Sony // 2001 // 165 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 6th, 2004
Forget what you think you know.
There is no doubt about it. You can have your Michael Jordans and celebrate your Tiger Woodses, but when it comes to a clear-cut international icon of athleticism and personality, Muhammad Ali is the greatest of all time. From his Olympic gold medal win in the Rome Games of 1960, through his ultimate retirement from professional boxing, Ali was a symbol -- a sacred institution of both clever bravado and deadly serious politics that manifested itself in one of the most controversial and chaotic careers in sports. Stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 (for his refusal to fight in Vietnam on the grounds of his Muslim faith), Ali sat out the later part of the decade and did not fight again until 1970. But what a comeback it was. With titanic title bouts against other superstar pugilists like "Smokin'" Joe Frazier and a young George Foreman (himself an Olympian), Ali managed the unthinkable. He became the only heavyweight champion to lose and regain his title on three separate occasions. The years since his retirement have been filled with family and other fights -- mainly, a debilitating bout with the neuromuscular disorder Parkinson's disease. Still, he is an emblem to many, an individual who never allowed his personal beliefs to be belittled, either by the bigotry of America or the religious persecution of the government. Between his power in the ring and his presence outside of it, Muhammad Ali was and is the best, most compelling athlete ever.
So, you may be asking, why all this information up front? Why tell us all this now? Because it is more than you will learn by sitting though all two hours and 45 minutes of Michael Mann's magnificent, maddening motion picture biography of the squared circle Spartan, the simplistically titled Ali. Previously available as a barebones 2003 DVD offering, Columbia TriStar has just re-released the title in an expanded "Director's Cut" version (with about eight minutes of added footage). But even with the extra material, we barely get beneath the surface of the legend to learn anything about Ali the man. And this apparently was director Michael Mann's intent all along.
It is 1964. A young Olympic heavyweight named Cassius Clay (Will Smith, Independence Day, Wild Wild West) is challenging reigning champion Sonny Liston for the crown. The odds are stacked against the loudmouth boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, but the boy has hopes of doing something impossible. Indeed, when the fight is over, Clay is the new world champion. There are rumors in the press that this young fighter is a member of the radical, rebellious Nation of Islam, a Muslim sect that preaches a separatist ideal of black and white disharmony. Its main preaching proponent is the flamboyant, famous Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles, Baadasssss!, Posse). He has been teaching Clay about the Nation and the Muslim faith, and the neophyte is so taken with the religious leader that he begins calling himself Cassius X. The Nation finally receives him and the head of the organization, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, gives him a new name: Muhammad Ali.
This new identity does not sit well with Cassius's father, nor does it with the members of his ringside crew, including longtime trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver, Timecop, Blue Steel) and corner man Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx, Any Given Sunday, Booty Call). The only person who actually respects his decision is ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home). Indeed, it is Cosell who champions Ali during his refusal to be drafted in 1967. This act places Ali on an FBI watch list (having Malcolm X as a friend and mentor doesn't help either), and soon, he is under surveillance. When X is assassinated, Ali fears for his own life. Stripped of his boxing title and unable to work, Ali perseveres. He challenges his conviction for failing to be inducted into the armed forces, and almost three years later, wins on appeal to the Supreme Court. Along with a second wife and a new spiritual advisor, Herbert Muhammad (the Honorable's own son), Ali is back in business.
In no short order, he becomes a viable challenger for the heavyweight title. He fights and loses to "Smokin'" Joe Frazier and is about to enter into a rematch when Joe is beaten by the latest Olympic heavyweight, George Foreman. Don King (Mykelti Williamson, Forrest Gump, Three Kings) arranges for a boxing spectacle to end all spectacles, the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. It will be the ultimate match-up between Foreman and Ali. Using the cleverly named "Rope-a-Dope" strategy, Ali defeats Foreman and regains his championship. It is just over 10 years since he first gained the crown from Liston in 1964, and it's another chapter in the myth of the greatest sports icon of all time.
Michael Mann has made a career out of creating what can safely be called a new format in filmmaking. Mann's specialty, perhaps not invented by the innovative auteur but surely practiced by him throughout his entire canon, is called the "not about" movie. Looking at individual titles in his filmography, you instantly get the meaning of this terminology. Thief, his 1981 action opus, is not about stealing and technology (although it trades heavily on both concepts). Instead, it's a look at aging and anger, about dealing with your past to protect your present and secure your future. Even though it is based on Red Dragon and gave us the now overused serial killer storyline, Manhunter was more about the mechanics of the FBI, how profilers and crackers crawl into the minds of maniacs and discover their own disturbed desires within. From Last of the Mohicans to Heat, Mann's movies always suggest one thing, but end up usually focusing on something completely different -- and fresh. Even The Insider was not really about 60 Minutes and the pursuit of a whistle blower's story. It was a study in surgical paranoia, of how the desire to protect certain sensitive trade secrets lead one entire industry to backlash against a major network news show and the subject of their tell-all interview. Indeed, Mann's modus operandi seems situated somewhere between expressionism (which hopes to simplify subjects down to their essential elements) and impressionism (which wants only to capture the initial essence of a subject). He has a straightforward story to tell, but then utilizes stylized scenarios to demonstrate it.
