PROS: Hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of portraying Ali.
CONS: Some say biopic falls to capture emotional impact of the champ.
Early in his career, by taking the role of a con artist in the film version of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” Will Smith made it clear that he was not to be pegged.
In other words, he was not to be “The Fresh Prince” for long. Even a string of comic heroes in sci-fi and action blockbusters would not turn Smith into someone that could be easily pigeonholed.
Then along came “Ali,” which meant that Smith would work under the exacting scrutiny of director Michael Mann. For what would arguably be his finest role, every body part had to be pumped up and in place, even if that meant taping Smith’s ears back to his head to more closely resemble the Greatest.
“He’s a lot like me, in that if you’re going to do something at all, you’re going to do it better than anyone else in the world,” Smith says. “When you do something, you’re going to have one of two outcomes. You’re going to succeed in your mission, or you are going to be dead.”
To be Mann’s idea of Muhammad Ali, Smith had to train for 13 months before shooting and spend eight months gaining 30 pounds on his trim 192-pound frame, which meant eating seven times a day. Then, there was the matter of the ear, and mastery of Ali’s distinctive Southern Baptist-tinged chanting vocal delivery.
That’s just the outer shell. Ali’s inner life was something else, which Smith took on with serious reverence.
“The emotion that people felt towards Muhammad Ali was always a little frightening to me,” he says. “It’s much beyond respect for a fighter.”
Despite that, Smith believes, “This role is in my DNA, the role I was born to play. I used more of my tools in this film than I’ve ever used.”