To be Muhammad Ali…


Muhammad Ali.

Michael Mann.

Will Smith.

Muhammad Ali.


There is something about this man. No kid can perhaps ever say that they did not grow up swearing his name. Muhammad Ali has been a legend in his time, beyond his time and he shall continue to be so from even beyond his grave. He is a legend killer who became a legend by killing legends. He had faced obstacles, within the ring and without. And he will continue to inspire the famous Adidas line, “Impossible is Nothing”. A never-say-die spirit, he showed the world that it was only over when he said it was over.

Michael Mann has not just made movies over the years, he had made long lasting impressions on viewers, long after the final roll has snagged the projector. Be it the stellar Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together for the first time (not in the way of Godfather II) or even the sheer genius of The Insider, starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, his movies have captured moments and played them on to greater magnificences. And finally, he made a movie called Ali, a tribute to the fighting spirit of the legendary boxer.

 And he wanted Will Smith to play the part. Will Smith declined, feeling perhaps that he would be inadequate to step into the dancing shoes of the legend (not being racial, but the black card  surely did weigh heavily on Smith). But then, Will Smith later declared that he got a call from Muhammad Ali himself, asking him to portray him in the movie and no one, and I repeat, no one  turns down the master. And Will Smith became Muhammad Ali.

Now credit goes to whom or what, I do not know. But the transformation of Will Smith into Muhammad Ali, right through the entire movie was indeed extraordinary. Smith instilled in  himself a very unique panache, something that was never seen in him. It was no longer him battling aliens, or robots, or any of that jazz — it was Will Smith turning into an actor’s actor and  into a boxer’s boxer.

He got the entire structure right, he got the tone right, he got the physique to the T and his remarkable transformation into Muhammad Ali was surely something to experience.

True, it was a Michael Mann movie and nothing needs to be taken away from that fact. The very solid screenplay, the masterly camerawork, the mind boggling music, everything just brought  the movie together. Ali was a movie you could feel as being made from the heart. It was lacking nowhere, it was magnanimous all around. Even the boxing sequences used real boxers against  Smith and he took all those blows on himself, which is evident from the fact that the camera does not cut away from the shots. Michael Mann asked the boxers to just not knock out Smith.

The script also wove in Muhammad Ali’s most famous lines:

  1. “It wasn’t no Viet Cong who called me a nigger.”
  2. “Yeah, I know where Vietnam is, its on TV.”

The rage of a man, the pure sterile determination, the massive power, the toothy ambition. Everything came alive on screen, as if it were a mere documentary on the great man. Muhammad Ali had taught the world how not to back down, how to fight and live on your own terms, and how to come back, even from the worst falls in your life.

Now, thanks to Michael Mann and Will Smith, a whole new generation, who haven’t seen Ali fight in the flesh (barring on Youtube) can live and breathe the sensation, know more about him, see him claw his way back into his own life… and they too will know what it meant to “fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

There are some movies that need no argument, no debate, no lengthy prose — they just need to be seen to be felt.

There are some stories that need to be heard to be felt.

Ali, works on both counts.

About Subhojit Sanyal

Film buff. Film buff. Film buff. View all posts by Subhojit Sanyal

3 responses to “To be Muhammad Ali…

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