Make no mistake about it; Ali is not the story of Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali's life. Indeed, director Michael Mann's movie message is almost completely contrary to the standard formats of a biography. This is not a film about one man's life. It's not even really about Ali as a fighter. Instead, Mann is looking at the bigger, broader canvas to cascade his images over and onto. The results, needless to say, are crafty and controversial. Mann's Ali is an anarchic attack on America as a nation of raving bigots. It is a showcase of the racial mistrust that swept through the suburban insanity of the United States circa 1950 to 1975. It is about how one unique individual, thrust into the center of this maelstrom, wandered through and suffered under this prejudiced Paradise Lost. Using boxing as his chief metaphor for the black man's struggle against the white reign of terror slowly poisoning the entire country (as well as a symbol for volatility and violence), Mann turns Ali as a stoic figure in direct conflict with all the racist revered. In essence, this is his mea culpa for being an Anglo-Saxon, a chance to atone for his entire callous culture, to apologize for all the lynching, discrimination, and those horrible "Caucasians Only" signs strewn about a supposedly free land. Mann's Ali is actually more about Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam (and its internal politics), and the FBI's campaign of fear, all in an attempt to show that, even in the midst of triumph, Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali was just like any other minority individual. He was indeed "different" as an athlete, as gifted a boxer as there ever was. But his other, more obvious variation made him a pariah in places that concurrently clapped as he landed another right hook.
Had Mann stuck to this desegregationist story and not focused on the gladiatorial battles between gloved combatants, Ali would have been a spectacular film (he would have had to change its name, though) -- one as important as it is artistic. Mann the director is highly capable of creating epic scope out of minor details or fashioning the fantastic out of a gift for creative imagery. But with Ali, he wants to have his debate and retreat from it too. And it is Ali the man, Ali the pugilist, that occasions the erratic excuse. Whenever the sweet science or the family life of our lead character comes into view, Ali dusts the deeper discussions off the plate to make room for routine melodramatics and intense action scenes.
Mann truly cannot make a visually unchallenging film (his canon speaks to that). Therefore the fights are amazing, having an authentic crackle in combination with clever artistic touches (the in-close camera work, the surrealist settings and backdrops) to teleport us directly into the melee. But without a real basis in personality or circumstances, these fights are just showboating set pieces, with only the final Foreman fight having any real resonance as a human or personal challenge. This is because Mann cheats a little with Ali, using a kind of previous-knowledge, judicial-notice approach to his story. He assumes you come into his film understanding a little about this important icon, the major milestones in his career, and the overwhelming celebrity he experienced at the height of his success. Then and only then will you be able to clearly connect with the tribulations, the traumas, and the triumphs Mann's title cipher experiences. Without this background, Ali becomes elusive, failing to fulfill even the simplest mandates of biographical moviemaking.
And it's odd that, in this new director's cut, the ancillary focus around Ali is further increased, with his relationships with other characters broadened (Angelo Dundee, Howard Cosell) without much clarity or concern for the main character. Mann tosses in a few public persona moments (the now classic "how fast am I?" scene with the child on the street) as well as instances of light interaction to open up his hero. But the narrative is still weighted heavily in favor of Malcolm X (he is the primary focus of the film's first 35 minutes) and the preparations for the Foreman fight, the "Rumble in the Jungle" (which the documentary When We Were Kings did a far better job of illustrating). When Ali goes out jogging through the slums of Kinshasa, only to come across a mosaic featuring his famous image adorning the side of a broken-down building, we are supposed to feel some manner of gratuitous guilt, not just for the fact that Ali has transcended talent to become something of a god to people around the world, but that we -- white America -- tried to stop him from being so influential. With the strangely unexplained scenes of spies speaking in code, Feds paying off informants inside the Nation of Islam, and the nonstop eavesdropping on Ali's life, we are supposed to understand the sheer size of his accomplishment. But there's never enough set up, scarcely a single moment where someone stops to explain all the espionage going on. Along with the overuse of soul music to suggest vibrancy and vitality (the connection between rhythm and blues and Ali's life is never fully realized), and the merest sketches of characterization, we don't have a solid enough foundation upon which to build our support -- either politically, personally, or emotionally. Mann should have used this re-edit as a chance to make up for some of the plot pitfalls he constantly topples into. Instead, he simply broadens his condemnation of injustice and abuse of power.
