All summer, as I experienced one dreadful film after another, I developed a mantra to get me through. “New films by Scorcese, Mann, Darabont, Crowe and the “Rushmore” guys are due before the end of the year. How bad could the year be?” Well, Miramax, in their infinite wisdom, delayed Scorcese’s “Gangs of New York”. Apparently, they were concerned about the public’s reaction to a film set in 19th Century New York after the attacks of September 11. Presumably, they are using the extra time to use computers to erase any shots of the World Trade Center. That left four films to anticipate and hope for. A 50% batting average is pretty bad. “The Royal Tennenbaums” is a great film. “The Majestic” is a very good film. Hmmm. That leaves the Cameron Crowe and Michael Mann films. Both filmmakers have created some of my favorite films of all time. So it is extremely disappointing to have the experience of watching Mann’s “Ali”, starring Will Smith.
“Ali” tells the story of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) from 1964 until the famous Rumble In The Jungle. It seems to be a faithful visual recreation of the important events, but this is merely the frosting on the cake. What we don’t get is the cake. The poster tagline is “Forget everything you know”. Well, I don’t know that much about his life, but I knew most of what was depicted. What wasn’t depicted very successfully was ‘Why?’. The area the film depicts very well is Ali’s struggle with religion. A brief flashback depicts his mixed feelings about his father’s (Giancarlo Esposito) religion. This coupled with his feelings about race and the struggle of the African American man leads him to Malcolm X (Mario Van Pebbles) and the Muslim religion. Some of the film depicts their relationship, but then Ali seems to make a very conscious decision, yet the decision isn’t depicted or explained. During the course of the film, Ali falls in love with three women, yet the moment when each relationship ends is not explained very well or very carefully. Most of the relationships in the film are handled in a fairly short-handed manner. We find out how they met, but the end of the relationship is left in the dark. Other relationships are just there and we really don’t get an idea of how they met Ali or why the relationship continues. For instance, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) is his trainer throughout the course of the story, but why? Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright), a photographer, appears to be at every event depicted in the film, snapping photographs. Each of these characters is really flat. Neither is developed and only seems to serve as background. Drew “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx) appears to have been Ali’s main supporter during his rise, yet, again, I have to ask ‘Why?’ All of these questions are all the more shocking when you consider the filmmaker. Michael Mann directed “Heat”, a great crime epic, starring DeNiro and Pacino. In “Heat” every single supporting character had a backstory which was explored, giving the film a rich texture.
Will Smith clearly spent a lot of time and effort trying to develop his performance as Ali and he does a good job. He is emotional, bombastic, intelligent and motivated. All qualities that I would imagine the real Ali has in spades. But without the direction and the story to complement him, the performance lacks a large element. Why is he like this? What made him like this? We don’t ever really find out. A little bit about his life is revealed in his relationship with Malcolm X and the Muslim religion, a little of his struggle with the US and his draft notice. What is lacking is any of the motivation behind his training and his rise to the top.
Technically, the film is very good. The film opens with a montage depicting Ali training at the gym as he remembers two key moments in his life. The editing work is good and reveals some of the depth of his character. As the film progresses, the shaky handheld camera work used so consistently becomes annoying and detracts from the film. Meant to evoke a documentary, it robs the film of grandeur and style.
Most annoyingly, we really learn nothing about what made Ali a great athlete. We don't see how he trained differently, how he fought differently, anything.
“Ali” really is a disappointing film that did little to illuminate the life of a great athlete.