Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Will Smith and Michael Mann Prove to be The Greatest Parts of Ali

Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) was a larger-than-life figure. Ergo, it's no surprise a movie about his life like Ali begins with a similarly grandiose bang.  Michael Mann's 2001 chronicle of the boxer and civil rights advocate kicks off with a nine-minute sequence that covers a whole lot of ground in a short period of time. Set against a rendition of Bring It On Home to Me, Ali proceeds to show its titular lead in the middle of a boxing match, meeting best friend Drew Brown (Jamie Foxx), enduring rigorous training and even a flashback to adolescent Ali having to sit in the back of a segregated bus. It's an appropriately expansive kick-off for what turns out to be an expansive motion picture.

From there, Ali's script (penned by Mann, Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) follows Ali right after his match with Sonny Liston all the way up to his famous Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman. Along the way, Ali gets married, commits himself to the Islamic Brotherhood, and refuses to go along with the Vietnam draft. That refusal, born out of Ali declaring that he can't fight for a country that doesn't see him as a person, ends up sending his boxing career tanking. Powerful American forces are doing everything they can to make sure Ali can't fight. Ali is using his clout to challenge the status quo in America. Those in opposition to Ali intend to burn that clout to the ground.

Anyone who has spent a few minutes with Ali in the ring knows that this man, even when he's just lying on the ropes, endures. That perseverance fuels much of the story of Ali, which hinges itself on an assortment of Ali's personal struggles. Such troubles, including his issues with committing to a single woman, turn out to be just as daunting as any challenger in the ring. Ali proves impressively comprehensive in chronicling its lead character. Despite running 157 minutes, Ali's commitment to covering so much ground in Ali's life means there isn't really an extraneous scene to be found here. Meanwhile, the editing (handled by a quartet of individuals that includes William Goldenberg) finds intriguing ways of linking together disparate parts of Ali's life in the various montage sequences.

That having been said, I did find myself surprised, once the credits began to roll on Ali, how I wished I could have gotten to know its various supporting characters better. Ali is determined to put as much of Ali's life on-screen as he can but it's less concerned with rounding out the supporting players in his life as people. Despite an exceedingly charming turn from Jamie Foxx, Drew Brown never gets fleshed out beyond the usual addiction storyline one finds in biopics. Jon Voight's Howard Cosell, meanwhile, is a decent celebrity impression but he's not a very compelling human being. The various women that come into Ali's life barely get more than a name, let alone any actual personality.

Even the films version of Muhammed Ali has a tendency to feel like a cinematic monument to a person rather than a person unto himself. This recurring struggle to imbue its characters with depth is not a flaw that sinks Ali. However, it does prove mildly disappointing, especially since the moments where Ali digs into who its characters are as people (like an illuminating speech from Malcolm X as he stares out an apartment window) are quite interesting. Luckily, plenty of other parts of Ali pick up the slack for sometimes underwhelming character work. One of these positive traits is Michael Mann's direction, as the guy who lent such intensity to Heat and Collateral turns out to be right at home in the world of boxing movies.

The scenes where Ali goes into the boxing right aren't numerous but the ones we get are truly memorable. Mann films these tussles with a visceral quality that makes you flinch every time a punch gets thrown. This quality particularly pays off in the climactic Rumble in the Jungle duel. As George Foreman keeps tossing punches at a non-responsive Ali, the beating is rendered in an overwhelming fashion. Meanwhile, the fighters are frequently framed in a brightly-lit ring with pitch-black surrounding them. When we're with Ali and the other boxers in the right, Mann makes the creative call to erase the spectators entirely. Emphasizing a sense of isolation in these fights helps enhance their intensity. There's no one else here, just Ali, his competitor, and Mann's filmmaking.

Meanwhile, Will Smith delivers some of his best-ever acting in the lead role of Ali. It's a fine fit to have an iconic movie star play a similarly iconic athlete but Smith fits into the role of Ali beyond just that quality. Smith does a great job shedding his loveable on-screen persona in order to get Ali down pat. He manages to accomplish this feat in impressive style, particularly in how he's able to execute Ali's public penchant for rhyming without undercutting the realistic nature of Ali as a movie. Smith's ability to imbue tangible humanity into this quality and other aspects of Muhammed Ali is, frankly, something more of Ali could have taken notes from. Still, overall, this is a drama that isn't quite "The Greatest" but it does manage to pack enough punches to make it worth a viewing.

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