Probably the simplest first point to make is this: I never saw the theatrical cut of Ali. It is my habit, though, to acknowledge the cut of the film I watch if it is something other than the one most would (presumably) have seen, as I think it’s important and relevant to address the actual and specific work I’m reviewing. That said, the primary reason I acquired this film when I did (nearly ten years ago, as t happens) is director Michael Mann–directors are the strongest focus of my approach to deciding on seeing a film.
Muhammad Ali¹ (Will Smith) is, of course, The Greatest. Working from his title bout against Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, 1964 through to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali is surrounded by representatives of the the parts of his life–politically, by Nation of Islam representatives, first Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), then Brother Herbert Muhammad (Barry Shabaka Henley), under the advisement of the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall); by family in his father Cassius, Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito), his first wife Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), and his second, Belinda (Nona Gaye); professionally by photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright), assistant trainer “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx), trainer Angelo “Angie” Dundee (Ron Silver), and sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). Interwoven between the fights–which function as the opening and closing cornerstones–are the politics, the character, and the relationships of Ali, the events of the world and society around him, and the way all of those things intersect and affect each other.
Despite lacking any particular affection for boxing, I’ve seen my share of boxing movies, from the expected (Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby) to the less-expected and obscure (Southpaw, The Fighter, The Hurricane, Fat City, Hard Times, The Set-Up…). I’ve expressed my stance on the theoretically inherent problems of sports movies before (centered around the “binary endings” many are down on), which are somewhat avoided in this case by depicting real events. Similarly, the film manages an interesting balance and approach: it’s not about the fights, but it’s about the fights. The fights are a large component of what defines Ali to the world as sports star, as celebrity. If nothing else, they are what propelled him into the position of being able to act on anything else–his stands on the Vietnam War, on his name and race relations in general.
Mann also makes interesting choices–with the able assistance of editors William Goldenberg, Stephen Rivkin, and Lynzee Klingman–in how to depict everything. There’s a very casual and subtle switch here and there, from the detached observation of events occurring, be they tremendous, forever-remembered fights, or casual conversations in the downtime between Ali and friends and family, to the subjective intimacy of Ali in a fight (or in a bed). This is suitably enhanced–unsurprisingly, given Mann–by the compositions of Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, with music that is evocative and weirdly timeless, but flavoured and interesting. Sometime it’s even “predictive”: this makes for a clever choice in depicting fights so famous, as the outcome is already familiar to many (even if I can’t ever remember), sometimes the music simply tells us how the fight we’re just seeing start is going to end. It’s not quite shooting its own pacing in the foot, nor is it strictly foreshadowing; it sets the tone for the scene that it accompanies, even if that tone involves awareness of how that same scene will end.
The craft in this movie is exceptional, and the cast and crew do their utmost to prove it throughout. Despite the prevalence of boxing movies–even of award-winning, and especially Oscar-nominated and reality-inspired ones specifically–it manages freshness in its approach, side-stepping familiar montages or lengthy, over-scripted scenes. There’s nowhere this is more obvious than the opening sequence: set to a performance of Sam Cooke (portrayed on film by David Elliott), we cut between a training Ali (jogging, jumproping, hitting a speed bag), his childhood, the performance, the things that affected him in life, and everything leading up to that first Liston match–but it’s both artfully, smartly juxtaposed and entirely natural, fluid. It’s like a preview of the film itself in its resistance to explicit linearity and direct cause and effect, refusal to center and frame on the sources of sound or dialogue in favour of capturing the moment itself.
I’d dodged this one for a while (about ten years, in fact) simply because of the 165m runtime investment. I’m pleased with myself for just sucking it up, dropping it in and pressing play–this is quite a film.
¹Born Cassius Clay, but rejecting this name publicly shortly after achieving fame.