In 1962, heavyweight boxing champion Charles “Sonny” Liston had established himself as the biggest, baddest fighter in the world, having put down his predecessor, Floyd Patterson, in the first round in two separate bouts. Not only could most boxers not stand up to his raw power, he was also very intimidating, a glowering, ferocious giant of a man. As a result, many fighters were reluctant to get into the ring with him. Among the few exceptions was a cocky young loudmouth from Louisville, Kentucky by the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.
Cassius Clay, having signed on to take on the champ in February of 1964, was far and away the underdog. Nothing about him said “future champion” to most experts. He didn’t fight inside like a heavyweight, he danced around too much, he wasn’t tough enough, he didn’t hit hard enough. On fight night, all but three of the forty-six writers at ringside expected a Liston knockout, though a few were kind enough to grant that Clay might last the first round.
Clay, for his part, predicted that Sonny Liston would go down in eight rounds. The challenger fought circles around the monster, and by the end of the sixth round, Liston had had enough. Cassius Clay shook up the world. A few days later, he announced his membership in the controversial Nation of Islam and would subsequently change his name to Muhammad Ali. A legend was born.
Ali, Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic, recounts the late, great Ali’s life and career up until 1974, when he won the title for the second time against George Foreman. Will Smith plays the electrifying fighter to the hilt, appearing to enjoy every shuffle and rhyme he performs. It intends to give you an in-depth look at the man, both publicly and privately, the experiences as a boy and a young man which shaped him and which he continued to carry with him throughout his life. To the movie’s credit, it humanizes a man who had promoted himself into boxing godhood during his lifetime, giving us rather surprising moments where he is quiet, introspective, even flawed. The fights themselves are filmed very well, avoid the flynning one would see in a Rocky movie. There’s real struggle and brutality, particularly in the Ali-Foreman fight. After all, while there was much more to Muhammad Ali than floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, what’s a boxing movie without actual boxing?
However, I often felt like the movie was going easy on the audience when portraying Ali the man. Whether in the interest of time or fear of truly offending someone, whether the viewer or Ali himself, it didn’t sufficiently show how his experiences made him receptive to the Nation of Islam’s ideology (other than passing mentions of the murder of Emmett Till), nor did it go far enough to show how and why he was so controversial and vilified by mainstream America. True, after Ali lost his strength and his voice to Parkinson’s disease, he became a national treasure, but there was a time – and a long time at that – where Muhammad Ali was a widely hated man. In the process of idolizing him, some of the less glamorous (but no less important) aspects of his life were left by the wayside. Perhaps that’s par for the course in a biopic, though; we’re supposed to come away feeling good that Ali is back on top, even though we know it didn’t last forever. Besides, to present a fully comprehensive study of a man who lived as full a life as Muhammad Ali did would take a hell of a lot more than two hours.
Even though it feels like Ali is incomplete as a biography, it’s not a bad movie. Smith is in his element as the Louisville Lip, overshadowing the supporting cast at will and seemingly losing himself in the role. If you haven’t seen it, I definitely recommend it. If you can’t rent it, I’m told it’s been re-released in theaters, so it might be playing at one near you.
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