“For your consideration” is the phrase used in ads touting year-end films for Oscar nominations. Its application is most often wishful thinking (The Majestic? Please!). But if awards still have anything to do with rewarding balls-out daring, then Michael Mann’s Ali deserves a fistful. Start with Will Smith, who molded his lean body into 220 pounds of heavyweight muscle and nailed the champ’s verbal strut. It’s a remarkable transformation that could have stalled at mimicry if Smith hadn’t also caught the watchful intensity that could make Ali’s eyes flash with anger and fierce purpose. Smith gives a towering performance, defiantly funny and impassioned.
Mann, working with screenwriters Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, isn’t concerned with turning the life of Muhammad Ali into a string of biopic cliches. If you want to know about Ali’s Kentucky youth or his current battle with Parkinson’s disease, watch A&E. Mann focuses on ten years, starting in 1964, when Ali, then Cassius Clay, won the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston, through his 1974 upset of George Foreman, the Rumble in the Jungle, in Zaire. The fight footage is thrillingly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who excels out of the ring as well.
Mann’s unique achievement is to catch Ali in the act of discovering himself as an African-American, a Muslim, an athlete, a husband, a father, a friend, a political activist and a cultural icon. Unducked controversies include the loss of his title when he refused the Vietnam draft, his exploitation by black-Muslim leadership and the womanizing that plagued three marriages.
The film explores Ali’s relationships with, among others, Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright) and trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver). Jamie Foxx cuts deep as Ali’s troubled cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown. And Jon Voight is spectacular and then some as ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, the butt of Ali’s best jokes. Makeup renders Voight nearly unrecognizable, but his talent shines through as he and Smith reveal the shared humanity that linked these tireless self-promoters. Ali is a bruiser, unwieldy in length and ambition. But Mann and Smith deliver this powerhouse with the urgency of a champ’s left hook.