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If there was ever a sporting biopic that just had to be made it was this one. We’ve looked into the lives of greats such as Babe Ruth, Rocky Balboa and baseball’s infamous “Black Sox” in Eight Men Out. But Ali was crying out to be much greater, thanks largely to the great man himself. Not only a boxer, Muhammad Ali (a.k.a Cassius Clay) was also somewhat of a leader for the black community and for people who wanted to stand up for their religious and political beliefs. But the challenge was to recreate this impression on the big screen, telling the immortal boxer’s story in the best way possible. Enter a man named Will Smith.

Movie

Some of the most famous quotes came from the mouth of Muhammad Ali. Chances are if you think hard enough you’ll remember almost all of them, from butterflies and bees to something about being “the greatest”. And this guy had a right to be more than a little cocky. He was a brilliant fighter and more than lived up to the arrogant words that came out of his mouth.

Ali was originally named Cassius Clay but in his true fashion he changed it to the former in order to rid himself of the slave name he had carried, taking  a stance against the treatment of black people in general. He also stood up to the U.S Government against the Vietnam War, something which is covered in detail during the film. The most effective pieces, however, are his bouts with Liston, Frazier and Foreman. His real power and strength is shown in the ring where history was made. These are the showcase sequences that drive the story the whole way through. Kudos to the brilliant cinematography that could have made the film a choppy mess rather than the slick, in-your-face boxing film it turned out to be. Watch for the slight pause when Sonny Liston hits the canvas, recreating that famous photo. Magic.

The fighter

The best thing about the story is that it doesn’t gloss over some of the more sensitive parts of the boxer’s life. His experiences with women (four wives and nine children), his fight with the U.S Government over being a conscientious objector and his battle with boxing form are all covered to give a powerful and accurate balance to the story. He was never a perfect man, either in life or in the ring, and thankfully he isn’t portrayed that way in this film. But the remarkable path Muhammad Ali took in life makes for fascinating (if a little lengthy) viewing.

Will Smith takes this film from being merely another hyped blockbuster that never went far at all into a brilliant biopic that will satisfy even those who are not interested in the sport. Heck, I think boxing is one big waste of time but there’s a lot of things to like about this flick, beginning with an actor who has gone from being a caricature of a bad-ass black man with a sharp wit into someone who can really take a character and use it to make a film truly great.

There were more than a few people around the traps who cringed when Smith’s name was attached to the picture. Cuba Gooding Jr had a right to be more than a little cheesed off that he wasn’t handed the role from the outset. But after seeing the film a few times it is clear that there were some smart people at the helm of this flick, namely Michael Mann and his buddies. Smith is Muhammad Ali, from the silly humour to the pompous outbursts for the press to the unique vocal tones which could have become quite grating but thankfully only serve to portray the man exactly how he looked, sounded and acted in his prime.

It is clear that Michael Mann has followed up his surprise hit The Insider with a film in a similar mould, both in look and in content. Visually he used several key techniques to make things seem like we are watching the story of someone’s life rather than just a series of events. If he went any further the film would be steering ever so close to documentary territory. A smart move to provide such a calculated balance.

The supporting cast is equally effective. John Voight plays journalist Howard Cosell, a man who had a strange but admiring relationship with Ali. His performance is right on the money too. Although he might look like that guy from the Muppets who sits on the balcony during the show, Voigt has Cosell down to a tea. Then there’s Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X, a brilliantly restrained Jamie Foxx as Ali’s trainer and even Mykelti Williamson does a great job at recreating famous promoter Don King. All of these men take the film a lot further than I thought it would go and help to ease the pain of a pretty lengthy running time. But this one needed to be stretched out a little so as to not gloss over some important moments in the life of the boxing legend.

So far I’ve steered clear of turning this review into an Oscar-bashing swipe at the Academy and their learned members who saw fit to award the Best Actor trophy to Denzel Washington for just being angry. There’s no doubt Russell Crowe and Smith were well ahead of him in terms of the skill of their performances and the subtlety in which they delivered them. But thankfully he was at least recognised for such an effort, as was the remarkable Jon Voight.

