Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Will Smith, Jon Voight, Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mykelti Williamson.
The movie depicts a decade in the life of Muhammad Ali, beginning with the legendary athlete’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 and concluding with his 1974 ‘Rumble in Jungle’ comeback fight against George Foreman.
Following the critical acclaim of The Insider, director Michael Mann chose an international boxing icon as the subject of his 2001 film. “I think the reason is that Ali’s life is so extraordinary,” he explained. “It’s so dramatic that it has such extreme dynamics of sacrifice. What was actually intimidating about his life was how do you find one piece of it that would authentically do justice to any one part of it?” The solution for Mann was to focus on the tumultuous period in American history when Civil Rights marches and Vietnam War protests dominated the news headlines; it was midst this domestic unrest that the Lousiville, Kentucky native transformed himself from the unknown Cassius Clay to the global phenomenon Muhammad Ali.
With boxing serving as an integral part of the story, a lot of preparation was required to make sure the fight scenes appeared to be authentic. “Will became a fighter,” remarked the Chicago-born filmmaker of his leading actor Will Smith. “He boxed every Thursday, and worked out six hours a day five days a week. He actually trained with [Ali trainer] Angelo Dundee.” Mann went on to add. “Everybody who plays a boxer in the film is a boxer. We didn’t use stunt coordinators or stuntmen. Michael Bentt, who plays Sonny Liston, was a WBO heavyweight world champion. James Toney plays Frasier. Charles Shufford [who plays George Foreman] fought [Wladimir] Klitschko on HBO.”
As for portraying the ethnic discrimination which the athlete had to endure both in and out of the boxing arena, Michael Mann wanted to stay away from melodrama. “The racism that Ali experienced growing up in Louisville was subtle,” observed the moviemaker. “I didn’t want to show the typical scene of Ali walking into a restaurant in Rome after winning the Olympic gold medal and they won’t serve him. That’s real movie-of-the-week, made-up stuff and I don’t find it potent.”
When it came to filming the famous boxing match held in Zaire, the filmmaker was influenced by the renowned documentary When We Were Kings which recorded the historic event. “Leon Gast [Kings director] gave us 17 hours of outtakes from his film; he was incredibly generous,” said Michael Mann. In order to give movie audiences a ringside seat, the director experimented, placing cameras on helmets, and boxing gloves; however, what worked the best was the invention of a low-res VHS camera about the size of matchbook, which enabled him to simultaneously shoot the left and right sides of the action.
The movie’s title character, Muhammad Ali, paid the Hollywood production a visit. “I knew he [Ali] was anticipating us shooting,” revealed Mann, “but when he was actually walking around these sets, the three-dimensional reality was a little hard for him. But, you know, the man is absolutely devoid of self-pity, the world’s worst candidate for clinical depression. No matter what the obstacle, he reaches down and comes back. He’s a huge guy, much bigger than in pictures; he weighs about 255 now. When he rises from a chair and wobbles a little bit, if you reach out to try to help him, he’ll smack your hand away. He doesn’t take help; that’s how Ali connects to people.”
In regards to what Michael Mann thinks of boxers, the director replied, “There might be some anxiety before a fight, but if he’s prepared, his feelings have to be that he can’t wait to get into that ring. Boxing is something that requires a commitment of courage, but it’s highly strategic and highly tactical. It really is an art.” As for the corruption associated with the sport, the moviemaker believes there are moments where “It [boxing] also elevates itself sometimes to become almost mystic.”
To ensure an accurate performance by Will Smith, both the actor and his director conducted extensive research, which involved the use of a dialect coach and the viewing of various interview clips. “Will and I spent a lot of time looking for footage of Ali in repose,” stated Michael Mann, “but he never stops talking or rapping or doing something. His ideas come to him in a very fast, gestalt way. His life story is a function of the way he was in the ring, always switching strategies and coming to conclusions very quickly. The closest thing we could find [that showed an inner, private Ali] was the way he holds his hands, always protected, resting on his chest. When he points, he uses a bent finger. When he shakes hands, his hands are always limp. He protects his hands like a pianist would, and it betrays a little softness or vulnerability not usually seen.”
Despite all the care taken to make a true-to-life portrayal, the story oddly enough lacks the cocky playful spirit which made Muhammad Ali such a compelling individual. For his effort portraying the charismatic and candid heavyweight boxing icon, Will Smith was rewarded with an Oscar nomination, along with his co-star Jon Voight.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.