Movie Review: Ali
By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
Muhammad Ali's life suggests a Shakespearean epic. In the beginning he rises to become the world's heavyweight boxing champion, an intimidating, motor-mouthed Nation of Islam follower who sacrifices his livelihood by refusing to fight in Vietnam. In the middle acts, Ali returns to boxing, regains his crown (twice) and solidifies his status as the world's most famous figure. Then comes the tragic fall: Ali fights well past his prime and is pummeled so badly that his brain is permanently damaged, slowing his speech and fleet feet.
Yet he still has one massive triumph left: lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Thirty-two years after seizing the heavyweight crown as an iconoclastic outsider, Muhammad Ali is America.
That would be one way to approach making a movie with such a definitive-sounding title as "Ali." Michael Mann has gone a different route: focusing solely on the period from the title-winning victory over Sonny Liston as Cassius Clay in 1964 to his reclaiming the crown 10 years later with his knockout of George Foreman in Zaire.
Like a filmmaker who adapts a lengthy novel for the screen, Mann had to pare down his material to hone his themes. An artist must be granted such flexibility.
But for a movie that lasts two hours and 38 minutes, Mann has made an awfully narrow epic. What he has left out includes: a sense of Ali's childhood beyond a glimpse of him moving to the back of a segregated bus; why he became a boxer; how his popularity soared to globe-conquering heights; his specific religious/spiritual connection to Islam; the "phantom punch" controversy surrounding his second defeat of Liston; his fierce, bitter rivalry with Joe Frazier, including their on-air scuffle before their second fight and any mention of "The Thrilla in Manilla" (which followed the Foreman bout); and any reference to his physical decline, the Atlanta Olympics or just about anything that has happened over the past 27 years.
That's a lot to omit. Particularly glaring is the reduced role of Frazier. Not only do many boxing fans consider the third Ali-Frazier bout in Manila to be one of the most brutal heavyweight fights ever, but the boxers' interpersonal sparring reveals a side of Ali unseen in the movie.
To whip up their rivalry, Ali branded Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and publicly derided him as dumb, and Frazier's psyche supposedly never recovered.
Decades later, Frazier ridiculed Ali's stricken condition and said of his Olympics performance, "It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in."
All Mann shows of Frazier (James N. Toney) is an abbreviated treatment of the first two fights and a scene in which Frazier graciously offers to lend Ali money.
Why are the more compelling, unflattering dynamics missing? Because both Ali, who gave his blessing to the project, and Frazier are still alive? Or because Mann has a more idiosyncratic strategy in mind?
I wouldn't presume to guess. But Mann has a tendency to linger on certain events and to breeze past others without giving much of a clue why. The movie opens with a bravura piece of impressionistic filmmaking: a beautifully shot and edited montage that intertwines footage of Ali (Will Smith) training, brief flashbacks of his past, the publicity buildup to the first Liston fight and soul singer Sam Cooke performing in a smoky club. At one point the audio is triple-tracked, simultaneously playing Ali speaking, the insistent rhythm of his skipping rope and Cooke vamping from the stage.
It's a hypnotic stretch to be sure; Mann is letting you know, "You're in the hands of a master filmmaker, and what you're watching is a work of art, not just some paint-by-numbers biopic." Only later do you wonder, OK, but what was the significance of that Cooke concert given that neither Ali nor his associates appeared to be there?
The first Liston fight we experience round by round, blow by blow. Mann doesn't amplify sound effects and play around with film speeds like Martin Scorsese did in "Raging Bull," but he intends to get you as close to the action, giving you a sense that neither boxer can go far to avoid the other's fists.
By the bout's end, you feel like you're getting that as-advertised intimate look at someone you've previously experienced as a distant icon.
Where the movie starts losing its focus is the next major section, which depicts Ali's friendship and falling out with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles disappearing into the role quite effectively), as the Nation of Islam speaker runs afoul of Elijah Muhammad (who has given Cassius Clay his new name).
This relationship may be among the least publicly known elements of the Ali story being told here, but the pendulum swings too far toward Malcolm X's power struggles.
Why does Mann show us Malcolm X getting gunned down when the only relevant point here is Ali's reaction to the news?
The movie covers Ali's courtship of first wife Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), who dresses too liberally for his Nation of Islam handlers, and his subsequent struggles to remain faithful despite his religious teachings.
Also handled at some length are Ali's refusal to be inducted into the armed forces, his legal battles, the stripping of his crown, his abandonment by Nation of Islam representatives (whose later acceptance by Ali is never fully explained), and his playful, almost son-father relationship with broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, believable under even more latex than he wore as FDR in "Pearl Harbor").
The movie's last big chunk covers the weeks Ali spent in Zaire leading up to his "Rumble in the Jungle" with champion Foreman, the prohibitive favorite.
"Ali" spends much time showing how Ali is embraced by the locals while Foreman remains distant, yet Leon Gast's excellent 1996 documentary, "When We Were Kings," gives a much greater sense of the fighters' contrasting personalities, Zaire's political and cultural climate, and the actual fight, which "Ali" drags out as if no one in the theater knows who's going to win.
Throughout, we get few insights about what makes Ali tick. Mann has a tendency to let the camera linger on Smith's face as events swirl around him one Zaire scene has Ali looking at a mural for what seems like five minutes and I guess we're just supposed to read his soulful reaction.
The problem isn't Smith, who does as good a job as imaginable impersonating the boxing champ. The magnetic actor has bulked up physically and gets an A for his study of Ali's speech patterns, facial expressions and boxing style.
Likewise, Mann has restaged Ali's fights and public appearances in obsessive detail, and although the screenplay is credited to two writing duos (Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth and Mann), the wittiest lines come from Ali.
But if accuracy is the key aim, then the movie's bypassing of essential information is mystifying. And if "Ali" truly is supposed to be art, then it must be more than a series of re-creations that end abruptly. Otherwise, we might as well watch ESPN Classic.
We've seen Ali as the charismatic star of the real-time drama of his life. "Ali," for all its flashy filmmaking, just doesn't compare.
Directed by Michael Mann; written by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth and Mann; photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin, Lynzee Klingman; production designed by John Myhre; music by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke; produced by Jon Peters, James Lassiter. A Columbia Pictures release; now showing. Running time: 2:38. MPAA rating: R (some language, brief violence).
Clay/Ali Will Smith
Drew "Bundini" Brown Jamie Foxx
Howard Cosell Jon Voight
Malcolm X Mario Van Peebles
Angelo Dundee Ron Silver
Don King Mykelti Williamson