by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
*I don’t always subscribe to the theory that certain movies should only be made by directors of the same race/background/age but in the case of Muhammad Ali I think you’re leaving a lot on the table having it be made through the lens and experience of a White director.
What do you think of the movie, Rob?
Rob: So before I get into it, I want to say that my opinions about Ali are not at all shaded by any personal experience (aside from pop culture osmosis) with the actual Muhammad Ali. I’ve never seen When We Were Kings (though I definitely want to, especially after this viewing of Ali), so I can only look at this film’s success or failure based on how well it tells the story it sets out to tell. It might be a good counterpoint to your more informed take, actually, so let’s just go with it.
Adam: When We Were Kings is also great if you’re interested in George Foreman to see how different he was back in 1974 than he is now. I read a book he wrote where he described his fight with Ali as being transformative. From what I remember, he was more brutish at the time of the fight and then went through a depression and came out of it re-inventing his personality. But anyways, back to Ali...
To a certain degree, that’s Ali all over. I agree with you that it’s an unfocused hangout more than it is a narrative, almost like an early assembly cut of footage that hasn’t yet been shaved down into a coherent drama. I also agree that Smith’s performance is hamstrung by that lack of directorial focus, and that we never get quite as close to really empathizing with or understanding the lead character as we do in films like Heat or The Insider. Rather than truly informing his ethos and actions, Ali’s politics, personal life, and religious views seem to be there only to propel the story forward in a rote and occasionally frustrating way. He’s an incredibly obtuse character we’re expected to be enthralled by because, well, he’s Muhammad Ali. Much like its namesake, Ali is often laid low by its bombastic ego and stubborn inattention to nuance and detail.
However, does all that make Ali a failure worthy of Bomb Squad status? I’m not so sure. Most of its financial woes were a result of its inflated production and advertising costs, and we can imagine that a more appropriately-budgeted film might be better remembered than the one we got. You mentioned how let down you were by the film, and maybe the expectations of a high-profile Mann/Smith collaboration were just too high to meet. I’m not forgiving Ali for its flaws, but I’m simply wondering if releasing it on Christmas Day in 2001 — three months after 9/11 — was the wrong move. The Muhammad Ali depicted here is an American hero, no doubt, but he’s not your traditional biopic golden boy. He’s a blunt, complicated, and alienating figure. That makes for a good Mann character (in fact, the film’s rough edges mirror Ali’s own, in a way), but maybe it’s not what American audiences wanted at the time.
Was there anything that particularly bothered you about the depiction of Ali, the man? I’m curious about how that would affect my view of the film.
What bothered me in the depiction of the man was that his spirit is missing from what I’ve seen and read about Ali. I’m sure he had moments of deep despair and introspection behind closed doors, but they overwhelm this movie which runs counter to his public and anecdotal persona. Not to simplify my gripe too much, but this movie should be rousing and inspirational and I don’t take any of that away from Ali. If this weren’t the only biopic about the man then I would be more ok with it because it’s certainly a perspective. I just hope that another Ali biopic is made because it would be a shame if this is the only one. I just feel like they missed the mark big time here.
I will say though that for a movie I don’t like, it fascinates me and I’ve seen it more than many movies I like or even love. This is definitely upper echelon Bomb Squad material.
Rob: I can totally see that, and obviously Ali isn’t the character study it could (and maybe) should be. I’ll definitely check out When We Were Kings, and I share your hope that a more reflective Ali biopic comes along soon.
Anything else on Ali? What are we watching next week?
Adam: No, I’m good. I need to watch more Ali docs. He’s a fascinating man. Next week we return with an entry in our “Hundos” series taking a look at the 100th highest grossing movie of 2006 - Crank! Until next time…
Rob: These seats are reserved.