First screened in January 2002 / Reviewed in August 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Michael Mann. Cast: Will Smith, Ron Silver, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, Mario Van Peebles, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Shabaka Henley, Joe Morton, Mykelti Williamson, Michael Michele, Michael Bentt, James Toney, Alfred Cole, Charles Shufford, Albert Hall, Ted Levine, Wade Andrew Williams, Doug Hale, Paul Rodriguez, David Elliott, Malick Bowens, Rufus Dorsey, Robert Sale, Maestro Harrell, Bruce McGill, Themba Gasa, LeVar Burton, Shari Watson. Screenplay: Stephen J. Rivèle & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann (from a story by Gregory Allan Howard).

A conversation with Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph.

Photo © 2001 Columbia Pictures
ND: So, we have established that neither of us has even glanced at Ali in the eight years since it bowed, and yet, go figure, when we discussed movies to revisit from 2001, this was the first title that each of us suggested. If this were a game of free-association, and I had asked you two weeks ago, what's the first thing you think about when you think about Ali, what would your answer have been? And, unless it's the same response, what would be your answer now?

TR: The first thing I used to think about when I thought about Ali was probably Michael Mann's tinkering with digital technology. Obviously from Collateral onwards he is DigiMann through and through, but here it's at a more experimental stage, and the shots I remember most vividly from the movie are those grainy, washed-out urban visuals—typically shots of Will Smith jogging at night, with some throbbing, mournful electronic underscore bathing him in a kind of epic solitude. At the time, it lent some exciting contrast and texture to what could have been an overly glossy, hagiographic biopic. Now, though, pretty bummed as I confess I was by both Miami Vice and Public Enemies, looking back on Ali I see it as a tipping point between Mann's luxuriant celluloid years (the Dante Spinotti era, though I know he shot Enemies, too) and the rather harsh look of his recent pictures. I'd also forgotten Emmanuel Lubezki shot this one. The variety of lensing and lighting styles he deploys on it is pretty dazzling, no? I'm almost never starved for visual interest in this restless, strangely non-committal movie, even as the pulse of it as drama waxes and wanes.

ND: There is no question for me upon revisiting the movie that Emmanuel Lubezki is the hero of the film. Hardly the first time that's been said about a movie, and I remember admiring many of the images the first time around, but I had so little grasp of what "shooting on digital" might mean that I had no context for those grainy, city-after-twilight interludes that you refer to, and which I'd largely forgotten about. I thought of Ali's photography as oddly uneven, even though it's very inconsistency seemed to work in its favor, giving texture and surprise to a movie that, as you say, has a strange relationship to storytelling and dramatic arcs. Now, though, the hops among digital formats and the sheer but elegant dynamism in the cinematography are a wonder to me in this movie, in cahoots with the lively editing, but we'll get to all that.

My overarching memory was of the movie solidly improving as it went, either because it starts out shaky in some demonstrable way and then gets tighter and more affecting as it continues, or because I simply needed the first hour to acclimate to the hiccuping progress of the script and the peekaboo travels of major characters in and out of the film. To me, on first viewing, the huge leap forward in Ali's emotional impact came with his second trip to Africa for the Rumble in the Jungle, as he's dazzled by the scale and vehemence of his Zairean fans' admiration, and the film has the guts to match a career apex (the fight) with a truly shifty personal move (the infidelity toward by far his most interesting wife, for which the film refuses to exonerate him). You remembered him running in the cities back home in digital, and I remembered him running through Zaire with that flock of children and the same potent score. But I'm no longer sure that Ali really makes a qualitative leap forward in its second half. I think I'm more receptive to its idiosyncrasies and its formal experimentation all along than I was before, but my reaction to the finale was slightly more muted this time out. It's an odd bird, for sure, though I shouldn't bury the lead—it's still my favorite Michael Mann movie. I know you won't sign on to a claim like that, but how enthusiastic are you feeling?

