché), Michael Bentt (Sonny Liston), James Toney (Joe Frazier), Charles Shufford (George Foreman), Joe Morton (Chauncey Eskridge), Barry Shabaka Henley (Herbert Muhammad)
There is perhaps no greater sportsman of the 20th century than Muhammad Ali. Not for nothing did he call himself “The Greatest”. His impact on his sport is unrivalled, and his impact on our culture almost matches it. He’s one of those titanic figures that, even if you don’t care a jot for boxing, you know exactly who he is. Ali approved the film – and even more so, Smith’s performance – in Mann’s film that covers ten turbulent years in Ali’s life, from winning the title and changing his name, to refusing the Vietnam draft and losing his boxing licence and title, to reclaiming the title again in the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle”.
If there is a major flaw about Ali, it’s that Ali was a man who was about so much more than just boxing – but Ali struggles to be more than a film about a boxer. It’s hard today to look at the film and not think that a black director would have had more connection with the emotional, cultural and political turmoil that defined Ali’s life in the 60s and 70s. Mann mounts all this well – and gives it plenty of empathy in the film – but his outsider perspective perhaps contributes to the film’s coldness.
Coldness is the prime flaw of the film. There was no sportsman larger than life than Ali. No public figure who demanded attention more, no boxer who fought his battles as much with wit, convictions and passion as well as fists as Ali. A film of his life needs to capture some of this magic alchemy: it needs to feel like a film that conveys the man Ali was. While there is no doubt there was a melancholy in Ali, a quiet inscrutability behind the pizzazz, this film leans too much into this. It does this while never really telling us anything about Ali’s inner life.
As two marriages are formed and collapse, we don’t get an understanding of what drew Ali to, and caused him to turn away from, these women. His relationship with the Nation of Islam ebbs and flows throughout, but other than a few on-the-nose statements from Ali, we don’t get an idea of how his faith defines him. We get his brave stand against serving in the Vietnam war, but not the emotional and intellectual conviction behind it (other than parading a series of famous quotes).
The film is packed with famous black figures – from Malcolm X to rival boxers and Ali’s support team – his father and family, not to mention three of his wives, but the relationship the film is most invested in is Ali’s mutual appreciation/attention-feeding verbal duels with boxing correspondent Howard Cosell (a pitch-perfect vocal and physical impersonation by Jon Voight). There feels something wrong about this film about a black icon, that his relationship with a white man feels the best defined.
But then it’s also a flaw with the film that its most striking, inventive and memorable sequences are all pitch-perfect recreations of filmed events. Will Smith perfectly captures the vocal and physical grace of Ali, and brilliantly brings to life his interviews with Cosell and his larger-than-life press conferences. The boxing matches are compellingly filmed, a perfect mix of slow-mo and immersive angles (they were largely fought for real, with few punches pulled). Ali’s final KO of Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, after several rounds of exhausting Rope-a-dope, is punch-the-air in its triumphal filming and scintillating excitement. But all of this stuff you could actually watch for real today. How essential is a film that uses actors to recreate, with better camera angles and superior editing, stuff that was filmed when it actually happened? Essentially if I want to see Ali stunning the world with his words, or sending Foreman to the canvas, would I choose to watch the man himself, or Will Smith’s perfect impersonation of him doing it?
There is nothing wrong with Will Smith’s performance though. For all his Oscar-winning work in King Richard, this is his finest performance. Bulked up to an impressive degree (Smith spent a year preparing for the film), he’s got Ali’s movements in and out of the ring to a tee and the voice is an unparalleled capture of The Greatest’s. It’s a transformative, exact performance – Smith has just the right force of character for the patter, but also brings the part a soulful depth that the film struggles to explore further. It’s a superb performance.
Enough to make you wish this was in a better, more passionate film. Ali was at the centre of a storm of civil rights and class war in America. He became the public face of a black community struggling to make its voice heard, sick of tired of being treated like second-class citizens by a country they were expected to die for in battle. The politics of the time is lost – Mario van Peebles has a wonderful scene as a troubled Malcolm X, but even he feels like a neutered figure – and the cultural impact of Ali is diluted.
The film ends with captions that dwell on Ali’s later boxing career and his marriages. That’s fine. But this a man who was so much more than what he just did in the ring. He used his position to take a stand on vital issues in America, at huge personal cost, when thousands of others would have settled down to mouth platitudes and make money. He took on the government and refused a compromise that would have allowed him to continue boxing, because he felt the war and America’s domestic policies were wrong. He was a brave leader of men, at a time of furious injustice. The film conveys the facts, but none of the glorious passion. It’s a photocopy of Ali, which is why its best bits are recreations of filmed events. It can’t quite understand or communicate the tumultuous feelings behind racial injustice in the 60s and 70s. It could – it should – have been so much more.