|Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) celebrates after a surprise victory in Michael Mann's incredible film.|
There are few straight-up crowd pleasers in Michael Mann’s career, especially in his later films. I’m an serious fan of his movies, but it’s easy to see why reactions to Miami Vice and Public Enemies were divided. The trickier one for me is Ali, his 2001 biopic of the legendary boxer. It’s an intriguing story of a well-known figure and has a huge star in the title role. Despite those benefits, the response from audiences and critics was mixed. It wasn’t a financial disaster but didn’t recoup its sizable budget. Roger Ebert called it “a movie that was never properly prepared and mounted, that got away from its makers in the filming, that has been released without being completed.”
That reaction is surprising because I’d place Ali among Mann’s most convincing films. His confidence in this era shines through from the start. The story doesn’t rush to hit every beat, and that allows for better understanding of the real man behind the persona. Smith plays the big moments well yet also finds the inner strength lurking beneath the bluster. Shots with Ali training in Zaire or riding quietly in a car succeed because we’re able to see the emotions in Smith’s face. Depicting the fights well is impressive; what really sells this film are the scenes around the famous battles.
|A Sam Cooke performance vitalizes a stunning 10-minute sequence to open the movie.|
How to Open a Period PieceThe first 10 minutes of Ali are a master class from Mann on how to introduce a place and time. There’s little dialogue or obvious exposition, but he gives so many important details. It’s February 1964, and Ali (still known as Cassius Clay) trains for his first fight with Sonny Liston. His run down a quiet street is intercut with a lively Sam Cooke performance to an adoring crowd. The outdoor shots are grainy and contrast sharply with the bright lights of the concert. We also catch glimpses of Ali’s childhood as he watches his dad painting Jesus and sees a photo of a lynched man in the newspaper. These quick moments reveal hints at what created Ali’s worldview as an adult.
Mann also introduces us to Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and mentor Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) during this sequence. Ali’s relationship with Malcolm is a key part of his personal life, and the others provide imporant support for the fights. With each new scene, the momentum builds towards Cooke’s final performance of “Bring It on Home to Me”. The incredible part is how seamless the complex introduction feels; there’s no weight to the exposition. Mann shows us the forces around Ali and ramps up the energy towards the Liston fight. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) sets just the right mood and is an early example of remarkable digital cinema. By the time Ali hits the door for the weigh-in, we’re ready to rumble young man rumble.
|The fight sequences in Ali are some of the best ever made, particularly the first Liston fight.|
Fighting the Big Ugly BearI’ve yet to see more convincing fight scenes than what’s in this film. Mann lets the fights breathe, particularly the two that bookend the story. It feels like a different sport than what’s depicted in the Rocky films. The fighters often miss, and we see the exertion from each round. The punches also make an impact since the actors are actually hitting each other. The first Liston fight is fascinating because the stakes are so high. This is Ali’s shot to take down the champ, and he may not get another. The camera lingers behind the boxers’ shoulders and drops us into the environment. With lights shining everywhere, there’s an otherworldly atmosphere as the camera tilts inside the ring. Mann also incorporates long and medium shots to ensure we aren’t disoriented by the action. The music picks up when the tide shifts to Ali’s side, and it creates a feeling that something amazing is about to happen.
Smith trained for a year to develop the physique and skills for the role, and he never resembles an actor mimicking a boxer. When the camera zooms in on his happy feet, it’s easy to believe those come from the same guy. Smith’s charisma shines at the weigh-in. Joined by Bundini, he announces his presence to the reporters on hand. The contrast with Liston is never sharper than during this moment. Ali uses wit to ridicule Liston, who can only reply with “I’m gonna fuck you up!”. Liston doesn't have the same way with words and is more of a bruiser. The quiet time before the fight reminds us that Ali’s a showman but hardly a fool. He may play the clown for the press, but he’s a smart guy who understands the importance of this opportunity. The thoughtful man who greets Malcolm in the locker room is quieter and reveals a more complex individual.
