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Boxing in Cinema: Michael Mann’s Ali

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There is a version of the 2001 film Ali that would have pleased almost everyone. A safe version that played like a ‘greatest hits’ record and gave you all of the swells and swoons the average moviegoer could have hoped for.

It’s clear from the first moments of the film that Michael Mann did not make that version.

The first nine minutes of Mann’s Ali is one of the most remarkable intros to any film I’ve ever seen. In that short span of time, Mann shows us a young Cassius Clay reading the Emmet Till headline and also a mature Ali witnessing a speech by Malcolm X. Mann doesn’t stop there. He makes a statement on white Jesus, introduces you to the most important people in Ali’s world, and makes you believe that Will Smith is up to the role—all set to an exhilarating reenactment of Sam Cooke singing “Bring It On Home To Me” live at the Harlem Square Club.

It is breathtaking cinema.

What follows that stellar opening is a film that simmers, is contemplative, and more than a little radical—which of course befits a movie about a radical.

In much the same way people forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was at one time very unpopular due to his opposition to the Vietnam War, the same was true of Muhammad Ali. While the film is bookended by triumph (the first Sonny Liston fight and the George Foreman fight), the core of the film is Ali’s battle with the United States government over his conscientious objection to the war.

It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why it took so long to make a real film about Muhammad Ali. (You can count The Greatest—in which Ali played himself—if you like, but I don’t recommend the 1977 film unless you are quite attached to indefensible opinions.) It’s not like Ali’s life didn’t provide plenty of drama for would-be filmmakers to draw from. And maybe that’s the problem with trying to tell his story—there’s just so much to tell.

From his 1960 gold medal victory at the Rome Olympics in the light heavyweight division at the tender age of 18, to winning the heavyweight championship for a (then unprecedented) third time in 1978, he had one hell of a boxing career. Sonny Liston and the mob, the vaunted trilogy against Joe Frazier, and of course, his triumphant victory over George Foreman which was covered so expertly in the documentary When We Were Kings.

But he was bigger, so much bigger than his sport. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali after beating Liston and becoming a member of the Nation of Islam. His closest friends were people like Malcolm X and Sam Cooke (so well covered in Regina King’s One Night in Miami). He was a brash and proud black man who was loquacious, physically gifted, beautiful (if you didn’t know, he’d tell you), and fearless.

It is practically impossible to think of a more significant athlete in the 20th century, save, perhaps, Jackie Robinson. Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest voice of the civil rights movement, but it’s arguable that Ali was the second greatest (or at least the loudest).

That’s a lot to bite off in one movie, and on occasion, Michael Mann’s film shows the strain. Ali’s second fight with Joe Frazier is glossed over, and the film doesn’t get to his final great ring moment against Leon Spinks or touch on his post-career Parkinson’s diagnosis.

And how could it?

Mann wisely chose to focus on the incendiary decade of 1964 to 1974 for his film. But even with a running time of more than two and a half hours, there are moments when the movie threatens to burst from its seams.

But it doesn’t.

As I said earlier, it doesn’t give the people what they want. Mann’s film simmers instead of explodes, ruminates instead of being obvious, and emphasizes strain over uplift. Ali feels real—perhaps too real for moviegoers. Ali is the anti-Rocky. Rocky, as much as I love those series of films (aside from Rocky V, which we shall not speak of), is a pugnacious fairytale. Mann ain’t here for fairytales.

For all the artistry with which Mann approaches the material, the success or failure of this film came down to one person… Will Smith. And look, however likable, affable, and charming you might find the Fresh Prince, he’s seldom seen as a heavyweight actor. But here, Smith is a revelation, and an unexpected one at that. The film could have absorbed Jon Voight not being great as Howard Cosell (although he was), or Jamie Foxx not being great as Bundini Brown (although he was), or Nona Gaye (daughter of Marvin) not being great as Ali’s second wife, Belinda (although she is). What it could not absorb is Will Smith not nailing the lead role. And boy, does he ever.

Think of the entirety of Smith’s career: how often was he asked to deliver on this level? Far too seldom, I would say. As Ali, the lack of overall physical similarity becomes inconsequential, as Smith matches his swagger, voice, and cadence so well that it actually reminds one of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. And yes, I’m keenly aware of what I just said.

Smith earns the comparison, though. As good as Smith is early on, it’s during the Vietnam draft portion of the film that he truly lifts off. As he walks out of a courtroom to confront the press, Ali makes his stand in the film (“You’re my opposer!”) and Smith makes his stand as an actor, taking full ownership of the tremendous responsibility that he had accepted. He is an actor in full flight at that moment—I get tingles just thinking about it.

Smith never got close to his performance in Ali again. (I don’t think he ever tried again.) But on this occasion, this glorious occasion, he not only met the moment, but exceeded the impossible demands of the role.

And let’s face it, playing Muhammad Ali is impossible.

For many a year, Muhammad Ali told us he was “the greatest.” Eventually, we believed him. And as hagiography set in, the rough edges of the real man were smoothed out. He became less of a person and more a symbol. To some, he was practically a messiah. What Ali does is bring the legend down to earth, and by exposing his flaws, his contradictions, and his internal conflict, make him a man.

The remarkable thing is that, in doing so, the film reached the same conclusion as both the man it depicted and the masses that believed in him.

He was indeed the greatest.

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