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Ali Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 April 2002


Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson
release year: 2001
film rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Fame is usually a relative thing – people can be stars in their field among their peers and/or to those interested in their area of expertise, while being unknown commodities to the rest of the world. Director Michael Mann may be a case in point. While the Oscar-nominated (for 1999’s "The Insider") filmmaker is well known to everyone who cares about movies, he’s not necessarily a household name to those who don’t follow cinema.

Sometimes, though, there are individuals who transcend this rule. A person can be completely indifferent to boxing and still recognize the name and face of world champion Muhammad Ali. Mann’s film about "the Champ," entitled simply "Ali," is at times a fascinating but confusingly structured biographical drama. The screenplay by Stephen J. Revele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & director Mann, from a story by Gregory Allen Howard, covers so much ground that it seems to sacrifice insight (and sometimes even basic coherence) for incident.

Fortunately, the film has an enormous asset going for it in the person of Will Smith, who plays Ali with a flexibility and an assurance that transform his very being. Not only does Smith submerge his familiar likable, hip persona in Ali’s charming but wary self-protectiveness, his face seems to lose its customary angularity to take on the boxer’s more rounded visage (presumably Smith bulked up for the role, but the new look is still a surprise). We may wonder who some supporting characters are or how we got from here to there, but thanks to Smith, we understand what Ali is thinking and feeling at every moment. It is remarkably empathetic and intelligent work that leaves you with profound respect for both the actor and the man he portrays; Smith’s Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

With some flashbacks to childhood, "Ali" covers the boxer’s life and career from his first brush with fame, at age 22 in 1964, to the crucial "Rumble in the Jungle" fight, held in Zaire in 1974, against George Foreman for the heavyweight championship of the world title. The event was surrounded by more than the usual drama, as Ali had already won the championship once, only to have it stripped from him due to his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army at the height of the Viet Nam War. Asked why he declined to serve his country, Ali replied, in a blunt, oft-quoted line, that no Viet Cong has ever called him racial epithets.

The section dealing with Ali’s struggles with the U.S. military and court system (he was sentenced to five years in jail) comes in the middle of the film, and it’s arguably the most gripping. There are several reasons for this. Confronted with the loss of not just prestige or even financial security but loss of freedom, Ali is at his most blunt, angry and dignified. Furthermore, the stakes are universally recognizable. Smith gives us a man who is sincerely shocked and outraged at the severity of the punishment threatened for speaking his mind, while at the same time grappling with the unhappy confirmation of his worst fears about how the system works.

The rest of the movie doesn’t quite measure up to the intensity and fascination of these sequences, which means that the climactic fight doesn’t have quite the intended impact. Part of the reason for this is that "Ali" has the same problem that plagues most sports films – it fails to reveal either emotionally or intellectually why this man chose this singular activity, and why it is that his approach to it made him rise to the top, leaving behind all others. (For a rare example of a sports film that does contain such revelations, see "Without Limits," a drama about the late runner Steve Prefontaine.) We understand that Ali is a terrific boxer and Mann and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki actually create shots that let us see his storied floating footwork. However, we never quite comprehend why he’s driven to pummel (and possibly be pummeled by) men he doesn’t have any particular grudge against.

Even leaving aside the fighter’s reasons for being a fighter, we also don’t get a feel for tactics. Should Ali be afraid of Foreman? Should Foreman be afraid of Ali? Is there any factor other than sheer will involved in determining who wins the contest of blows? If it’s actually part of the point of the film that this is ultimately an unknowable mystery, this would be a valid point of view, but it’s never made clear – we comprehend that we’re seeing crucial events in Ali’s life without gaining insight into exactly what we’re seeing.

Likewise, segments of the film involving Ali’s joining the Nation of Islam (which resulted in him changing his name from Cassius Clay) and his friendship with Malcolm X are depicted as essential elements of his story. Indeed, we understand that Ali’s faith and his relationship with Malcolm X are profoundly important to him, but again, we don’t get a sense that we’re learning much beyond the surface facts of the matter – which, granted, are fairly intriguing. At its most mundane, "Ali" is never less than engaging.

Sound on the DVD is good, although the 5.1 track doesn’t make much use of directional effects. Chapter 1 makes extended use of the smooth, beguiling songs of Sam Cooke, while Chapter 2 provides very realistic impact sounds as leather gloves hit flesh in the ring. Chapters 6 and 24 have haunting African songs on the soundtrack, although the music buzzes just a bit on my system.

In Chapter 9, 19 and 26, there are lifelike surround effects coming from the mains and rears as Ali is in the ring, surrounded by boxing fans. Chapter 17 has the movie’s most immediate and surprising sound effects – control room switches being flipped in the center and mains make it momentarily seem as though something in the listening environment is snapping. Chapter 23 has an enveloping effect as cheers rise abruptly to life in the rears as Ali arrives in Zaire. Chapter 27 modulates the rise and fall of the crowd noise to effectively give us a sense of Ali’s state as he tries to concentrate with his hearing coming and going mid-bout.

For a big movie nominated for two Oscars – besides Smith, Jon Voight was nominated for a Supporting Actor award for his affectionate performance as Howard Cosell – "Ali" is oddly devoid of extras. It has the movie’s theatrical trailer, a two-page booklet with production notes and the usual choice of language tracks and subtitles, but that’s it – no commentary and no making-of featurette.

"Ali" works on the functional level of giving us information about Muhammad Ali and the times that shaped him in a consistently entertaining manner. We come away feeling that we know more than we did when we started, but not as much as we should after spending two-and-a-half hours on the subject.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; French Stereo Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Theatrical Trailer; Scene Selection; English, French and Spanish Subtitles; English Closed-Captioning
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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