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Wednesday, May 29, 2002
The presence of greatness
Michael Mann made a name for himself in the 1980s as a director of stylish, glossy cops 'n' robbers fare, with pulse-racing films such as "Thief" and "Manhunter," and the popular TV series "Miami Vice." The '90s saw him diversify: His magnum opus, "Heat" (the heist flick to end all heist flicks), was bracketed by a period drama, "Last of the Mohicans," and a reality-based thriller of corporate malfeasance, "The Insider." Given this, Mann's move into hagiographic biopics with "Ali" -- a portrait of the '60s/'70s heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali -- seems like a further attempt to broaden his palette.
But look again and you'll notice, no matter what the subject or setting, Mann's films not only share a similar look, they also feature the same protagonist in every film: obsessive, risk-taking men who place their professional values above anything and everything. Whether it's Al Pacino's adrenalin-addicted detective in "Heat," or Russell Crowe's nerdy whistle-blower in "The Insider," these are men for whom ethics are everything. Guys -- and it's always a guy thing in Mann's movies -- who refuse to compromise.
In that light, Muhammad Ali is the quintessential Mann hero: driven by a desire to be "the Greatest," fearless in his confrontation with adversity and tragic in his eventual isolation as friends, family, wives and managers fall by the wayside. There's many an athlete with a claim to greatness, but few -- especially nowadays -- who are willing to risk taking a stand on anything, especially when corporate sponsorship money is flowing into their pockets.
"Ain't no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger,' " said Ali, when explaining his refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. It's a moment that's central to Mann's film, and one that clearly establishes its sociopolitical context, the story of how circumstance shaped Ali into a symbolic hero who transcended sport.
"Ali" follows a decade in the boxer's life, from the fight with Sonny Liston in 1964 that earned him the world championship to his resurrection in 1974, when he persevered over George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight in Zaire. The intervening years saw Ali stripped of his title for his refusal to serve in the military, and his lengthy struggle -- both in the ring and in the Supreme Court -- to regain it.
Ali's career wound through the swamp of black militancy and Nation of Islam politics and the paranoid government backlash against all such "countercultural" movements. Much of this history has already made it to the screen in films like "Malcolm X," "Panther" and "Nixon," but Mann eschews the dogmatic, heavy-handed tendencies of those films, instead following Ali's philosophy of floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.
Opening sequences tend to be where the art is in mainstream cinema these days -- filmmakers are free to experiment here before settling into the standard trajectory -- and "Ali" has one of the best. Fluid and haunting, impressionistic and yet utterly precise, this montage moves between past and present and in about five minutes has insinuated everything we need to know.
As singer Sam Cooke rips it up in a Chicago soul club, we see Ali jogging alone on a nearby street, shadowed by a patrol car. We float through hazy memories: segregated buses, newspaper reports of lynchings, Malcolm X working up a crowd, a pair of boxers in a slow-mo duel. Cut back to the club where Cooke, drenched in sweat, sings "Bring It on Home." The mix of pop energy, personal psyche and generational ambience is spot-on, and comparisons to Scorsese's "Goodfellas" would be no exaggeration.
"Raging Bull" also springs to mind. Scorsese's 1980 film was so revolutionary in the way it captured the scenes in the ring, with operatic intensity and bone-crunching impact, that it seemed unlikely that any film could top it. "Ali" is a worthy contender, though. Wait for that first punch from Sonny Liston that sails right past the camera and you'll see just how well Mann is able to place you there.
Similarly impressive is Will Smith, whose entire career up till now has consisted of likable but lightweight performances. A character like Muhammad Ali would challenge any actor, with his public braggadocio and good-natured humor masking a great deal of private pain (a derailed career, failed marriages and a falling out with the Nation of Islam). Smith calibrates his portrayal perfectly, to show Ali the showman ("He ain't no champ, he's a chump!") and pulling it all back to just give us some space to observe Ali the man. And to really own the role, Smith pulled a De Niro and actually trained and fought in the ring with professional boxers. The blows he takes look painfully authentic.
His best foil in the film is Jon Voight (under heavy makeup) as acerbic sportscaster Howard Cosell, with whom Ali enjoyed a surprisingly easy rapport. Mario Van Peebles, meanwhile, does Malcolm X at least as well as Denzel Washington did, full of righteous intensity. The cast is so huge, though, that a lot of performances -- like Jeffrey Wright as photographer Howard Bingham -- seem to get lost in the mix. The women's roles, like Ali's wives, are especially underwritten.
Aside from that, the film's flaws are few. True, the material has been covered so much already, there's little new here. Moreover, the fundamental character of Ali himself remains a bit obscured by the rush of events around him. Mann's approach, though -- with its overt craftsmanship and elegiac tone -- seeks to show how history bleeds into myth.
This is illustrated nicely by a sublime moment near the end: Ali, out for a run while training in Zaire, comes across a giant mural of himself painted on a wall, as the soundtrack soars to the sound of Salif Keita and he's mobbed by his fans. Savor the look that Will Smith brings to the moment, and recall that Ali was one of the few prominent black radicals to survive the '60s. This may be hagiography, but this is one guy who deserves it.