TR: Well, throughout the film, both times, I fluctuate between serious admiration and slight frustration. You've singled out several of my most valued elements already—for instance, Nona Gaye gives my favourite performance in the movie as Belinda, and how dispiriting is it that most of her subsequent credits are in stuff like The Polar Express and the computer game adaptation of The Matrix? I love her quiet strength and suppressed anger in this role, and—like you say—the way the script never sells her out to make Ali's dalliance seem like a justified escape. The Kinshasa street sequence with the kids is one of the two moments I find saliently moving and stirring—the other being Jamie Foxx's Bundini Brown (my second favourite perf, on this go-round) being allowed back into the fold and standing humbled by the ringside. Lovely acting, great control of the ensemble, piercing human moments in the hoopla.

Then there's the frustration. I feel the film has more flow than shape, and I emerge, through no fault of the hard-working Smith, with my sense of Ali's journey only marginally enriched or challenged. I guess I'd hate to impose some Spielbergian/Ron Howardy flashback structure to key it all in to the final Foreman bout, but I'm sure it must have been a temptation—there's that moment a round in or so when Ali seems distracted by voices from the past, and the cornball populist in me almost wants the entire movie to inhabit that little reflective pause, so we know where we are and where we're going, and can work out what it means. That would be a boxing-movie cliché in itself, I realise, but boxing is a sport full of them, and I sometimes feel Mann's shirking of the obvious has an almost pompously high-handed quality; it's no surprise to me that his film was a box-office underperformer. I think it could have honoured Ali's charisma and achievement and got a little more unashamedly drunk on both those things—it's so sober! But then I'm back to the gorgeous look and feel of it, and the moving commitment to Ali's global (not just American) importance as a black icon, and start to wonder if I'm asking too much. It's hugely solid filmmaking. And for me, bang in the middle for Mann, a little below The Insider (which I think I like more than you) and quite a bit above anything he's done since.

ND: "Pompously high-handed" is a mode into which, from my perspective, Mann defaults in almost all of his movies, for better or for worse. Even in something like Manhunter, which I like but not nearly as much as you do, I feel like he frequently films his ideas about the movie more than the actual movie, and it's why, for me, sustained emotional connection is often the rarest commodity in his body of work. That's not meant to sound quite SO crabby: The Insider and Collateral (the rare Mann film that I like more than you do?) are much more interesting for his cool, conceptual, eccentric touches than I suspect they were in the treatment or on the page. So, on the one hand, I like that Ali has so many moments that pack such emotional punch: several of Gaye's scenes, the Foxx scene you mention, the heartbreaker when Jada Pinkett's Sonji realizes it's all over for her marriage, and why.

From the other angle, I like that Ali has so many cool but headstrong characters that Mann's laconic approach to feeling seems entirely apt, and since the actors rarely aim for Big Emoting, and they aren't self-conscious of their own iconicity like the headlining pair in Heat, the occasional impersonality and tough-minded affectations of the movie don't work against them. Of course, another way to put this is that I've rarely seen a movie with this many characters—a reverential biopic, no less—where not a single character this side of Voight's Howard Cosell makes any explicit bid toward being likable. Surely part of the "sober" vibe you refer to: these characters aren't nearly as interested in us as we are in them. A corollary to this is that the movie's version of history isn't showboaty or self-conscious, either: the Rumble in the Jungle stands out as a moment when Ali and his crew are aware of creating a kind of epochal moment, whereas the climactic Supreme Court decision in his favor is handled in such a defiantly offhanded way. Even the editing of the scene where he refuses to answer his draft call is exemplary in this regard: Mann keeps the shot squarely on Will Smith's nearly impassive face, rather than on his feet or on the literal line he's supposed to toe. You can't even judge, until the recruiting officer reacts, whether or not he's done his duty. I'm not saying this penchant for visual and narrative obliquity always works in the movie's favor, or that their aren't some clunky "time capsule" moments, as when Malcolm X explains to Ali/us that "Birmingham was important in the Civil Rights struggle," etc., etc. But the movie is, to me, astonishingly distinctive in the way it handles even the most august moments in a very celebrated life in an oft-revisited moment in history. There's a real payoff, which I don't see in Miami Vice or Public Enemies, to approaching the material in such a diagonal, restrained, unusual way.

