The condensed story of 10 years in the life of Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), between 1964 and 1974: a partial bio-pic that focuses on his boxing career and his women, but also explores his growth as a boxer, a civil rights hero and a Muslim, all as if we were at his side.
 

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Smith convinces in the fight scenes, but doesn't quite capture Ali's mixture of charm and steel.

Cassius Clay grows up in America's South, where segregation is the norm and where blacks are still occasionally lynched by white racists. No wonder, then, that the young boxing champ is attracted to the radical Nation of Islam, and, for a while, becomes a close friend of the controversial Malcolm X. But it's when Clay, now re-named Muhammad Ali, takes a stand against the Vietnam War, refusing to be drafted into that conflict, that his troubles really begin - and the Establishment sets about stripping him of his championship and his dignity...

I'm far from being a boxing fan, and so the numerous fight scenes in Ali didn't do a whole lot for me. But what fascinates about Michael Mann's impressive film is the character of Ali himself. Mann, a consummate director of thrillers, like Manhunter and Heat, turned to biography with The Insider, and seems particularly interested in heroes who go against the popular trend. The film is at its best when it explores Ali's friendships with such disparate people as Malcolm X, played by Mario Van Peebles, sports commentator Howard Cosell - a remarkable impersonation by Jon Voight - and with his unstable Jewish friend, Bundini, Jamie Foxx.

Will Smith doesn't quite capture Ali's mixture of charm and steel, but he does a pretty good job in a difficult role, and certainly convinces in the fight scenes. It would be interesting to have another look at The Greatest, the 1977 film in which Ali played himself, and to compare it to Mann's ambitious and one the whole very successful biography.

 

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2 hours 37 min

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