Revisited: Ali

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film begins with Cassius Clay, Jr. (Will Smith) before his championship debut against then heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. In the pre-fight weigh-in Clay heavily taunts Liston (such as calling Liston a “big ugly bear”). In the fight Clay is able to dominate the early rounds of the match, but halfway through the fight Clay complains of a burning feeling in his eyes (implying that Liston has tried to cheat) and says he is unable to continue. However, his trainer/manager Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) gets him to keep fighting. Once Clay is able to see again he easily dominates the fight and right before round seven Liston quits, therefore making Cassius Clay the second youngest heavyweight champion at the time after Floyd Patterson. (Mike Tyson would later beat Patterson’s record). Ali spends valued time with Malcolm X (Peebles) and the two decide to take a trip to Africa.

Clay is then invited to the home of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad where he is granted the name Muhammad Ali due to his status of World Heavyweight Champion. While at home with his wife and children, Malcolm X is called by the Nation of Islam and has been informed Ali will not go to Africa and his suspension (Malcolm’s) has been extended. Muhammad Ali takes the trip to Africa where he finds Malcolm X, but later refuses to speak to him, honoring the wishes of Elijah Muhammad. Upon returning to America and defeating Sonny Liston a second time, Ali continues to dominate as champion, until he is stripped of the title, boxing license, passport suspended and sent to jail for his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War. After a three year hiatus, his conviction is later overturned, and attempts to regain the Heavyweight Championship against Joe Frazier. Dubbed the Fight of the Century, Frazier wins, giving Ali the first loss of his career. When Frazier loses the championship to George Foreman, Ali makes a decision to fight George Foreman to be the first boxer to win his title a second time. Ali goes to Zaire to face Foreman for the title. While there, Ali has an affair with a woman he meets named Veronica Porsche (who he is said to later marry in the epilogue). After reading rumors of his infidelity through newspapers, his wife, Belinda Ali (Nona Gaye) travels to Zaire to confront him about this. Ali says he is unsure as to whether he really loves Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) or not, and just wants to focus on his upcoming title shot. For a good portion of the fight against Foreman, Ali leans back against the ropes and covers up, letting Foreman wildly throw punches at him. During the fight Muhammad Ali realizes that he has to react sooner or else he will be knocked out or possibly die in the ring. As the rounds go on, Foreman tires himself out and Ali takes advantage. He quickly knocks out the tired Foreman, and the movie ends with Ali regaining the Heavyweight Championship of which he was previously stripped.

REVIEW:

When it comes to boxing, there is arguably no bigger name than Muhammad Ali. Not only was he a great boxer, but he had a larger than life personality that just lends itself perfectly to the movies. This is where we get Ali, one of the few biopics made about someone who is still living, but does it do the man justice?

What is this about?

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali stirred controversy when he ruled the ring, as shown in this biopic that also frames the social climate of his heyday.

What did I like?

Boxed in. It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when boxing matches were a big deal, much in the same way football and basketball games are today. The film captures that enthusiasm by showing how packed arenas are, the reception Ali would get, even after his draft dodging defiance, and talking about the payout/ratings for these matches, if only in passing.

Transformation. At the time of this release, Will Smith was a big movie star, no question, but he hadn’t done anything that would capture the Academy’s attention and make him a respected actor, as opposed to the skinny kid from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. One of the things that went to change people’s opinion of him was how much he transformed his body to play Ali, packing on muscle, learning to box, and even capturing Ali’s mannerisms as best one can without actually being Ali.

Cosell. When it comes to sportscasters, you would be hard pressed to find any more recognizable that Howard Cosell. As his era was in the 60s and 70s, it is no surprise that he was an important role in the rise of Muhammad Ali. What does surprise me, if this is true, is the close relationship they have. The film takes the time to show and nurture this, especially in later scenes, if for nothing more than comedic effect, and those scenes turn out to be some of the most memorable non boxing scenes.

What didn’t I like?

X marks the spot. The first 45 minutes or so of this film are spent telling the audience how Cassius Clay became Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali. All that is fine and good, but the Malcolm X angle was a bit much. I don’t know if Ali and X were actually friends, but if they were as close as this film suggests, then I’m sure it would be talked about a bit more. As such, this is the first that I’m hearing about their friendship. Also, not to take anything away from the fine performance of Mario van Peebles (where has he disappeared to?), but if I wanted to watch a movie about Malcolm X, I’d watch the one from a while back with Denzel Washington. Overall, my big issue with this is just too much time was spent on Malcolm X, even going so far as to show his home life in a couple of scenes and the FBI tapping his phone (which doesn’t go anywhere, btw).

Molasses. Sakes alive does this film move slow! I was constantly watching the time of this 2 1/2 hour film. The boxing matches, while the most exciting parts of the picture, are a little bit of a spike in movement, but even they seem to be sluggish. I don’t want to say that those should have just been highlights, but perhaps it would have been better that way. When a film is this slow and serious, it needs something to keep the audience interesting. I mentioned the Howard Cosell scenes, which are a sprinkle of life, but the boxing scenes should have captured the audience and not let go. Instead, they contribute more to the comatose feeling that this film inspires.

Hair of the fox. This is a small little issue, but it is one that I’m going to bring up. Jamie Foxx looks like he pissed off his barber or jumped while they were cutting his hair. I don’t know if that’s the way the real Bundini’s hair looked, but geez, man! I was talking to my friend a few minutes ago, and mentioned how there are some similarities to Foxx’s hair here and in his pre-Electro scenes from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Yes, his hair doesn’t have anything to do with his performance, but everytime he was on-screen, all I could do was look at the bald strip.

When I was growing, like most people around my age, the boxing that I got into was Mike Tyson’s Punch Out on the original Nintendo system. I heard about Muhammed Ali, mostly from greatest athlete of all time lists and the barbershop scene in Coming to America, but never really knew anything about him. It wasn’t until 1996, when an older, Parkinson’s stricken Ali appeared in Atlanta at the Olympics and lit the torch, that I became interested in his life. Not long after that, we get Ali, which has turned out to be a quality film, even with its few flaws. Once you get past the snail like pace of this picture, you may actually enjoy it, or at least learn something. Keep in mind, that Ali himself has said that many of the even portrayed were not accurate. Do I recommend this? Yes, no reason for you not to check this out.

4 out of 5 stars

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