Even though Michael Mann’s picture of Muhammad Ali feels a tad simplistic when dealing with such a complex figure, the film is equally fascinating for its clash of content and aesthetics. Mann’s opening sequence introduces the legend of Ali in exciting cinematic ways, immediately setting in motion a rhythm of place and experience. Ali opens with what might be the strongest, most ambitious juxtaposition of image and sound in any of Mann’s films.
As the Paramount insignia opens and the credits roll, the bustling sound of voices fill the frame. An announcer comes over the loudspeaker, introducing the “star of our show, Mr. Sam Cooke”. But after the red title card ALI haunts the middle of the black frame, Mann cuts to a medium tracking shot of a lone hooded figure, Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), running through the streets, with February 24, 1964 solemnly placed at the bottom. Cooke’s introduction continues as soundtrack for Ali, until Mann cuts to a blinding medium shot of Cooke’s back as the singer looks out into the darkened club crowd. Mann continues this cross-cutting between Ali’s training and Cooke’s performance of “Don’t Fight It”, with a glaring difference in style coming from the use of 35MM within the smokey club and digital video for the exterior night shots of Ali (a definite precursor to similar ones in Collateral and Miami Vice). At one point, as Cooke’s kinetic energy begins to infect the club, a policeman pulls up to Ali and asks “what you running from boy?”, only pulling away when responding to a call.
With this incredible editing, Mann has captured a sense of race, identity, culture, and excitement without uttering more than a few words. As Cooke’s song continues, the crowd in the club (mostly women) get rowdy and interactive with the performer, while Mann cuts to a static handheld shot of Ali meticulously punching a speed bag, now daytime, and in 35 MM. Ali’s hands begin to move in slow motion, Mann staying close on his face, and Cooke’s song slows to a wicked pace. Mann jarringly cuts to the inside of a ring, where the bear-like Sonny Lisen destroys an opponent, then back again close on Ali’s eyes. Liston knocks the other boxer out with a hypnotic punch to the face, then Mann travels to Ali’s focused concentration on the speed bag.
When Liston exits the ring and talks trash to a well dressed Ali, Mann sets the stage for the first epic bout between muscle and speed. Mann continues to build Ali’s back story through visuals. He cuts to a young Ali (then Cassius Clay) watching his father paint Jesus, then to a bus where an old black man pushes the picture of the body of Emmet Louis Till in his face, both memories scarred into Ali’s brain, all the while Cooke moving from one song to the next in beautiful improvisational style. We see a grown Ali listen to Malcolm X’s musings on race, self defense, and Jesus’ teachings, creating a sense of anger and violence in Ali. As Malcolm’s sermon ends, Mann cuts back to Ali punching the speeding bag, sound fluttering in an out creating a subjective look at the tension inside the man. Ali gives it one last punch, then moves to jumping rope, Mann pulling out to reveal his trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and entourage which includes good luck charm Bundini (Jamie Foxx) and a host of other starry-eyed onlookers. As Ali completes his exercises, he points down in a cocky fashion while Cooke’s song crescendo’s into “Bring it on Home to Me”, the atmosphere of both the club scene and gym achieve a wonderful synergy of tone, movement, and impression.
At this transition, Mann reaches a brilliant visual and audio peak, showing how great performers of all kinds share a unique relationship with their audience. Two icons of the 1960’s never share the screen, but Mann makes sure through editing and sound they will be forever linked in terms of importance during his film, a crucial lineage between black artists of all kinds. Impression is everything in the opening ten minutes of Ali, and Mann creates one his film never quite matches for the rest of the 160 minute running time.