Ali

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(2001) ★★★★★

Sky Movies Select: Monday 29 June, 5.20pm

Will Smith as Cassius Clay, the boxer who changed his name to Muhammad Ali and shook up the world after becoming heavyweight champion in 1964. Self-proclaimed the Greatest, Ali was like no other heavyweight before or since, with a wit as quick as his feet and a mouth as sharp as his soubriquet, the Louisville Lip.

No one gave the young upstart a chance in Miami against reigning champion Sonny Liston, a ‘big ugly bear’ who makes the likes of Mike Tyson look like Dr Evil’s Mini-Me. But Liston never saw Clay coming and the world was never the same again. Aligning himself with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, Ali disavowed his slave name and put the frighteners on white America in general and the FBI in particular, both of which were already freaked out by the emergence of Black Power.

The government’s solution was simple and shocking: Ali was drafted into the Army. For all his physical courage and self-belief, the bravest thing Ali ever did was refuse to go to Vietnam, and his reasoning was irrefutable: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Ali’s extraordinary story is well-known, of course, but the combative film-maker Michael Mann brings fresh focus and insight to his inspirational subject.

As America’s Great Society falls apart in a series of assassinations and street riots in the 1960s, so Mann’s radiant movie moves from the light into the dark, from the Liston-Clay fight in Miami with its white robes, dazzling light canvas and bright lights, through the shady dealings of the Black Muslims, to the financially expedient Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, where Muhammad is given graphic indication of his truly iconic status.

This is a superbly choreographed movie, and that’s not so much down to the Ali shuffle as a vindication of Mann’s fluent, music-friendly technique, a mixture of film and hand-held high-definition video, full of vibrant images, perceptive framing, flexible camerawork and fluid editing, all of which conveys to the audiece what Ali is feeling as well as experiencing.

Will Smith plays his part, too, and although he’s the wrong size and shape he makes more than a fair fist of portraying Ali. Physical differences didn’t prevent Anthony Hopkins from playing Richard Nixon and Alfred Hitchcock, after all, and Smith perfectly captures the cadences of Ali’s speech.

Besides, in profile he actually does resemble Ali. Jon Voight is funny, too, as ABC sports broadcaster Howard Cosell while Jamie Foxx reveals hitherto hidden depths as Ali’s tormented corner-man Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, who is plainly unimpressed by the influence of the Black Muslim hangers-on: “I’m the only normal person around here,” he wails, “and I’m a black Jew, I cain’t read and I’m half drunk.” Nona Gaye, as Ali’s Muslim wife Belinda, has the film’s most emblematic line: “Don King talks black, lives white and thinks green.”

Certificate: 15

Duration: 150min

Other Showings Time & Date
Sky Movies Drama/Romance Saturday, 4 July at 11:45PM