In 1964, a brash new pro boxer, fresh from his olympic gold medal victory, explodes on to the scene, Cassius Clay. Bold and outspoken, he cuts an entirely new image for African Americans in sport with his proud public self confidence with his unapologetic belief that he is the greatest boxer of all time. To his credit, he sets out to prove that with his highly agile and forceful style soon making him a formidable boxer who soon claims the heavyweight championship. His personal life is no less noteworthy with his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, his friendship with the controversial Malcolm X and his abandonment of his slave name in favour of Muhammad Ali stirring up controversy. Yet, at the top of his game, both Ali's personal and professional lives face the ultimate test with the military draft rules are changed, making him eligible for military induction during the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that he could easily agree to a sweetheart deal that would have meant an easy tour of ... Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Ali is a film that both succeeds and fails at the same time. Will Smith's performance was very solid, yet I never was able to shake the feeling that on screen it was Will Smith playing Muhammad Ali and not simply Muhammad Ali. Perhaps that is through no fault of his. He truly does a great impression of the fighter. The script is again decent, centering on several facets of the star's life that go beyond the sports pages. However, overall the whole project has a rather distant feel. The viewer rarely is truly captivated by what is occurring. Michael Mann's characteristic documentary-esque filming style works well in parts, but services to alienate the viewer in others. Yes, it feels as though you are almost watching a documentary in many cases, as if the viewer is a bystander to the circumstances at hand, but this is a work of drama, not a documentary. I wish someone had told Mann to stop shaking the camera and shifting to view Ali between the standard stock of blurred reporters for a few seconds and do a more typically dramatic shot. With Heat and The Insider, Mann managed to pull off this style successfully. In Ali he does not. In many cases conversations begin to rise but then only dissipate before anything really gripping has been said. Simply put, this film could have used a few more motivational speeches along the lines of a Rocky film. Perhaps it wouldn't have been as accurate, but it would have serviced a more dramatic story, at least one where the viewer really felt involved. Ali goes through two wives in the film and in neither case do they even serve to get very angry with him. Voices begin to rise and then either the woman or Ali leaves the room. The scene ends without any heavy emotion other than stern faces being shown. He's divorced a few minutes later. The fight scenes also have a lack of emotion. The film style is interesting and visually stimulating, but it could have used a few `it's over Rock!' lines here and there to punctuate things.
Mann's standard use of music again fails in many cases here. Whereas in "historical" films like Forrest Gump period music is used to punctuate a dramatic score, in Ali it is almost the sole backing track of the film. There is scarcely any musical score involved. When it is used, it often seems like it was just pieced together from leftovers to provide ambience. In a few key dramatic scenes, the pop ditties being played (although sometimes fitting lyrically) really end up being a distraction. The death of Malcolm X is a prime example. Ali's close friend has just been killed and you're just waiting for a rising orchestral number (however cliche and standard it may be, that's what you're looking for), but instead you get a period song that, at this point in the film, is beginning to sound like half a dozen others before it. In several cases Mann's musical style does work (Ali's jog through the streets of Zaire being an example, the closing number another) but the technique fails overall.
I've mostly criticized this film, which should not be the only viewpoint, because cinematically it is a fine work. There doesn't need to be another Ali film made, as this will service his legacy nicely. It has flaws, but I point out these flaws taking for granted just how good much of it is. The banter between Ali and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, who completely disappears into this role) is classic, and work by Jaime Foxx and Mario Van Peebles (as Malcolm X) is solid as well. Michael Mann knows how to handle a film and I would rather watch a sub-par outing from him than most of what Hollywood produces any day. He's just done better. Some script work and a better musical score could have pushed this good film to greatness.
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