TR: I really like this argument—it's certainly the best case I always want to make for the film—and yet I still feel Mann only put it halfway up on screen. For me, it fits exactly into that category you use to qualify Manhunter; the movie is a WAY to make a biopic, not the actual, fully satisfying fruit of taking all that on board. We may differ on the likability question too, only insofar as I think Mann often casts prickly and difficult leads in his best movies—James Caan, William Petersen, Russell Crowe—who hardly go out of their way to get us on side, whereas here he has Will Smith, embodying a complex, contradictory, but nonetheless famously flamboyant and media-savvy sports hero who we're basically always rooting for even when he makes some missteps and wrong calls along the way. I'm totally with you in admiring the movie's (and Smith's) restraint, except in the sense that it flattens its own structure down, dragging its feet a little petulantly rather than risk falling into any overt genre cliches. Rather like Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins did in Nixon, I also think Mann and Smith get a little carried away in their attempts to deconstruct Ali's public persona; like Hopkins's OTT flashing of Nixon's eerily contrived electoral grin, Smith's sudden bursts of opponent-baiting rhetoric too obviously signal front and insecurity to me, even as they fit so neatly with Mann's abiding interest in Masculinity and Crisis. I think Smith is good but not great in most of his scenes, but he's outright wonderful in that Kinshasa graffiti moment, perhaps because we feel a tactile connection between his own stardom and Ali's: those kids, if you watch the extras, were literally carrying him around on that day of shooting. I like him even more in The Pursuit of Happyness, but anyway. On the whole I've got to say I'm glad that the movie doesn't tell us what to think, and I wouldn't want to insist that it clarify its perspective a little more, but the downside is that I still find it a trifle remote.

Isn't it a bit odd, for instance, that Mann makes so little of Ali's antagonists? It may not be a bad thing—perhaps it's a refreshing variation on his usual pas de deux routine whereby the central figure is so consistently isolated, and finds himself casting off everyone from Malcolm X to his first and second wives to Brown. Still, it's a pity that the one constant source of back-and-forth in his career, as presented here, had to be Voight's Cosell, a party-trick routine I would find absolutely as hollow as I'd remembered it, were it not for a few deft moments of semi-improvised physical comedy. I have no idea who Howard Cosell is or was beyond this movie, I'm afraid, which means he's eternally just that drawling guy with the toupee and bad putty nose and inexplicable Oscar nomination. I'd have swiftly swapped Foxx in there, or even Mario Van Peebles, which is no huge compliment to his functional, TV-drama impersonation, but it's still better than Voight's. Since it sounds like you place the movie's characterisation fairly high up its list of assets, do your thoughts on these performances tally with mine? And what of Wright, Williamson, Silver, Pinkett? I might like the ensemble in The Insider fractionally more, but it's close.

ND: So much to respond to! You're right that Ali is definitely Notes Toward a Movie on Muhammad Ali, but if you measure Mann's scripts and project choices against how he renders them through his direction, I can say with confidence that Ali marks the biggest gap between the movie Mann made and the movie I was expecting, and for me, the balance tips heavily in favor of the film. I can't brook any criticisms of Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, so I just have to pass on that. Excellent point about Mann's penchant for slightly astringent actors, and while I certainly think that famously good-natured Will Smith comes through more than Muhammad Ali does in some of this movie's delightful trash-talking scenes—and Smith certainly has trouble with those moments when Ali suddenly flips a switch and turns against a friend (Malcolm, Sonji, Belinda)—it's a reasonably strong performance, especially in the ring and, as you say, in Africa. Agreed that Smith is even better in Happyness.

True that Ali keeps remarkably distant from Ali's boxing opponents, but I was much more troubled by its incredibly anxious handling of the Black Nation of Islam. The script is obviously quite severe at their expense, with some justification, but does Mann really need to keep filming them as these portentous, speechless phantoms of watchful menace? Add 'em all together, short of the reliably strong Barry Shabaka Henley, and you get Gale Sondergaard in The Letter. Elsewhere in the cast, among the recognizable names, I think everyone deserves to feel proud, but I will never stop wondering why Jeffrey Wright takes so, so, so, so many parts as the Opaque, Mercurial Bystander, and why Hollywood can't think of anything else to do with him, even after his delicious villainy in Shaft. I would put the ensembles of Manhunter and The Insider comfortably above this one, but it's still a high-caliber collection of performances.

I suppose in the end, Ali works for me as a kind of I'm Not There for Muhammad Ali, and though there's no gainsaying its aloofness and its occasional literalisms, I like that Mann is able to be so conceptual and metacritical, about the man and his era, without any obvious "gimmicks." And I think it's thrilling that he spends so long inside the ring during each of the prizefights, so that they really communicate lots of information about the sport and about what makes Ali a champ. Watching him hold himself up through all those rounds of the Rumble, gleaning that his elected strategy is to wait until George Foreman, the implacable slugger, tires himself out with pummeling Ali in the torso is quite an essay on the man's own resilience, maybe even a bit of masochism, certainly his craftiness. I love that they avoid letting even Cosell narrate this logic in voiceover—you get it by watching the match. Ali avoids making a fetish of its own sleekness as some other Mann pictures do (indeed, it's often anything but sleek), but it's also not as plagued by the questionable vanguardism of the recent pictures, and for me, that's a perfect sweet spot for this odd, provocative, durable, but often maddening filmmaker to hit. Grade: B+

TR: We've barely talked about the actual boxing scenes, which is where the movie so often comes most alive in performance, shooting and editing—they punctuate it like the heists in Heat or those heart-in-mouth ambushes in The Last of the Mohicans. I'm almost spent with my reservations, which are certainly outweighed by the film's thoughtfulness and agility in its best moments, but I'll say that I do think you have a point about the Nation of Islam. There's fallout from The Insider here: Mann seems to present them as an equally sinister corporation, such that Elijah Muhammad has virtually the same backstabbing role as Michael Gambon's malign bigwig, right? Luckily this doesn't obliterate the importance of Ali's religious beliefs and name change, and I like that his protestations to the media that he'll be the champ HE wants to be are clearly undermined, until the movie's second half, by his affiliation (verging on brainwashing) with this creepy clan. Ali's self-realisation, to include his mending of the relationship with Brown, is a through-line Mann totally has a handle on, and it's clever that you sense him feeding this mantra even to himself when, say, the marriages don't work out.

Mann so often romanticises his men going it alone, and there's a certain degree of this here, but the movie is subtle enough to grasp how Ali's personal failures are of his own making, complicating his journey with all these dead ends of unfulfilment and damaged relationships. That's an amazingly mature stance for a sports biopic to have, when you figure how many of them present a talented hero merely buffeted by and weathering these somewhat fakely externalised slings and arrows—call it the "Shit Happens" school of oblivious hagiography. I can talk myself round to like the movie an awful lot when I consider how intelligently it makes Ali himself, not some overdetermined framing device or even many newspaper headlines, into the motor who drives it through the ups and downs. Somehow, I never quite love this approach in practice as much as I do in theory, and not nearly as much as a film like Capote, which is so shrewd about exploring its not dissimilar psychology in one specific context. But I respect it a lot. So on a good day my wobbly enthusiasm might float like a butterfly up to B+, but right now I guess it's stinging like a B.

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Will Smith
Best Supporting Actor: Jon Voight

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Will Smith
Best Supporting Actor: Jon Voight
Best Original Score: Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke

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