Ali

Starring:
  • John Voight IS Howard Cosell
  • Wil-he Be-a-man
  • The Smith Family Gettin' Busy on the Dance Floor

 

Directed by The Insider
Don King signs the ultimate grudge match: The Fresh Prince versus DJ Jazzy Jeff

This Ain't Gonna Play in Peoria

John Voight plays Howard Cosell like an Ivy League Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. He is the willing fool, a punching bag for the man audiences love to see knock him out. Voight disappears into the red wrinkles and nasal voice of the man who used the word "truculent" to communicate to the boxing audience. Michael Mann has a way of finding fantastic supporting performances of famous people, coupling this with Christopher Plummer's Oscar-deserving Mike Wallace from The Insider. In fact, Ali brims with wonderful supporting performances: Jamie Foxx as a smack-talking hanger-on, Jeffrey Wright as a pensive photographer, Giancarlo Esposito as Ali's dad. But Ali's success hinges on the performance of Will Smith, a man who, like his subject, is completely transformed. Smith bulks up for the role, retaining the sleek look of a thin frame who just happens to be wearing muscle. He developed the in-ring rhythm of Ali, who always danced through a fight, eventually falling a lummox unable to keep up with the steps. Smith has all the arrogance of the original, but his natural "Parents Just Don't Understand" good-guy geekiness is still too apparent. Watching Ali, you could always sense the show, but the boasts contained genuine black anger as well, enough that his personality evoked a split in his public opinion as deep as the conflicts within him. Smith, however, is a beat away from brilliance. If he were playing George Foreman, he'd be a step too close to selling grilling machines than rumbling in the jungle.

Still, if the academy refuses to acknowledge the performance, I'm going to cry racism. In fact, they should nominate his and Denzel's performance in Training Day, but we all know that's not going to happen. They probably feel that they already threw Denzel a bone with The Hurricane, but Ali is a much better performance in an infinitely better movie. Michael Mann chooses ten tempestuous years of the man, beginning with his first fight with Sonny Liston and ending with the Rumble in the Jungle. Mann's Ali is a not-an-altogether flattering portrait; he's very childlike, an impressionable young man whose impulses, whether he realizes it or not, rule his every move, which he himself interprets as individual rebellion. Ali's genius stems from his impeccable rhythm: his danceable boxing, his singsong of his trash talk, his way with the ladies. He has such an internal rhythm that his body can't help but dance to the only beat he knows, whether giving in to a lovely lady, refusing an induction, or taking an outsized opponent the distance.

That's what I gathered from Mann's direction, anyway. He overlays boxing matches with up-tempo jazz, which later melds into some blues at a club, finding its way into a saxophone for a love scene. The soundtrack is a very cool mixture of soul, jazz, and blues that help us find the emotional center of every scene. In this way, Michael Mann labors to create an internal dialogue with the audience. For instance, the opening boxing sequence tells an entire story unto itself; Cassius Clay undergoes test, fall, rebirth, and triumph all in ten minutes. The camera bobs and weaves so much that we feel Liston's frustration, the internal struggle of the gladiator brought to the screen. Michael Mann is the very best at this sort of directorial artistry—as with The Insider, when he took a wonkish story and created a complex portrait of conflict and dread, like when Jeffrey Wigand's hotel wallpaper swirls into ocean wave. He continues the trend here; Mann specializes in blue-toned hotel rooms and pay phone conversations. He commands his work so well that characters are left to contemplate for minutes at a time—blinded by subway lights, jogging through streets, etc.—and he labors to give us an impression of their solitude.

If this doesn't sound like the type of picture you enjoy, then Ali will probably leave you wishing for the clicker in between bouts. The rest of us get a portrait of a man not drawn as a hero, but as a champion whose soul is closer to the surface than anyone else's. Right out of the bell, a punching bag becomes a flip book exposition of young Cassius Clay's life thus far, including his fascination with Malcolm X. The weakest part of the picture is Mario Van Peeples, whose Malcom X may be the most relaxed Malcolm in movie history. Still, Mann intercuts scenes of Ali's violence with Malcolm's rhetoric, chorused by a soundtrack of Sam Cooke, and it becomes clear why the young Cassius Clay was so drawn to the man. Ali grows but not necessarily matures, though I did find it refreshingly honest to watch him cut his own deal with George Frazier in a car on the streets of Philadelphia. "I'm gonna kick yo' ass," Frazier tells Ali, "But are you all right? Do you need money or something?" The film perhaps wears on a bit too long, but we're rewarded with Mykelti Williamson as Don King, a narcissist who dwarfs even Ali's huckstering. In the end, though, we have to determine a purpose for the film. Most of these biographical films attempt to deconstruct the genius; usually it's a response to parental or societal pressures, etc. Here, Mann wants to explain, I think, why the world—though not at the time, for genius comes with some vehement rejection—eventually rallied around Muhammad Ali. Sure, we admire his mythological ability to back his boasts, but when Mann shows us Ali running through the streets of Zaire with half-starved children, he stops to observe chalk drawings of himself surrounded by beautiful butterflies and angry bees. Perhaps Ali's musical rhyming, rapping smack talk is the graffiti of the oppressed.

The Pitch:
2 George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machines
Plus
1 The Last of the Mohicans
Equals
3 Ali
See It For:

The kids cheering James West's victory over the giant tarantula from Wild Wild West.