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Will Smith plays "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali, in Michael Mann's biographical drama, Ali (2001), which covers the ten tumultuous years of his life from his first title match with Sonny Liston to his thrilling comeback in the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with George Foreman in Zaire. These are the years when the man once known as Cassius Clay befriended Malcolm X, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and defied the government by refusing to serve in Vietnam; he stood by his principles even as he was convicted of draft evasion. He was stripped of his title and banned from the ring, and subsequently shunned by the Nation of Islam. Yet, Ali fought his way back to reclaim his title after he was exonerated by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision. Mann chose to focus on these years not just because they were the most volatile and dramatic era of Ali's life, but because his transformation in this period, and his determination to stand by his principles in the face of legal threats and public hostility, offered a window into the era and insight to the personality and commitment that would guide the rest of his life.
Many efforts to make a feature film on the life of Muhammad Ali, thought to be the most famous man on the planet in the sixties and seventies, had been attempted for ten years. A script by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson made the rounds of the studios and directors and Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Norman Jewison and Steven Spielberg all reportedly tried to claim the project with no success. When Michael Mann signed on to Ali, he brought Eric Roth (his collaborator on the acclaimed The Insider, 1999) on board to help reshape the script; they cut down the sprawling screenplay (which originally covered Ali's entire life) to the dynamic period between 1964 and 1974 and put in their own research to sharpen their presentation of those events. But Michael Mann resisted calling it a biopic. "We're not here just to show you the events from the outside," he explained in a 2001 New York Times interview. "This is about the real Ali, the one the public saw, but also about the one they didn't see, and have never seen. We show him at his best, defying the U.S. government, refusing to be inducted into the Army and losing three and a half years of his career for it. We also show him at his worst, taunting and insulting his black opponents and cheating on his wife. This isn't an idealized Ali."
Will Smith was one of the biggest screen stars of the day, thanks to hits such as Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), but despite his superb breakthrough performance in the screen version of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993), he had yet to establish himself as a "serious" actor who could carry a film of this magnitude. He threw himself into the project with a vengeance, studying Ali's vocal inflections and delivery from archival film footage and TV interviews (including rare footage supplied by Leon Gast, the director of the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings). Smith wanted to offer not an impression so much as a suggestion that captures the sing-song lilt of Ali's trash-talk poetry, his voice dancing through the words as if verbally sparring. Smith trained for a year with famed trainer and former boxer Darrell Foster to get himself into fighting shape and put on 35 pounds to bring him up to Ali's weight class. Determined to make the fight scenes real, Smith traded real punches with his opponents. Charles Shufford, the real-life heavyweight boxer cast as George Foreman, was told to hit as hard as he could in his fight with Smith, short of knocking out or seriously injuring the actor. Mann praised Smith's ability to capture not just Ali's fighting style but his body language and his thoughtful focus. In pre-fight scenes and breaks between rounds, as trainers and advisors hustle around Ali and shout suggestions to the fighter, Smith is still and intent, his eyes looking to the future as his mind works through his strategy. You can almost see him thinking his way through his fights and brainstorming his legendary rope-a-dope strategy in the Foreman fight.
Both Mann and Smith insist that Jon Voight was their first choice to play Howard Cosell, the famed sportscaster who became both Ali's friend and media adversary. Almost unrecognizable under the make-up (so heavy that at times he's something of a waxwork, which is somehow appropriate for Cosell), Voight's evocation of Cosell's distinctive delivery is dead-on, but he also offers the human side of Cosell with amused smiles and concerned private conversations with Ali outside the interviews. "You could see that after a while this genuine relationship grew," Voight told the New York Times in 2001. "There hasn't been anything like it before or after in sports history."
Jamie Foxx took on the role of Ali's cornerman Drew Bundini Brown, the street poet behind Ali's pronouncements and the author of his distinctive lyric "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," Mario Van Peebles plays Malcolm X, Mykelti Williamson put on a fright wig to become Don King, LeVar Burton is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Hall is Elijah Muhammad. Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Michele, Joe Morton, Paul Rodriguez, Bruce McGill and Giancarlo Esposito fill out the balance of the major supporting roles.
Ali was budgeted at around $100 million, a significant investment for 2001 that was secured by the casting of Smith and the commitment of Mann and Smith to cover cost overruns. Mann made the most of his budget to take the production on location for key sequences in Ghana, South Africa and Mozambique (standing in for the former Zaire, now the war-torn Congo). According to Smith, shooting on location was essential to his performance in the final act as it provided an opportunity to connect with the country, the culture and the people of Mozambique, just as Ali did in Zaire while training for the Foreman fight in 1974.
The film was released to mixed reviews but drew almost universal praise for the performances. Roger Ebert wrote that Smith was "sharp, fast, funny, like the Ali of trash-talking fame" but found the film "long, flat, curiously muted film." Variety critic Todd McCarthy called the film an "ambitious and cold study...a picture that feels bottled up rather than exuberant" but that Smith "carries the picture with consummate skill." The film failed to make back its cost, according to Box Office Mojo, but both Smith and Voight received well-deserved nominations for their performances and the film remains a respected portrait of the athlete and the man still revered as one of the great heroes of the 20th century: sports legend, cultural icon and outspoken citizen of the world.
Producers: Paul Ardaji, A. Kitman Ho, James Lassiter, Michael Mann, Jon Peters
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann (screenplay); Gregory Allen Howard (story)
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Art Direction: Jonathan Lee, Bill Rea, Tomas Voth
Music: Pieter Bourke, Lisa Gerrard
Film Editing: William Goldenberg, Lynzee Klingman, Stephen Rivkin, Stuart Waks
Cast: Will Smith (Cassius Clay/Cassius X/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 Roi), Nona Gaye (Belinda Ali), Michael Michele (Veronica Porche).
C-157m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Sean Axmaker