Some brief thoughts on Michael Mann’s ‘Ali’ (2001)

Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Ron Silver in Ali

I guess I probably had the same arc with Ali that most probably did. The first half hour got me thinking that damn, I should retrospectively downgrade my opinion on Mann’s other work given that we see what he’s doing here. From after that, the whole second half of the film, my opinion of it slowly diminished.

I mean, that opening sequence fucking soars, it’s incredible. Everything up and through the first big fight scene, wow. As it settles though, takes time to actually rest with its characters it proves oddly reluctant to let the audience get close. Like, I’ve written so far on the fundamental emptiness of Mann characters, working for the first time on depicting actual real life people the flaws in that approach stand out with greater clarity.

What the film’s trying to capture, I think, is the frustrating difficulty that comes when actually trying to convert belief into practise. Smith’s Ali has convictions, deeply held ones, we’re introduced to him as a friend of Malcolm X, he’s already converted to Islam and rejects his birth name just after being crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

These things don’t give him pause, he prays, he doesn’t drink, won’t eat pork. When he has a date with a woman he likes (Jada Pinkett Smith) he refuses to marry her unless she converts, barking orders at his manager to get it arranged however possible. These things are laid out, there are rules and they’re best followed. But early on, in a private conversation, Malcolm X confides a struggle — how is he supposed to act as a member of the Nation of Islam when all his instincts are begging him to do something else? On a television in the background of a scene we ominously see a documentary showing termites destroying a house.

Smith’s Ali kinda floats through the film almost aimless, like he has these all convictions but is incapable of seeing how they square themselves with the life that he’s ended up in. After refusing to fight in Vietnam he comments how it’d be a lot easier if he found faith later in life, fewer hard choices that way. Acting on impulse works well enough for the rest of us.

It’s the impulses that get him, I wanna say they serve him well in the ring but that would be reductive of how Mann shoots the fighting. Emmanuel Lubezki is the cinematographer and he lights these rings that fade off into infinity, and the camera rides close and uncomfortable. We’ll even cut into real scratchy digital video, right inside the action, the effect is that these things seem disgusting and violent and uncomfortable. They actually got boxers to play the parts just so they could wail on each other properly, it’s overwhelming. I never thought I’d be as into it as I was.

But yeah, impulses. He doesn’t have a good time with women, all his partners basically get variations on two scenes: the meet cute and the breakup. It’s inevitable that the film won’t find time for them, but expected. Mann’s gonna man, and fill the feature with a whole bunch of side characters that mostly don’t have enough to do on their own, and criminally don’t serve well enough as lenses through which to we can peer to see different aspects of our lead.

Jamie Foxx is like the most well featured example of this as a cornerman with a mostly thankless role. He gets to have a scene where he’s strung out on drugs, and he gets to have a scene fifteen minutes later where he comes back and apologises, but neither manages to reveal these characters in a way that would elevate them. And there’s a good half dozen others like it.

The exception (aside from the women, who I guess just mostly exist to cut him down to size from time to time) is Jon Voight as a sports reporter who Ali has a contentious friendship with. They know they’re a good double act and each gets the other’s best material, so why not pal around when they get the chance. It’s that whole best of enemies type deal, at least this guy can be straight considering he’s the only one around not on the payroll.

But whatever it’s trying to say, it’s frustratingly muddled and by the time we’re getting to seeing him fight the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire spurred on by this suggested reclamation of his black heritage, it feels like another layer draped across everything else. The soundtrack switches from R&B tunes to African rhythms and I kinda remain unclear on how it’s positioning blackness against the other thematic weight that’s been weighing on us all this time.

I dunno, something in me tells me I could find more on a rewatch, that maybe the haziness is really there for some greater purpose, but I doubt i’ll come back for a while — that last 45 minutes really becomes a drag. I know i’ll be watching the first half hour again and again soon.

I’m watching the films of Michael Mann alongside the Blank Check podcast, check them out if you’ve been enjoying these retrospectives. I also try list all the films I watch on letterboxd, so check me out there to catch everything else.

Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Ron Silver in Ali

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