Ali, Michael Mann’s towering biopic from 2001,writs large a minor theme the filmmaker had introduced way back in the nascent days of his career; namely, the notion that rigid idealism to a greater cause can transform a man into something more. In Mann’s first film, The Jericho Mile, convict/athlete Murphy becomes a Cool Hand Luke-like symbol to the inmates as his unbreakable word meets his equally indomitable spirit when he deals with tragedy amidst training for a spot on the Olympic team. In The Insider, this gets revisited when hot-headed Jeffery Wigand and professional journalist Lowell Bergman navigate each other’s flaws to bring to light a public health story while being opposed at every turn by the worst aspects of our for-profit system.
Along with Eric Roth, who also, with Mann, co-wrote The Insider, Mann reworked and finessed a screenplay by Chris Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele which had initially begun life as an original script by Gregory Allen Howard as a possible Ron Howard project for Sony Pictures. Cutting the film’s chronology down to Ali’s first defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964 to claim the heavyweight title (then as Cassius Clay) and ending with his reclamation of the belt 10 years later against George Foreman, Ali takes the idea of individual-as-symbol to a stratospheric level as the talented club fighter from Louisville ultimately transforms into a blend of all things cultural and political to become a global figure of defiance and courage.
While there is a little bit of hagiography at play, the film does a very nice job painting a complex portrait of an imperfect man. Ali’s showboating narcissism is sometimes on display as is his pettiness. That he treated Malcolm X (an excellent Mario Van Peebles) with prideful scorn on behalf of the Nation of Islam was one of Ali’s greatest regrets as his physically turning his back on Malcolm was his last act in a once-great, close friendship (though, as a bit of redemption, Ali’s pettiness is counterbalanced later by the good sportsmanship he extends to Jerry Quarry, a fighter who always had more heart than sense, after whipping the living shit out of him in Ali’s return fight).
And for all of the care and devotion that is shown to loyalists like Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), Angelo Dundee (a fantastic Ron Silver), or Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx), Ali’s fidelity to his wives and romantic partners is a little more slippery. But for all of his philandering, he can’t help be bettered by each woman with whom he trades paint. In first wife Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), he finds a partner willing to exude confidence and independence, traits he admires but can’t abide due to the strict parameters put forth by the Nation of Islam. His second wife, Belinda (Nona Gaye, electrifying as one of Mann’s rock solid females of wisdom), is probably his most positive influence in her selfless devotion during his most trying times and her constant advice to cut the personal cancers out of his orbit; something he eventually does but, in pure Michael Mann fashion, after he’s all but lost her. When Belinda asks him why he allows himself to be used by various opportunists, his defense by admitting to creating a ladder of snakes for his own goals might as well be “All I am is what I’m going after.”
Along with the film’s rich sense of history, masterful production design by John Myhre, and a percolating, dynamic soundtrack that seamlessly blends period and contemporary, Ali also lays claim to a stack of amazing performances. Neither Will Smith or (especially) Jamie Foxx have even been better and Jon Voight digs in to make Howard Cosell go beyond mere putty-prosthetic imitation and emerge as a truly heartfelt and endearing character with three dimensions.
Though it is set within a limited time frame, the story told in Ali is truly epic. And, best of all, Mann refuses to rush it. Each piece of Ali is treated as an important step in the story. Each fight is given its own personality and room to breathe. No shortcuts are taken when it comes to the actual work at hand in Ali’s quest for the title or respect. This movie has a very heady and sophisticated structure and, in fact, it might be Mann’s most densely layered films. Along with opening up the technique of using negative space, Mann also introduces Digital Video to his paintbox and grabs some truly remarkable night footage with little more than natural light. Additionally it is one of the best boxing films since Raging Bull in its visceral artfulness and depth of character.
Like a lot of Michael Mann films, Ali has been through the editing room on multiple occasions with each subsequent cut of the film expanding and focusing on its shadowy geopolitical angle. The further development of this piece of the story has been to the film’s benefit not just because Mann is one of the finest visual filmmakers of all time but because it helps drive home the point that Muhammad Ali was a man from whom a piece was wanted by everyone both great and small. On the whole, Mann’s second, 165 minute “Director’s Cut” is the most satisfying of the three versions (which also includes the 157 minute theatrical cut and his newest, 151 minute “Final Cut”) as it best conveys the transition of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and the jettisoning of his consortium of white Kentucky managers, something Mann’s “Final Cut” completely excises in favor of pacing. But given the relatively minimal difference in time between the two cuts (14 or so minutes), I’m not sure pacing outweighs importance here. This is a long movie, regardless how you cut it. Also, losing that bit of information lessens the logical impact of Ali’s refusal to accept his induction into the military. With the scene, Ali’s defiance to be controlled by forces other than himself, an important first step to the total freedom felt in the film’s final moments when he more or less tells Don King that he can go fuck himself, is more deeply felt.
Also of some note, the “Final Cut” (which, it should be said, is the cut now favored by Mann) excises the Ernie Terrell fight which is also unfortunate because this scene is significant for two reasons. One, it highlights Ali’s establishing dominance and commanding respect for his own identity as Muhammad Ali. Two, it shows why this particular show of strength was detrimental to his legal woes. It’s established that Ali’s relationship to the Nation of Islam gave some corners of the US government heartburn, but, from a dramatic standpoint, the Terrell fight is representative of the straw that broke the camel’s back for those in power who wanted to pull the trigger on Ali and make an example of him.
“I gonna be the champ I want to be,” Muhammad Ali says to a reporter and Ali is a film about a guy cutting every string that her ever thought was manipulating him. Beginning with the Anglo-inspired Christianity which saw his father paint historically inaccurate renditions of Jesus as a blond hair, blue eyed man down to the polar opposite side of the spectrum with the Nation of Islam, an organization just as controlling as the worst elements so hated by Ali and likewise steeped in moral hypocrisy, Ali is a powerful and sprawling testament to one man’s tireless fight to be true to himself and a man who beat the system fighting on his own terms.
And this is why, despite the fact that he may not have gone undefeated, Muhammad Ali was forever the champ. And, even in death, he remains so. What a life. The Greatest, indeed.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain