Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver
Duration: 147 minutes
Ali is unexpected. Smart, evocative and only sometimes pretentious, it jumps right into its big subject and bold design and never looks back. It begins with a breathtaking sequence. Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay (Will Smith), jogs in a hooded sweatshirt along a snowy Chicago street, followed briefly by a cop car ("What you runnin’ from, son?"); intercut with this scene are repeated shots of Sam Cooke on stage, the camera barely keeping up with him as fans swoon. Cut to Ali on the small bag, his face close, his punches rhythmic; cut to Sonny Liston beating Floyd Patterson; to the child Ali, watching his father (Giancarlo Esposito) paint a white Jesus for a white church; to young Ali stepping to the back of a bus, past a newspaper with a headline on the lynching of Emmett Till; to Ali grown, standing in the back of a Muslim meeting room, as Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) declares, "We don’t teach you to turn the other cheek."
Exciting and nervy, this first series of images, so urgent and impressionistic, stands as a kind of fair warning. Selecting a particular time period — the tumultuous ten years between Ali’s first heavyweight title triumph in ’64 and his amazing "rope-a-dope" performance to recover that title in Zaire, during 1974’s "Rumble in the Jungle" (documented in When We Were Kings) — the film doesn’t pretend to tell the "whole" story of the man or his times, but throws moments at you, a lot of them. It doesn’t introduce characters, but lets them loose in mid-action: trainers, friends and family members (he had about six kids — out of nine total — during this decade, but the film barely acknowledges them) are more illustrative background elements than developed characters.
Occasionally, Ali lapses into a strangely episodic cadence, as events overwhelm the emotional narrative: he wins the title; he receives his Muslim name; he marries first wife Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith); Malcolm and Martin shake hands on a TV in the background of a shot where Ali is doing sit-ups in the foreground; Malcolm is assassinated; Ali is convicted of "refusing induction" ("Ain’t no VC ever called me nigger"); his lawyer (Joe Morton) represents him all the way to the Supreme Court, and so on.
Still, the DVD maintains a kind of audacious subjectivity. It’s not that it takes Ali’s point of view, exactly (though it’s his more than anyone else’s); it’s that it filters all this history, so well known and yet so abstract, though a haze of riotous conscience. Of course, the boxing scenes — brutal, up close and metaphorical too — expose this turmoil. But Smith carries the picture; indeed, his most effective scenes, despite Ali’s notorious verbal dexterity, involve no dialogue, just the camera on his face and utterly expressive body.
Though Ali obviously reveres its subject, it also offers enough shading to allow you to imagine his emotional and ethical struggles (as well as his enormous ego). Running about two and a half hours, the film makes room for many parts of Ali’s life by not dwelling on any of them. Instead, it grants glimpses, as in a brief hotel-room scene, when second wife Belinda (Nona Gaye) confronts him about his affair with about-to-be-third wife, Veronica (Michael Michele); Ali jogging in Kinshasa, Zaire, accompanied by passionate well-wishers and coming upon a mural depicting his crazily superhuman stature for them, that he somehow can fight off Mobutu’s oppressive regime, as he fights off George Foreman or bees with stingers.
While the DVD ends, literally freezes, on his triumphant Rumble, it never backs off its consideration of the era’s politics — the racism and jingoism, the classism and misogyny — that are everywhere visible, in Ali’s detractors but also in his own behaviors. Mann is a famously earnest filmmaker, and here again he leans on a few signature techniques to make his principled points, hugely foregrounded faces to denote contemplation or revelation, handheld camerawork to indicate chaos. But the film is finally larger than such devices and the emotional manipulations they might attempt. Most importantly, it’s unable to contain Ali. The bravest thing Ali does is to gesture toward, wonder at, and celebrate Muhammad Ali, and then let go of him.
Includes 83 mins of features: HBO Making of special; behind the scenes; cast and crew soundbites; trailer.
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