Ali (Mann, 2001)

I remember disliking Ali when it was released theatrically and my opinion has grown only slightly more positive on a second glance. The opening cross cutting between Cassius Clay (Will Smith) working out and Sam Cooke singing in a dark club makes an immediate impact and sets a high standard the rest of the film never reaches. It’s sad too, because I’m not sure there’s a more accomplished opening in a Mann film than this one. Mann uses very little dialogue during this sequence, instead relying on mood and setting to introduce both his subject, Clay’s devoted following, and the context with which he will be historically represented throughout the film. Beautiful stuff. Then Ali hits the breaks, delving into the rather melodramatic rise and fall then rise again of a fascinating sports icon, first focusing on his relationship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), Ali’s various wives, and finally his historic bout with George Forman in Zaire. Ali suffers from stylistic overkill (I never thought I’d say that about Mann) and an extreme lack of character. Ali the man seems to be floating through life, occasionally realizing the force his persona has on the people poor and rich across the world. Mann’s direction doesn’t achieve his normal heightened sense of tension, nor does the acting (with the exception of Jamie Foxx) ignite much interest in the people being portrayed. There are glimmers of brilliance amidst the banal whole, especially the first fight sequence with Sonny Listen, where Mann uses an amazing POV camera to show the impact of the punches. The director’s cut is eight minutes longer, but I can’t imagine what Mann had left on the cutting room floor. Ali is long, way too long and stretched out for an epic feel it never achieves. Mann’s scope is far too fleeting and incomplete, his story a meandering trek down a critical life’s path which ends on a hypnotic freeze frame of Ali sticking his hand in the air overlooking the great masses of Zaire – a very “Hollywood” moment to end the screen life of a man devoted to fighting against the Man.

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