Smith as Muhammad Ali
Smith as Cassius Clay fighting Sonny Liston (Michael Bent)
Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight)
and Don King (Mykelti Williamson)
Van Peebles as Malcolm X and Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
Smith as Muhammad Ali
Smith as Ali and Michael Michele as his third wife Veronica
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures
C. Antonio Romero
NEW YORK, 11 January
2002 - Ali, Michael Mann's boxing epic starring Will
Smith, isn't a bad movie. In fact, it's almost as pretty, in places,
as Ali himself. But, unlike the champ, it packs little dramatic punch.
The result: nearly three hours of heavyweight Hollywood ho-hum.
found his real fame in the 1980's Miami Vice, which brought TV
shows a then-radical music-video sensibility. And he's still quite
good at using camera work and music to set moods, choreograph an
audience's reactions, even do some storytelling for him. The movie,
especially the meticulously choreographed boxing scenes, looks great.
Busy camerawork and stirring score keep the film interesting enough
that three hours pass before one even notices they're gone.
(Particularly effective: sparingly used over-the-shoulder and
below-the-belt camerawork in the ring, that provides a feel for a
first-person perspective on a boxing match. One feels quite palpably
what it would be to be on the receiving end of a flurry of Ali's
punchesor Joe Frazier's, for that matter.) Visual hallmarks of
authenticity abound. Settings, from Louisville to inner-city New York
and even Kinshasa, look and feel faithful to their originals (as we
imagine them, at least). And historical figures all bear their "signatures"
: Elijah Muhammad and Mobutu Sese Seko both have their customary
headwear, Malcolm X his reddish hair and goatee, and Howard Cosell his
Period music, lovely to hear, sets the tone in
virtually every scene set in America, while West African pop star
Salif Keita provides the musical backdrop for Ali's Kinshasa odyssey.
The movie sidesteps the first obvious pitfall: a descent
into hagiography. Ali's poor choice of friends and management
(including, ultimately, "Prince of Darkness" Don King) is
presented quite openly, and his womanizing, if downplayed, is plain
enough to seewe never see him with a woman he doesn't eventually
marry (and divorce), and his second wife calls him on it. But these
are common enough tropes of the celebrity-athlete's story. More
importantly, we see Ali's personal weakness in failing to turn his
back on the corrupt and manipulative Nation of Islam at critical
momentshe's oddly cold to a Malcolm X who has clearly moved
beyond the Nation of Islam's influence, and he chews out Elijah
Muhammad's son Howard after beating Joe Frazier, but then submits
again to their management. (Like Malcolm X, Ali owes much of his
identity to the Nation's influence; but unlike Malcolm, he never quite
breaks with them, even when he seems to have outgrown them.)
inevitably, the film takes on the political aspect of Ali's early
career: his engagement with the black militancy of Malcolm X and the
Nation of Islam, his criminal prosecution and ban from boxing after
refusing military induction, his denunciation of the U.S. as a bigger
enemy to blacks and the poor than the Viet Cong, his decision to fight
George Foreman in Mobutu's Zaire. (A celebrity athlete famous for the
sport he can't compete in, Ali's transformed by his suspension and
legal woes into a political figure, almost a political prisoner living
in internal exile.) But somehow, none of Ali's inflammatory,
anti-establishment positions feel particularly provocative as
presented in this film. Even or especiallytoday, for an
American Olympic champion and celebrity professional athlete to take
these kinds of positions would be explosive. (Can we imagine Tiger
Woods taking such a stand? Michael Jordan?) Here, though, Ali's
defiance throws few sparks, probably because Mann's swirl of music,
image and texture prevents the articulation of any subtle or complex
political ideas, or at least keeps the soothed audience from getting a
solid grip on them.
Mann's music-video inclinations make him
a better teller of simpler stories that engage the emotions more than
the head. For instance, it's not clear that Mann sees or means to
present the irony in a critical scene where Ali runs unescoreted
through the back streets of Kinshasa. He discovers the walls covered
in crude murals, many showing him knocking out Foreman in the ring,
but others representing him as pan-African superman, towering over the
landscape and swatting (presumably Western) airplanes out of the sky.