Sadly, Parkinson’s Disease has reduced Muhammad Ali to a shadow of his former self, but this flick helps to show everyone exactly what he was like in his prime. A womaniser, a great fighter and a particularly cocky man who stood up to his opponents and the world with an unflinching vigour.  

The joker

Video

The film is presented in 2.40:1 and is 16:9 enhanced. Put simply, this transfer is brilliant. The visuals so carefully constructed by Michael Mann et al. are given the treatment they deserve by a visually stunning disc. First off the transfer is incredibly sharp, with the dark scenes coming up a treat. Shadows during the night scenes are very deep and use the dark palette of colours throughout the film to perfection. When there is a little bit more brightness to the film these colours really do stand out, making this one of the best-looking discs for some time. There are a few minor film artefacts dotted throughout the film but these are never distracting and if you’re at all interested in the film you won’t really notice them anyway.

Audio

This release contains two soundtracks for your listening pleasure; Dolby Digital 5.1 and the lovely DTS. The sound mix for the film relies heavily on effects (such as Ali’s gloved fist smacking into George Forman’s skull) and the music (most of which is performed by Sam Cooke) to really make it stand out. And stand out it does. Both soundtracks are a joy to listen to, particularly the DTS mix. It’s one of the many films that benefits from a DTS mix over 5.1. Let’s just say it gives the film a lot more punch, so to speak.

Surround use is quite good, even though the film lends itself to a lot of directional changes in the sounds stage. The effects move around the front and rear speakers just as quickly as Ali dances around his opponents, so you’ll most definitely feel as if you’re in the front row of the stadium. Couple that with some effective sub woofer booms and you’ve got yourself a superb DTS mix and a 5.1 soundtrack that is equally effective should your sound equipment have its limitations.

Extras

Roadshow have come up with a 2-disc set for this big release and they certainly don’t disappoint. The reason for the second disc is to free up some space on the first for a great transfer and sound mix while keeping the second for the extra feature to please interested parties.

First up is the Making Of Ali featurette which runs for just under half an hour. There are interviews with all the key players and lengthy discussion on what Smith went through to play the characters and how the film itself came about. This piece actually looks quite slick and plays out very well, giving viewers a lot of interesting information the way a commentary track would do on a larger scale. Sadly there’s no sign of the latter so these interviews will have to do. Nevertheless this is a great piece to watch if you’re after a little more.

Next is the Rove Live Interview with Will Smith which went to air on the Australian variety show early in 2002. Like the Swordfish interview from the same program that was included with the Region 4 release, this interview looks particularly good on our favourite format. My opinion is that host Rove McManus is one of the softest and most annoying interviewers going around but thankfully Smith manages to make this one a winner, much like Travolta and Jackman did during their Swordfish press junket. Great to watch if only for Will Smith and his charisma.

The womaniser

Also included is a Muhammad Ali Timeline that fills in the gaps in the film and helps to clarify a few key points about the man’s life. It is quite detailed and is really effective as a quick reference tool.

The rest of the disc is rounded out with the theatrical trailer and decent looking biographies for the main cast and Director Michael Mann. Not a bad selection of extras that might have disappointed a few people who got their hopes up when a 2-disc set was announced.

Overall

This was a film that had to be made and really had to be made quite well to receive any form of credit. Thankfully Michael Mann has proven he is a very talented Director and Will Smith has shown he is more than just a cool guy who shoots aliens once every few years. His portrayal of Ali is nothing short of brilliant and should’ve been ranked with Russell Crowe in the Oscar stakes, well above eventual winner Denzel Washington. With a great supporting cast including the sensational Jon Voight as muppet-lookalike Howard Cosell the film makes good on its hype and really gives the audience the story they deserved. Brilliant video and audio and a good extras package with a couple of quality pieces makes this film and DVD a great addition to anyone’s collection.


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