There's been talk of a biography of Ali for years now, and even the film's star, Will Smith, has yo-yo'd in-and-out of deciding whether he wanted to appear in the film or not. Michael Mann, acclaimed director of Heat and The Insider, even found it a struggle to bring the film to the screen, agreeing to forfeit his salary in exchange for a share of the film's profits. Now that Ali has finally been produced and released, the film has received mixed ratings, and has failed to make as much of a dent in audiences' minds as the filmmakers had hoped. Rather than tread the traditional two-hour biopic that would garner millions, Mann courageously chooses instead to aim for dark, bleaker targets, therefore aiming away from a mainstream audience.
Ali is a riveting film that manages to pay respect to the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, without actually shedding any light on him. Here was a man whose outrageous personality and likeable charm more than overshadowed his boxing skills, no matter how eloquent and majestic those skills were, and yet Michael Mann's screen version of the boxer's story almost mythologizes him without celebrating him; the film respects him but doesn't love him.
Omitting Ali's early years, along with his most recent chapter in which he can be found devoting his life to fighting Parkinson's disease, Ali concentrates solely on the period starting with his clash with Sonny Liston in 1964 and ending with his famous 'Rumble In The Jungle' clash with George Foreman in 1974 (that was chronicled in When We Were Kings). During this ten-year period, Ali converted to Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay to what we now know him as, and infamously refused to allow himself to be drafted for the Vietnam war, which sparked massive controversy. Also during this time, Ali had heavy dealings with such celebrated figures as Malcolm X and Don King, whilst leading a promiscuous life which resulted in many wives and lovers.
It's nowhere near perfect, but Ali is still a worthy adaptation of a tremendous showman, and this is largely thanks to Will Smith, who was unlucky not to run away with the Best Actor Oscar. We forget almost instantly that this is the same man who starred in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and Men In Black, and even though Smith and Ali aren't exactly alike in terms of vocal tone and physical appearance, we the audience seem to trust Smith, almost as if he is the advocate of Ali in the film. Indeed, every performance in the movie is inspired, from Jon Voight playing Ali's verbal sparring partner and friend Howard Cosell to Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X. Giancarlo Esposito is also excellent as Ali's father, along with Mykelti Williamson, who would convince you that he actually was Don King. Joe Morton, Albert Hall, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ron Silver and Jeffrey Wright also complement the cast splendidly, and help the audience maintain focus throughout the film, despite it's long running time and myriad of characters.
Although Michael Mann has done a creditable job with Ali, he has still ultimately failed to give the film a soul. Mann would have you believe that Ali was a man who constantly fought with a chip on his shoulder, as if insecurity and cowardliness were causing his outward personality. Ali wasn't just a boxer, but a poet and philosopher with razor-sharp wit, and yet these latter qualities seem to have somehow become lost in the mix. It's as if the celebrity icon of Muhammad Ali that we know and love isn't the same as the aggressive, stubborn and enigmatic Ali of the film. This might be the film's point, but it could at least serve to contrast these two opposing sides of Ali's character, in order to help the audience identify the difference, rather than merely presenting one viewpoint. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments of the film's trailer, in which Ali jokes with a young boy about the speed of his punches, has been removed completely. This is essentially the summation of the film, in that it's a powerful and brilliant study of a boxer struggling to maintain his identity against the odds, and yet it completely fails to tell the audience anything new about Muhammad Ali, or even represent the joy he gave to millions. This is what prevents Ali from being a masterpiece.
If as a film Ali is cold, it's corroborated by the stark photography by Emmanuel Lubezki that maintains a constant chord of edgy alienation, as if we the audience are just as distant from Ali as he is from his own nation. On a second viewing, Ali reveals more flaws without also revealing any more touches of masterclass. Mann lingers on shots that outstay their welcome, and he seems unsure about which subplots to throw out and which to retain. The film feels long and bloated, and yet one feels surprisingly empty at the conclusion. Ali certainly tells a good story, but whether it tells the story or not is another matter.
Academy Awards 2001
Academy Award Nominations 2001
Best Actor - Will Smith
Best Supporting Actor - Jon Voight
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the picture quality is mostly very good with detailed, sharp imagery often contrasting with grainy, rough footage depending on the sequence shown. The colour tones are often washed-out and lacking, but on the whole it's a fine transfer that will cause little distractions from any viewing enjoyment.
Presented in DTS unlike it's Region 1 counterpart, the sound mix for Ali is striking even if its potential is unfulfilled. At times, the mix is a rumbling roar filled with aggression and rage, and at times it confines itself too much towards the two front channels, thus leaving the rears lacking. Obviously, the sound mix is at its best during the fight scenes, and these sequences pack more of a grittier edge to proceedings compared to the lesser 5.1 mix.
Menu: An animated menu comprised of moody shots from the film and a dark background.
Packaging: Contained in a single amaray with dual-slots situated on each half in which each disc is contained. A chapter listings booklet/catalogue for other EIV releases is also included.
The Making Of Ali: This is a good twenty-eight minute 'making of' special that contains many behind-the-scenes footage and interviews spliced with sequences from the film. Most aspects of the filmmaking process are explored, and it's nice to have some interviews with Michael Mann, considering that he has mostly ignored the extras process of DVDs when it comes to his own films.
Behind The Scenes: This is a twelve minute roll of behind-the-scenes footage, which is actually EIV's attempt to pass off the raw footage for the 'making of' as an extra in its own right. It's fun to watch the first time, but ultimately pointless.
Trailer: A lengthy, but sprawling trailer that gives the film an epic quality whilst maintaining its blockbuster setting.
Cast And Crew Soundbites: Again, this has been culled from the raw footage of the 'making of' and used by EIV as a 'proper' extra feature. At least the soundbites are separated into each different participant, although an option to Play All has been omitted. However, it's arguable that it's better to have the interviewee's complete comments as opposed to edited-down viewpoints presented in the 'making of'. The combined running time of the soundbites is just under thirty-five minutes.
It's fairly obvious that EIV have just released the barebones Region 1 version of Ali on Region 2 land coupled with a sparse disc containing any titbit they can lay their hands on, and yet they still should be credited for pleasing consumers more than their North American counterparts. Michael Mann films are seldom immersed in many extra features, and his films will pick the film up regardless of added-value, so this is actually a nice purchase if acquired at the right price.