Directed by Michael Man
Written by Mann
-Stephen J. Rivele
-Story by Gregory Allen Howard
Starring Will Smith as Ali
-Jon Voight as Howard Cosell
-Jammie Foxx as Drew Bundini Brown
The funniest thing I heard about this movie was that Will Smith blamed Michael Mann for it’s commercial failure, which would be kind of like Dan Quayle blaming Pappa Bush for their loss to Clinton/Gore. Don’t get me wrong. Smith has a ridiculous amount of charisma and he’s a very good comic actor. Odd thing is, when he plays Muhammad Ali, his charisma seems to dry up, at least comparatively. Part of the problem is that he is playing the man. It’s sort of like trying to cover a John Coltrane song or paint like Pollack. If you want to come off well, you had better be totally amazing, and Smith isn’t. The other part of the problem is that Mann’s films demand brilliant, not good performances. He makes deliberate films that linger on the characters, and if they aren’t captivating, things can get slow. Heat is one of my favorite films, but imagine how unbearable it would have been starring, say, Arnold, Keanu and Antonio, AKA mediocre actors who get by on charisma.
Smith isn’t bad in this film, but he isn’t good enough. He deserves some credit for doing alright with the physical side of the role. But I think a lot of the unjustified praise he got came from people who don’t follow boxing and think that he’s great in the fight scenes. You have to remember though; it’s not very hard to throw lightening fast, fake punches. Stand in front of the mirror and try it sometime – flick your fist out as fast as you can, keeping it loose, not worrying about throwing a real punch. You look like Oscar De La Hoya right? Smith doesn’t. His footwork is a joke, especially for someone playing Ali. Take the scene where he fights Frazier, played by James “Lights Out” Toney. When the camera stays on him long enough, look at the way Tony moves. Compare that to the way the way “Big Willy” moves. Its like watching Pam Anderson act opposite Laura Linney. I know, Smith’s an actor and obviously he’s not going to box like James Toney. But apparently it isn’t obvious to some people and critics so I’ll say it again: Will Smith is not a very impressive boxer. They should have gotten Todd Bridges, who seriously kicked ass on celebrity boxing (I hear). De Nero’s boxing in Raging Bull is much better. His acting’s a shade better too.
Will’s average skills don’t keep the fight scenes from being great. The problem with having a boxing match in a film is that you have to convey the excitement, drama, violence, danger, etc. etc. of the match in a couple of minutes, which is hard to do by portraying the fight realistically. Most films just present ridiculous hyperboles in which each guy gets hit with 40 clean shots on the chin per round. Scorsese made the fight scenes in Raging Bull almost abstract representations of the elements of a boxing match, setting a standard that nobody will ever touch. Mann goes in the other direction, presenting the fights fairly realistically. He makes realistic fighting into exciting cinema in two ways. One is the use of a variety of camera angels, particularly close ups on the action that feel like those shows where they take the cameras into shark cages. We’re so close to the action, the danger of missed and slipped punches seems real, so we don’t have to be stimulated by constant knockout punches. The second thing Mann and his committee of editors do is to cut the scenes so that we are primarily seeing the action and important parts of the fights, but still have a feeling of the overall structure of the fight. Sounds simple, but the trick is in the execution, which is brilliant.
Aside from Smith’s performance, the reason for commercial failure may be the lack of a riveting dramatic question. The big issue seems to be whether Ali will be imprisoned for refusing to participate in the Vietnam war. But there are so many other things going on – his love life, his relationship with his father and with the Nation of Islam, the pigs fucking with him, Bundini’s battle with addiction – that there isn’t really an A-B-C story. The central question gets lost altogether at times. I didn’t mind at all. The most interesting part of the film for me was one of these digressions: Ali’s relationship with Malcom X, well played by Mario Van Peebles. This is a relationship between two of the most influential men of the past fifty years, and we don’t hear about it very often. The story of the relationship, like the rest of the film, is very well told and is, in itself, enough reason to see Ali.
Aside from Smith’s whining, a possible criticism of the film (and other representations of Ali) is that it is a hagiography. This comes most notably from Mark Kram in his book Ghosts of Manilla. I’ll talk about it more when I review the book but, while Ali was not and is not a saint or a genius, ninety-nine out of a hundred men in Ali’s place would have shut their mouths and cashed their checks, like everybody’s favorite commercial bitch, Michael Jordan still does everyday. Ali took hard stands against racism and the war in Vietnam at personal and professional risk, and at a time when doing so was hardly going with the popular tide. So I don’t think a reasonable film could be made about the guy without him coming off as a hero of some kind. But Mann doesn’t overdo it. There’s not sappy score or phony, awed responses from other characters to tell us how to feel about Ali; only his actions. Many of Ali’s possible personal failings are there, but not in an editorial fashion. Some say Ali was manipulated by the Nation of Islam, and didn’t really understand what he was doing. Some say not. The film could be consistent with either view.
You’d think this movie would be a bit unnecessary, but apparently Ali doesn’t get his just deserts. Sports writers voted Mike the Bitch athlete of the century over Ali and the other obvious, American candidate, Babe Ruth. This is surprising enough considering that Ali, Ruth and others have patently superior achievements in their sports and almost certainly were better athletes (where would MJ have been if he had been a mere 6’4? ). It’s downright shocking considering that voters were supposed to base 25% of their decision on the social impact of the athletes. I despise Jordan and I’m tempted to go off on a diatribe about what a spineless cocksucker he is, but I’ll make a broader point. This film is in part a story of how a person can utilize a position of fame to be something more than a product. Contrast this story with the total or near total selfishness of most public figures who either don’t even attempt to give back to society, or use their celebrity to back idiotic pet causes, like “free Tibet.” What’s fascinating about Ali, although his achievements in the ring are monumental, is that an athlete so transcended his role, and this is what the film focuses on. If you just want to see a series of clever rhymes and beatings, you’ll be disappointed. And you’re a jackass. If you want to see a series of witticisms and beatings as part of the story of what made a great man great, ignore the detractors and check out Ali. Those sports writers should be forced to watch this film Clockwork Orange style.
- Film Overall:7
- Direction: 8
- Acting: 7
- Story: 7
- Rewatchability: 6 (it is kinda long and slow)
- DVD Extras: 1
- Number of times you forgot that Howard Cosell was being played by Jon Voight rather than by Cosell himself: 3
- Number of actors you can think of who could really pull of the role of Ali: 0 (I’m sure there’s a brilliant, young, black actor out there who could do it but all of the roles he would have used to build his career have gone to rappers).
- Number of times you thought how funny it would be if James Toney unloaded on Smith for real during one of their fight scenes: 8. Wait, make that 9.