Wednesday, March 06, 2019
Directed by Michael Mann and screenplay by Mann, Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson from a story by Gregory Allen Howard, Ali is the story of 10 years in the life of the boxer Muhammad Ali from his first world title win in 1964 to the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. The film is a look into a moment in time when Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr. and the moments in his life that would make him an icon as he is portrayed by Will Smith. Also starring Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Jada Pinkett Smith, James Toney, and Jon Voight as Howard Cosell. Ali is a majestic and evocative film from Michael Mann.
The film is about a decade in the life of one of the most iconic figures in sports during the 20th Century in Muhammad Ali from his first title win against Sonny Liston in February 25, 1964 to the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30, 1974. During this time, Ali would convert to Islam and change his name from Cassius Clay Jr. to Ali while enduring all sorts of events in that time such as refusing to serve the U.S. army during the Vietnam War, failed marriages, and losing his first fight to Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century on March 8, 1971. The film is really an exploration of a man trying to adopt this new identity having dropped his birth name which he felt had been given to him and his family by slave masters and take on something new. The film’s script play into these events that include his friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and how it ended due to the interference of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall).
His devotion to the Nation of Islam would also alienate his family and play part into the decisions of his career as one of his wives in Belinda Boyd/Khalilah Ali (Nona Gaye) doesn’t think the Nation of Islam, Elijah’s son Herbert (Barry Shabaka Henley), and Don King (Mykelti T. Williamson) have his best interests. Much of the film’s narrative is straightforward with some subplots involving people that Ali know being followed by a CIA official in Joe Smiley (Ted Levine) as they would believe Ali is a threat to national security as it would also show events behind the scenes such as a meeting between Don King, Herbert Muhammad, and politicians from Europe and Africa wanting to use Ali just as he is considered a messianic figure in Africa.
Michael Mann’s direction is stylish not just for its presentation with its mixture of 35mm film and grainy digital video but also in capturing a period of time when Ali was to ascend into this iconic status that would make him a polarizing figure in the world. Shot on various locations in the U.S. such as New York City, Chicago, and Miami and Mozambique as Zaire and Ghana. Mann displays a somewhat documentary-style much of his direction as it play into this world that Ali would encounter from his visits to Africa as well as struggling with the events in America around him. There are usage of wide shots of the locations as well as the venues where Ali would have his fights while he aims mainly for some intimate usage of close-ups that play into Ali’s emotions as well as aspects of his personal life that is also presented in medium shots. The usage of the grainy digital video for an opening scene of Ali jogging in Los Angeles as well as him looking at a riot as well as a love scene with a future wife in Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith).
The fight scenes are among the major highlights of the film with its usage of hand-held cameras as well as point-of-view shots of what the fighter is facing inside the ring and the punches he would get from his opponent. It’s an element of realism that isn’t seen often in films relating to boxing as well as Mann’s direction gets very close into the brutality of boxing. Even as it show Ali as someone trying to mock his opponents as well as fight them with an intelligence and showmanship. Mann’s direction also play into the reaction of the people as well as showing lots of attention to detail in the direction of the people in Ali’s corner observing what Ali is doing. It’s Mann playing into a world where men fought to become the best and for a man like Ali to use boxing as a platform for hope and change. Overall, Mann crafts a riveting and intoxicating film about a decade in the life of Muhammad Ali.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does incredible work with the film’s photography as it’s a highlight of the film with its usage of naturalistic and slightly-tinted colors and moods in the lighting as well as the grainy look of the digital video footage as well as the way the camera moves. Editors William Goldenberg, Lynzee Klingman, Stephen E. Rivkin, and Stuart Waks do excellent work with the editing as its usage of jump-cuts, slow-motion shots, and other stylish editing play into the drama as well as the thrill of the fights. Production designer John Myhre, with set decorator Jim Erickson plus art directors Jonathan Lee, Bill Rea, and Tomas Voth, does brilliant work with the sets from the hotel rooms that and homes that Ali lived in to the design of some of the venues and rings that Ali would fight in. Costume designer Marlene Stewart does amazing work with the costumes from the clothes that men wore in those times as well as the stylish dresses and Muslim garb the women would wear.