If Mann had found an actor, even someone unknown, who properly channeled Ali's electric flamboyance and ferocious determination, all of these qualms would have instantly been quelled. But he is stuck with the former Fresh Prince to anchor his attempts and that's really too bad. Not that Will Smith is a complete washout. Far from it. But as a complex man of character having to build his resolve on the back of the most brutal sport of all, Smith never really becomes Muhammad Ali. He is more like a make-up screen test version of the champ, a near-exact replica of the original pre-Islam Clay cast inside the commercial appeal of a box office superstar. Call him what you will: a phenomenon, a presence, a pop performer with massive cross over appeal, but Will Smith is not the kind of über-thespian required to take on the titanic task of this role. He is too superficial as an entity, usually getting by on cocky spunk mixed with a great deal of improvised kidding around. None of that is necessary in Ali, and as a result, Smith is even more vacant as a regal role model.
While it may seem unfair to compare him to the great Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, the comparison has merit. Both men played individuals they physically failed to resemble (both Will and Bob had to bulk up to craft their characters). Each was the centerpiece of a directorial tour de force reaching for something beyond a simple boxing biography (Scorsese's meditation on redemption vs. Mann's preaching on prejudice). Both had to show prowess in the ring while not necessarily embodying the wear and tear that boxers usually go through. But Smith has an advantage that DeNiro did not. Jake LaMotta was a joke, a clearly vile villain whom DeNiro had to struggle to humanize. Smith has the most photogenic, beloved athlete of all time, and he still seems to be playing him below the radar, without any of the requisite largeness. Perhaps it's because he is given only well-known buzzwords and obvious insights for dialogue. The screenplay never really challenges him, not that he could measure up to it if it did.
Indeed, the script equally subverts the remainder of the cast. About the best overall performance -- and that includes Smith's title take -- is Mario Van Peebles's Malcolm X. While he doesn't have the Denzel-like flair of the late civil rights leader, he still gives a very moving, very human performance of this usually symbolic cinematic statement. Van Peebles makes us understand the rift with the Nation of Islam in a manner more personal than other Spike-like interpretations. Jon Voight may be successful in shaping the infamous ABC sportscaster into something less than an imitation based cliché, but Howard Cosell was such a private person with an amazingly outlandish public persona that to underplay him seems silly. Jamie Foxx, so fierce and funny in his other film work, turns Brando in Ali, mumbling his lines under his breath and barely registering as the brash urban "poet" Bundini. As for the rest of the crew, only Ron Silver is spared the embarrassment of being nothing more than a glorified statue by actually having a few lines to utter. We learn nothing about Dundee except his loyalty, which is more than can be said for Paul Rodriguez's Dr. Ferdie Pacheco and Jeffrey Wright's photographer Howard Bingham. While Wright wins a scant couple of verbal spars, Rodriguez is relegated to interesting haircut status with his mostly mute role. All the women are wasted in Ali, treated in a manner similar to the way the champ responded to the ladies the majority of the time -- used, then tossed aside. Jada Pinkett Smith (Will's real life spouse) has a blink-and-you'll-miss-her turn as Ali's first wife Sonji, and Nona Gaye gets to play the crux of longsuffering second wife Belinda in suggested offscreen moments.
Mann could have avoided all this, had he simply stuck to his internal guns and made the movie he really wanted to make out of Ali. Instead of giving in to Will Smith's halfhearted hero worship (and a desire for a trip to the dais come Oscar time), Mann should have really dug deep into the despair within the African American community, the supreme struggles of the civil rights movement, and the power of sports, celebrity, and music to make a difference in the eventual integration and gradual (and still trying) acceptance of minorities into the citizenry. With his unbelievable visualization skills and painter's approach to cinema, a truly remarkable and memorable movie about race relations could have resulted. But just like other experiments in mixed mediums, the combination of civic unrest and overt athleticism as exemplified by Ali just doesn't work. For all the gorgeous camerawork, flawless framing, High Definition digital experiments (Mann filmed some of the movie in HD to bring a "reality" that standard stock failed to capture) and authentic recreations of time and place, Ali still manages to underwhelm.
Like two evenly matched fighters, the story of this sports superstar and the unjust atmosphere he had to function within circle one another without either establishing superiority. Instead of one being knocked out in favor of the other, both premises fight to an unsatisfying draw, the kind of static stalemate that keeps Ali from transcending its themes to become something spectacular. As it is, it is a fascinating -- if flawed -- film about a tumultuous time in society. Strange, since it was supposed to be about the greatest boxer to ever take up the sweet science. Muhammad Ali is a true cultural symbol. But the movie of his life doesn't even begin to explain why.
