Thursday, February 18, 2021

Reserved Seating Presents The Bomb Squad: ALI

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who float like a boat and sting like Yao Ming.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week, we’re taking a look back at Ali, the 2001 Michael Mann-directed biopic on Muhammad Ali starring Will Smith in the title role. The film takes the same approach as The Aviator from a few years later, by focusing on a portion of Ali’s life (1964 to 1974) rather than his rise and post-boxing years. That’s ok because the ten year period in which Ali is set was very eventful in terms of both his boxing career and also his religious and political beliefs. Ali is a movie that fascinates me even though I don’t like it very much. I’ve done a lot of reading about the movie trying to understand it better. Michael Mann has released three cuts of the movie over the years: the theatrical version, a longer director’s cut, and a commemorative edition that is shorter than the theatrical cut but includes material added in the director’s cut. I’ve seen both the theatrical cut and the commemorative edition and it doesn’t really change much. Mann wanted the movie to focus primarily on the religious and political powers pulling Ali in various directions during the period and that could have been a good movie. However, in its current versions, Ali feels really unfocused with a lot of takes that run too long (to the point where it feels like a rough draft) and tangents to various other figures (such as Malcolm X, who dominates the first 30 minutes, as well as an overlong Sam Cooke concert) that take away too much of the focus from its fascinating subject, Muhammad Ali.
Ali is a movie I take more personally than I probably should. I’ve called it the most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen (it’s either this or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and that’s because even though I never saw Ali box or be interviewed during his career, he’s inspirational to me. He’s a real-life superhero, arrogant with a heart of gold, which only makes him even more lovable. I fell for the mystique of Ali from watching the amazing 1996 documentary When We Were Kings and from visiting an exhibit about his life in Las Vegas when I was there for a work trip. He just stirs something in me when I learn about him or see archival footage. I think it’s because he’s 100% himself and he used that as both a weapon and a shield. Casting Will Smith circa 2001 feels right and he’s good at portraying Muhammad Ali in Ali, but it’s the type of performance that feels stranded by a director whose movie is always off the tracks. I’m sure Michael Mann has an opinion on the man, but it’s not apparent from his movie. It feels like a documentary with no theme, which sucks as an experience when you’re watching a 2-½ hour narrative film. I hope a different director (who is Black* and old enough to have personally seen Ali in his heyday) takes a crack at another Ali biopic later on because this one is too somber and too scattered to befit his legacy. You should leave a biopic feeling you understand its subject better as a human being and I felt more understanding of Ali from a supporting part in One Night in Miami than I did with him as the lead subject of his own film in Ali.

*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...
Rob: I think the performances in Ali are incredible, especially Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, and Nona Gaye. I think there are sequences threaded throughout the movie that represent the best filmmaking of Mann’s career. I think his signature vérité style gels incredibly well with the subject matter, as does his continued exploration of the inherent loneliness of spirit that comes with lifelong commitment to Codes and Ideals. But in the end, Mann’s films require significant audience investment, and if you’re not vibing with them, they can feel like an eternity.

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.
Adam: I remember seeing the movie in theaters on Christmas weekend in 2001 and people were really excited about it. It seemed like the right talent was in place with Smith still in the peak of his career (and now stretching his range) and Mann coming off of The Insider. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but I feel like most people (including myself) wanted a celebration of Muhammad Ali and didn’t expect the movie to be as thorny as it is. I’m guessing the movie’s failure at the box office reflected that miss of expectations.

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.

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