If ever there was a casting match made in heaven, Will Smith as Muhammad Ali might come closest. Like Ali in his heyday, Smith is attractive, charismatic, possessive of a gargantuan ego and a bit of a showboat.
When Smith’s name was first bandied about for “Ali,” his “Men in Black” director Barry Sonnenfeld was attached to the project, seemingly a poor fit. But when writer-helmer Michael Mann signed on, the real-life story took on a credibility and weightiness that had people immediately talking Oscar. Now that the film has come to fruition, the challenge is to convince viewers that recent history — a story with preordained dramatic peaks and valleys — can come alive again with dramatic punch.
Working for and against the film is its ambitious scope — beginning with Ali’s shocking triumph over Sonny Liston in 1964 to his even more unlikely victory over the seemingly invincible George Foreman in Zaire a decade later. The advantage for Ali fans is the chance to see a veritable highlight reel of the heavyweight champion’s greatest ring moments: Liston, Ernie Terrell, Joe Frazier and Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle.
The disadvantage — especially given the film’s relatively abbreviated 2-hour, 40-minute time frame — is the pressure to skim over the fighter’s political and personal conflicts in a cursory Cliff Notes fashion.
Ali was one of the century’s most gifted athletes, and a role model for his uncompromising self-determination and racial pride. But he was also a complex, flawed human being. And it’s Mann’s and Smith’s ability to dig beneath the iconographic surface that will make the difference between probing biopic and mere diorama of Life Magazine images.
Mann has developed an avid following since his feature debut, “Thief,” in 1981; but it wasn’t until the epic heist film “Heat” in 1995 and the subsequent tobacco industry expose “The Insider” — for which he earned Oscar nominations for writing, directing and producing — that he entered the pantheon of world-class filmmakers.
Screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkenson, who share co-writing credits with Mann, Eric Roth and Gregory Allen Howard (story), have proved adept at fact-based material covering roughly the same period with “Nixon,” and earned Oscar noms as a result.
Mexican d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki has been twice nominated for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “A Little Princess,” while costume designer Marlene Stewart has worked with Oliver Stone on his most accomplished efforts (“JFK” and “Nixon”).
As for the cast, this is by far Smith’s best shot at converting B.O. muscle into actorly respect with an Oscar nomination, if not for the role’s prestige and stature alone. The buzz is also strong on Jamie Foxx as the flamboyant Drew “Bundini” Brown, a prosthetically altered Jon Voight as Howard Cosell and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X.
- Picture: producers Michael Mann, Jon Peters, James Lassiter, Paul Ardaji, A. Kitman Ho
- Director: Mann
- Actor: Will Smith
- Supporting actor: Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles
- Supporting actress: Nona Gaye
- Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
- Editing: William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin, Lynzee Klingman
- Production design: John Myhre