A biopic focusing on a decade of boxer Muhammad Alis life, from 1964 to 1974.
In between the years 1964 and 1974, Cassius Clay wins the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, gets embroiled with Malcolm X, refuses the draft, fights the Rumble In The Jungle against George Foreman, and changes his name to Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali and the movies have so far enjoyed a tempestuous relationship that has encompassed both the sublime - Leon Gast's Oscar-winning documentary, When We Were Kings - and the ridiculous - the self-serving Ali autobiography, The Greatest.
Happily, Michael Mann's biopic falls heavily towards the former. Epic yet focused, ambitious but controlled, worthy without the dull bits, Ali manages the neat trick of celebrating the man's innate strength - sporting, political and spiritual - without ever feeling like a manufactured PR job. Much to his credit, Mann creates boxing set-pieces that have nothing to do with the over-the-top histrionics of Rocky or the stylised brutality of Raging Bull. These scenes are sustained (the dust-up with Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) is over ten minutes long), punishing and real. While the only tricksiness occurs as Mann throws in a gloves-eye-view of the blows, the footage is infused with a rough-hewn, almost DV-like quality that feels bruisingly immediate, rather than designer raw. Occasionally the director's grip falters. The sinister subterfuge of Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation Of Islam feels fudged and, in nobly avoiding a sensationalist approach, there is a lack of dramatic fireworks in a middle section that should really crackle - Ali's refusal of the draft, and his first wife's rejection of his Muslim customs, feel somewhat flatter than they should. But around the hilarity of Ali's press conferences and weigh-ins, there are moments of sublime power. Witness Ali pulling over in his car on learning of Malcolm X's death as the streets teem with people; a bravura opening montage cross-cutting his training with a young Ali travelling on a segregated bus and a dynamite performance from soul legend Sam Cooke (David Elliott); and the fantastically realised entrance to the Rumble In The Jungle that feels right in a way that huge, sporting spectacles recreated on screen rarely do. Surrounding Ali are various characters pushing and pulling for ownership of his soul - shady Malcolm X, promoter Don King, his friend Howard Bingham, spiritual guru Drew Brown - but the most affective relationship sits between Ali and TV pundit Howard Cosell (an unrecognisable Voight). Played to a tee by both actors, Mann teases out a friendship of mutual dependence - Ali needed Cosell to provide a mouthpiece, Cosell needed Ali to spice up ratings - and masked affection. Watch Ali pull the toupee off Cosell's head mid-interview. But, perhaps, ultimately, the buck stops with Will Smith, and he succeeds magnificently. While much of the attention surrounding his performance will undoubtedly centre on the bulking up and pugilistic proficiency, where Smith really impresses is in the stuff that cannot be taught. Completely at home with the rapid fire banter, the swagger and the poise of the man, this is inhabiting, rather than impersonating, a real life. An honest and fearless performance, not once does Smith invoke that skinny rapper "getting jiggy with it".
It may not scale the heights of Heat or The Insider, but this is riveting stuff and reconfirms Mann's status as a master of the medium.