The fight covers 10 minutes of screen time, but it feels much longer. When Ali claims “I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to boxing!” after winning the title, it's arrogant yet may not be far-fetched. The scenes following the win are more deliberate but equally intriguing. Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall) recognizes an opportunity with the young Cassius and becomes closely involved, and that creates an internal conflict when Malcolm becomes estranged. It’s interesting that Albert Hall is now playing the Elijah Muhammad after portraying his associate in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He has limited screen time but is convincing. The attention spent on Ali’s relationship to Malcolm and the Nation of Islam reminds us this isn’t just a boxing movie. Shots with U.S. agents tailing Malcolm (especially in the Director’s Cut) hint at a larger story to explore. These brief interludes add depth by looking beyond Ali.
|A somber Ali watches the city burn following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.|
The Thrill is GoneThe tone of the second act is much different from the joy when Ali gained the title. He splits with Malcolm out of loyalty to the Nation of Islam and is shattered by the assassination. The expressionless look on Ali’s face betrays no emotion, but it’s clear that he’s dying inside. When he takes down Liston in the first round of their rematch, the excitement is nonexistent. Ali’s angry about Malcolm’s death, issues with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a racist world. He’s all business and has no time for boxing. Questions remain on whether Liston threw the fight, but that wouldn’t fit within this narrative. A later fight with Ernie Terrell was even nastier after the opponent called Ali “Clay” before the contest. Ali toys with the guy and institutes a vicious beating. Smith effectively conveys the anger boiling up inside Ali that comes out with serious ferocity towards the helpless Terrell.
The focus during the middle hour is Ali’s refusal of the induction order into the U.S. military. Instead of making a compromise and taking the safe route, he steps up and nearly loses everything. Smith doesn’t overplay these moments, especially the famous line “A’int no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The stunned expression from his photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright) says it all. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Ali watches a city burn and rides a train in silence. The forces that want to maintain the status quo are strong; what chance does he have? When Ali finally returns to the ring, he isn’t the same guy and has lost years off his prime. He doesn’t have that edge to take down a force like Joe Frazier. Even a superstar like Ali has limits, and Smith reveals that vulnerability.
|The Ali/Cosell relationship stands out because of the chemistry between Smith and Voight.|
Ali and CosellThe most convincing relationship is between Ali and Howard Cosell, played with fitting quirkiness by Jon Voight. The make-up to help him resemble Cosell is remarkable, but it’s Voight that makes the character spring to life. During Ali’s lowest points, it’s conversations with Cosell that energize him. We catch shades of the outgoing younger guy as he describes a fantasy of defeating Joe Frazier. What lifts this relationship beyond the public sparring is the warmth behind the scenes. There’s no BS from Cosell when he’s talking to his friend off camera. Ali talks to the broadcaster like a mentor and respects his opinion. That’s rare for a guy who’s been taught not to trust people, even those close to him. Cosell’s phone call to Ali from the studio giving him the news of his win at the Supreme Court seems fitting given their connection.
Less engaging are depictions of Ali’s relationships with three women during the film’s 10-year time period. Each actress brings something interesting to the part, but they receive limited attention in the script. The introductions are fun, especially the dance scene with Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith). Their relationship goes downhill quickly and gives her little to do after the first scene. More impactful is Belinda (Nona Gaye), but even that marriage eventually grows sour. Ali’s infidelity is addressed but not dwelled on, and it isn’t clear why he can’t be a good husband. It’s clear that he wants to run the show, and Belinda’s concerns about the Nation of Islam and Don King (both correct) don’t sit well. Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) arrives during the final act and sets up an unseen chapter after the credits. It’s difficult to fit everything in a biopic, and it’s unfortunate that the women receive less attention.
|Ali jogs on the edge of the frame while the Zaire people ardently support him.|
The Rumble in the JungleThe definitive chronicle of Ali’s fight with George Foreman in Zaire is Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Mann can't match it. What he does instead is build an emotional climax following the somber middle act. Even before the fight, Ali’s left speechless by the feverish support from the African people. Arriving to the famous chant of “Ali bomaye!” (Ali kill him!), he once again becomes the people’s champ far away from home. There are lengthy shots of Ali running through the streets with crowds following him everywhere. This sequence might feel tedious in lesser hands, but it brings resonance to the closing fight beyond the professional stakes.
Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy is famous; Stallone even copied it in Rocky III. What keeps the fight interesting is the danger that emanates from Foreman. Few believe that Ali can win, even some in his inner circle. Charles Shufford’s quiet and imposing work as the massive Foreman keeps the fight intriguing even when the final outcome is known. Following Ali’s victory, the look on Smith’s face as he celebrates before the crowd hits just the right notes. He’s faced possible death and achieved the impossible, and the victory feels earned after all the struggle. This isn’t the last act of Ali’s life, but it’s the right place to close this epic film. By narrowing the scope, Mann provides more depth and a real sense of what drove the man. Ali transcends the normal biopic and is captivating right to the end.