Our review of Ali: Director's Cut, published July 6th, 2004, is also available.
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!"—Muhammad Ali
In the annals of sports history, there are a handful of athletes who are known the world over. Michael Jordan. Babe Ruth. Walter Payton. And most importantly (for this review's sake), Muhammad Ali. I once heard it said that Ali might very well be the most well known celebrity on the planet. Ali was a boxing legend who had a fast, trash-talking mouth and an even faster set of fists. His meteoric rise to the heavyweight champion in boxing, subsequently unfair defeat, and second undisputed reclaiming of the title made Ali not only the people's champ, but a hero to millions of fans around the globe. In 2001, director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) took the reins on Ali's life story with Will Smith (Men In Black, The Legend Of Bagger Vance) in the Oscar nominated role of Muhammad Ali. Also starring Mario Van Peebles (Posse), Jamie Foxx (Bait), Ron Silver (Timecop), Jeffery Wright (Shaft) and Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy) in the Oscar nominated role of famed sportscaster Howard Cosell, Ali hits a one two punch on DVD care of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Ali follows ten years (1964-74) in the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali (Smith). In this time, we see Ali as Cassius Clay, a 22-year old fighter who is cocksure and pretty (as Ali often liked to describe himself). Along the way we'll see Ali change his name; make friends with such well known folks as Malcolm X (Peebles), Sam Cooke (David Elliot), and Howard Cosell (Voight); fall in love with and marry a multitude of women (including Smith's real life wife Jada Pinkett Smith); win the heavyweight championship of the world over Smokin' Joe Frazier (James Toney); lose it to the government after a refusal to fight in Vietnam; hit the skids and teeter on being broke; be threatened with five years of imprisonment; and finally risk everything to regain his championship from the then-reigning boxing champion George Foreman (Charles Shufford). Through it all Muhammad Ali will show everyone why he is not only considered a legend, but also "the greatest."
I'm not going to act like some highbrow movie critic who pretends to know everything about the topic of the film he just watched. I'm going to be dead honest in saying I don't know a lot about the life of Muhammad Ali. Probably my broadest knowledge about Ali is that he has Parkinson's disease, the same disease that has afflicted Michael J. Fox (who happens to be one of my favorite actors). Just the other night I was watching TV and saw a promotional spot featuring both Ali and Fox in an ad to fight this destructive disease. It stuck me as I watched this spot that Ali has certainly been through a great many fights in his life, and this may just be the biggest fight of his career. Through it all Ali seems to have aged with grace and strength
Sadly, the same can't be said of Michael Mann's biopic on the famous fighter. There is a lot of strength present in this film, but the grace seems to be lacking. Maybe passion is a better word. The fact is that Ali is a very long movie. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, the film feels as if it could have used a second editor to trim down some of the excess running off the film's edges. It seems like there are multiple scenes of Ali running, training, fighting…and it all goes on far too long. This is a real shame, as almost every performance in this film is top notch. Will Smith received a deserved Academy Award nomination for his performance as Ali, and it's a role that he inhabits to the tee. From the soft spoken drawl to the subtle movements and gestures, Smith has captured all of Ali's mannerisms. Like Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Smith has somehow channeled the sprit of Ali in a very winning performance that deserves a better film. Equally as good is Jon Voight in his Oscar nominated role as CBS sportscaster Howard Cosell. Cosell and Ali's relationship seems to almost be the heart of this film—in a way, Cosell sees Ali as a surrogate son. It's obvious that both men care and respect each other. Ali's taunting of Cosell (and his hairpiece) shows the playful side of Ali that is often missing in this film. In fact, that may be one of the movie's biggest downfalls—in real life Ali was a spirited, funny guy. In Mann's film, Ali comes off as sometimes too somber and pensive. The film doesn't really feel like a celebration of Ali's life and victories. Instead, the tone is drab and dark, as if Ali has already passed away and we're just now seeing a movie about his life and times. In the movie Ali's relationships with his wives seem to come and go far too quickly. This theme ends up running through the entire story. His relationship with Malcolm X (a fine performance by Peebles) is never fully exploited. We see Ali and Malcolm's relationship, but we never feel it. Maybe one of the film's key problems is the fact that there are just too many faces running around and not enough time to keep up with. Jamie Foxx, an actor I've never been thrilled with, does a fine job as "Bundini," Ali's "roadie" who betrays his boss by selling Ali's championship belt for speed. It's obvious that he and Ali's relationship was complicated, but the film just skips right over that complexity and moves onto another road in Ali's life. All through the film, I wanted to scream at the filmmakers "slow down, for Pete's sake! I want to know more!"
I will admit that I had little interest in seeing Ali when it arrived in theaters Christmas of 2001. After its cool reception by both audiences and critics, my interest dwindled even more. I'm glad that I was able to watch this movie on DVD. I don't think that Ali is a particularly bad film, as I might have portrayed it to be. The performances are what make this film worth seeing, especially Smith and Voight's stunning renditions of the two famed sports figures. Mann has directed some excellent films (Heat was one of the most exciting films I've seen in years), but with each consecutive outing I'm thinking that they guy really needs to learn how to edit his films and tighten his screenplays.
I'm recommending Ali on the basis of the performances alone. They are what kept me watching long after I'd lost hope in the story getting much better. Maybe Ali's life was just too expansive for them to create a movie out of it. While I liked learning about Ali's fight in the ring, I had an even greater desire to learn about his brawl with Parkinson's. Maybe that will be the basis for Ali 2, which will hopefully include more "umph" the second time around.
Ali is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. Columbia has produced a very good looking transfer. The only real troubles I saw in this image were a few instances of edge enhancement and some artifacting in one key scene. However, these problems were not intrusive to the viewing and were only miner hindrances. Otherwise, this is a sparklingly clean transfer that features bold, well saturated colors and dark black levels.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English and French. I actually thought that this 5.1 soundtrack seemed to be a bit subdued for the movie it supports. While there are certainly moments of great directional use on this mix (the boxing matches and roar of the crowd come in loud and clear), overall the fidelity seemed to sound a bit lower than I'd expected. However, this is a minor complaint, as the bulk of the soundtrack is very apt for the film without any distortion or hiss in the mix. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
After watching Ali I had the desire to learn more about this boxing legend. Columbia could have made this disc something really special had they put the time in to include a documentary, a commentary track by the director, or even some interviews with the stars. Sadly, the only extra features to be found on this disc are theatrical trailers for Ali, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, and the Will Smith vehicle sequel Men In Black II. Maybe Columbia is readying a "special edition" of this film for sometime down the road (ala Christopher Nolan's Memento). If not, this is a sad edition of a film about one of the greatest celebrities of our time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why was Ali rated R? Because of a few curse words and some boxing violence? Because the MPAA decided to slap this film with an R rating, many young fans were probably not able to see this film in the theaters. Seems sort of ridiculous, doesn't it?
Ali had the potential to be a special film about Muhammad Ali's life, but ended up a disappointment. There were complaints that Spike Lee should have directed this film (these complaints came mostly from Lee himself) because it was a film about a black man, and a black director could have told it best. From my perception, this movie's direction was well executed and taut; the main problem lay in the screenplay and the editing. Columbia's DVD is only mediocre at best. The audio and video presentation are fine, but the lack of supplements leaves the viewer with much to be desired.
Worth seeing for Smith and Voight's performances. Otherwise, Ali a bit of a let down. Case dismissed!
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