Realizing the mythic figure he's become to these people, Ali is
awestruck , but neither he nor Mann seems quite conscious, here, of
the irony of Africa's superhero giving Mobutu a PR coup. And had Mann
seen the irony here, he'd have probably had to resort to some bit of
clumsy speechifying to get it into the sceneas he does by having
Ali's second wife, Belinda (Nona M. Gaye) admonish the Champ about the
choice to fight in a country as corrupt as Zaire.
imagistic approach is probably also responsible for the film's
shapelessness. While too charming at times to be boring, the movie is
not just episodic but unfocused. Ali's story is, to be sure, rich
source material, as hard to adapt for the screen, in its way, as
Tolkien's unfilmable Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it's
intertwined with the urgent political questions of its time: civil
rights (and especially the Martin Luther King / Malcolm X dipole),
rising black pride in the U.S. and worldwide, class tensions and the
Vietnam War. But Mann's responsibility is to shape a narrative line
out of this material, and he fails to do so. For a long time, the
movie wanders, unsure how to tell Ali's story separate from Malcolm's.
(Do we really need to see a sinister FBI agent pulling the Nation's
strings, ordering the hit on Malcolm? More broadly, do we really need
as much of Malcolm's history, with and without Ali, as we get?) It's
almost a relief when Malcolm X leaves the storyat least the
focus can return to Ali. (Martin Luther King, played by LeVar Burton,
is less of a distractionin a non-speaking role, Martin basically
shows up on the front page of a newspaper before being gunned down at
a motel where Ali's attorney is using a pay phonea coincidence
too good to be true.)
The ending hits the audience with
another bit of narrative chop: breaking off quite abruptly after the"Rumble
in the Jungle", Mann throws us some closing titles alluding to
little more than Ali's subsequent divorces and remarriagesnothing
of his subsequent boxing career, and certainly nothing about his
battle with Parkinson's diseaseall things that condition how we
will look at this story of the early-to-middle career of Ali. And we
never once see Ali himself, even today one of the most recognizeable
faces in the world. It's as if providing a satisfactory narrative
resolution doesn't matter, once Mann finds the high note of the
victory in Zaire.
Finally, what dooms Ali to be
second-rate is Mann's failure to turn the remarkable figures of this
history into characters in a compelling story, through a focus on
acting, direction and writing. Admittedly, some of the actorsin
particular, John Voight, Will Smith, and Mario Van Peeblesare
constrained a bit by the memories of their ever-so-recognizeable
originals. But other actors and directors have faced this kind of
difficulty and delivered stellar performances that got at the essences
of their originals.
Smith, who so often plays "Will
Smith (tm)," turns himself into something resembling Ali, but
never gets much beyond "adequate." (Smith's casting, at
first a cause for dismay in some circles, was, however, a canny
choice. His charm, glibness, and signature swagger echofaintlyAli's
own gift for dazzling the pubilc with his rhyming taunts and boasts,
backed up with conviction and ultimately with results.)
Peebles, by contrast, is horribly ordinary as Malcolm X (and would be
so even without Denzel Washington looming over him). With the
prominence that Malcolm X assumes in this film, Van Peebles becomes
one of its biggest liabilities.
In supporting roles, Jon
Voight, unrecognizeable as Howard Cosell, captures the off-screen
warmth between the two men; and both Jada Pinkett (as Ali's first
wife, Sonji) and Nona Gaye bring welcome energy to their brief screen
appearances (though Michael Michele's Veronica, ultimately Ali's third
wife, is flatter).
But this movie needed much more than
'passable' or 'adequate' performances from its lead performers to make
the film more than an eerie re-enactment of scenes from Ali's life, or
a snack to feed our nostalgic appetities for a glimpse of a champion
whose more challenging sides we now tend to forget. Mann has the
skills as a director to get performances from his castThe
Insider, Mann's last effort to get Oscar buzz, scored points this
way, and was embarassing only when it turned to to music-video
slickness. Pulling the film's one memorable dramatic performance out
of Jamie Foxx (Ali's troubled cornerman Drew "Bundini"
Brown), Mann reminds us of what he can do when he puts his mind to it.
So why doesn't he get the same electricity out of his lead performers?
Ultimately, Ali disappoints. It isn't a terrible
movieany film that can present three hours of meandering
narrative and so-so performances without managing to bore its audience
must be doing something right. But it should be a better movie than it
is. Ali's story is well worth tellingnot just showing.
and a half stars.
Romero is the Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com.