Anyone who owns the original DVD version of this film will be glad to hear that the audio and video elements presented this time around by Columbia TriStar are no better or worse. So if you are not interested in the commentary, the making-of documentary, or six minutes of added footage, sticking with the first disc will more than satisfy your home theater concerns. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is flawless and pristine. The colors are sharp and dynamic and the shadows crawl with a crisp darkness. Sonically, the movie has a couple of complicated issues. First, the music is cranked up every time it is on the soundtrack, occasionally wiping out dialogue or destroying the mood. As much as Sam Cooke's velveteen voice smothers you in soulful bliss, having it blaring over dramatic moments does not induce instant aural gratification. And if the songs are too loud, the voices are too muffled. Mann seems to be trying for an "overheard" ideal in his conversations. But the Dolby Digital 5.1 appears incapable of keeping it clear and concise. Even at higher volume levels, you'll still feel the sonics are underproduced.
As for bonuses, we begin with Mann's newly recorded alternate audio track. If you have a doubt about the radical, racial focus of the film, look no further (or maybe that should be "listen" no further) than this passionate pronouncement of intent on the part of the filmmaker. On several occasions, Mann discusses his desire to frame Ali's story with the symbols and sense of prejudice and civil unrest. He talks at length about his song selection and the task of finding replicas for famous places in the history of Ali's life. As for some of the strange casting choices, Mann states a belief that actors need not look like the recognizable people they are playing; as long as they have heart, the prosthetics department will do the rest. While he talks about Voight as Cosell and a couple of the other actors, it is interesting that Mann doesn't go into the tricks he employed (hiring similarly sized costars to play the fighters, filming from discrete angles) to make Smith appear to be Ali. Still, for fans of in-depth analysis and scene-specific stories, there is very little precise technical detail in this discussion. About the only thing missing here is Smith himself chiming in with charm in abundance, constantly trying to keep his over enthusiasm in check as he marvels at Mann's work and his fellow actors' technique. Luckily, you can experience this kind of piece puffery in the 30-minute making-of featurette included on the disc. Smith and Mann play the mutual admiration society game for as long as you can tolerate it, and then continue the compliment parade. We do get a window, albeit a small and partially closed one, into how the film was helmed from a behind-the-scenes setting. But mostly it's glad-handing and equally self-serving praise from all around Ali.
Even though this is a Director's Cut, this is still not a special edition DVD release of Ali. Tacking on a making-of documentary -- really nothing more than a publicity piece -- and allowing Michael Mann to toot his own horn for nearly three hours does pad out the value of the DVD, but doesn't really make it special. Now, if somehow, the real life participants had been interviewed, given a chance to add their presence to this title, it would have been wonderful. So would some discussion on the use of special effects. We know that Mann could not recreate the Rumble in the Jungle or other authentic locations without some CGI, so it would have been nice to see how it was done. Finally, this is a film that relies on extensive makeup to help craft its characters. So where is the behind-the-scenes info on this important facet of the production? Any or all of this bonus content would have lifted this package beyond the Director's Cut dynamic and into the real realm of a fully fleshed-out DVD special edition.
Sitting at the back of the bus. Sleeping in hotels halfway across town, far removed from the rest of the group. Drinking out of designated water fountains. The inability to participate in the political process. Only forty short years ago, these were the realities for African Americans in the United States. Many films, from Mississippi Burning to Once Upon A Time...When We Were Colored, have tried to highlight this historic swollen eye on the face of the supposedly fairest and most just country on the planet. Michael Mann wants to add his name to the list of angry artists as well, to decipher and explain the absolutely redolence of minority life in Middle America circa the '50s and '60s. Oh, and he wants to talk about Muhammad Ali's life as well.
Unfortunately, that's like fitting an elephant into a hole the size of a skyscraper. The beast will pass through easily, but leaves no impact upon departing. Ali was, and remains, a larger-than-life character of complete celebrity, the original superstar of sports and a universal spokesman for faith and spirit. So why is it that the film of his life treats him like a pawn in the omnipresent chess game between activists and the US government? No matter how important this facet of his life is, the fact that he was a target at all stems from his fame and influence. Sadly, even in a Director's Cut, Michael Mann fails to show Ali's rise and/or the reasons for his ongoing regality. Perhaps Muhammad Ali is a figure too large for even the largest cinema screen. But when butted up against 400 years of racism, it's hard for anyone to make an impression, especially with visualization like this. Ali is a very good film. It's just not about the subject it's named after.
Ali: The Director's Cut, is found guilty of plot premise bait-and-switch, and is placed on six months' probation in the Single Subject Ward of the Narrow Focus Halfway House in Syd Fields, Florida. Columbia TriStar is found not guilty on the charges of cheap visuals and a lack of extras, but is found guilty on the lesser-included charges of strange sound and less than substantive bonus content. It is sentenced to 30 days in the Extra Content Care Unit of the DVD Inclusion Institute.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Full Length Audio Commentary by Director Michael Mann
* Behind-the-Scenes Documentary
* Revised Scenes and Never-Before-Seen Footage