Special makeup effects artists Greg Cannom and Christopher Allen Nelson do fantastic work with the look of Howard Cosell as well as some of the prosthetics and hair for some of the characters. Special effects supervisors Alan Poole and Max Poolman, with visual effects supervisor Michael J. McAlister, do terrific work with some of the film’s minimal visual effects as it is mainly set-dressing but also in parts that relate to the fights. Sound editors Yann Delpuech, Darren King, and Gregory King do superb work with the sound in how punches are thrown as well as the atmosphere of the audiences during the fights as well as some sounds in some of the locations. The film’s music by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard is wonderful for its minimalist and ambient-based score with its usage of polyrhythms and other world beat musical textures while the music soundtrack feature a lot of the music of the times from the Pointer Sisters, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan plus contemporary pieces from Alicia Keys and Moby.
The casting by Victoria Thomas is great as it feature some notable small roles from Victoria Dillard as Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz, Malick Bowens as Zaire’s president Joseph Mobutu, David Elliott as singer Sam Cooke in the film’s opening credits scene, Shari Watson/Truth Hurts as a club singer, Ted Levine as CIA agent Joe Smiley, Leon Robinson as a Nation of Islam official in Brother Joe, David Haynes as Ali’s brother Rudy Clay/Rahman Ali, Robert Sale as boxer Jerry Quarry, Candy Ann Brown as Ali’s mother Odessa Clay, Michael Bentt as Sonny Liston, David Cubitt as journalist Robert Lipsyte, Charles Shufford as George Foreman, LeVar Burton as Martin Luther King Jr., Bruce McGill as a European political figure, Joe Morton as Ali’s attorney Chauncey Eskridge, Giancarlo Esposito as Ali’s father Cassius Clay Sr., Barry Shabaka Henley as Herbert Muhammad, and Albert Brown as Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad,
Other noteworthy small roles from Nona Gaye as Ali’s second wife Belinda Boyd/Khalilah Ali who is concerned about the people Ali is with, Paul Rodriguez as Ali’s ring physician Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, and Michael Michele as Ali’s future third wife in journalist Veronica Porche whom he would meet in Zaire are wonderful in their brief roles as is Jada Pinkett Smith in a terrific performance as Ali’s first wife Sonji Roi as a woman who many in the Nation of Islam felt was unsuitable for him. James Toney and Mykelti T. Williamson are superb in their respective roles as the fighter Joe Frazier who offers Ali a shot at the title and the infamous promoter Don King who is trying to hype up the event and make a lot of money. Jeffrey Wright is fantastic as photographer Howard Bingham who would be Ali’s biographer and personal photographer who would follow Ali as well as be an observer to the events in Ali’s life.
Ron Silver is excellent as Angelo Dundee as Ali’s trainer who is focused on what Ali is doing in the ring as well as ensure that Ali has a good strategy for every fight as he’s like a father figure to Ali. Mario Van Peebles is brilliant as Malcolm X as the famed civil rights leader and Nation of Islam speaker who is a close friend of Ali as he would later go on his own path where he tries to maintain his friendship with Ali. Jamie Foxx is amazing as Drew Bundini Brown as Ali’s longtime assistant/cornerman who would help Ali come up with his famous rhymes as well as be someone that Ali can trust with on personal matters or on business matters despite his own personal issues. Jon Voight is incredible as famed sports reporter Howard Cosell as Voight would get Cosell’s famous voice right on as well as be the man trying to get answers from Ali as well as be a close friend of the boxer. Finally, there’s Will Smith in a phenomenal performance as Muhammad Ali as he channels the man’s bombastic personality in the press conferences as well as the man’s public persona as being cocky but also a man who can talk the talk and walk the walk but also display the humanity in Ali as a man struggling with his identity and the persona he has created for himself.
Ali is a sensational film from Michael Mann that features a career-defining performance from Will Smith as the legendary boxer. Along with its ensemble cast, Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography, rapturous music soundtrack, and its exploration about a decade in the life of Muhammad Ali. It’s a film that doesn’t play by the rules of the bio-pic as it focuses on key events of the man’s life as well as the world around him. In the end, Ali is a spectacular film from Michael Mann.
Michael Mann Films: (The Jericho Mile) – Thief - The Keep – Manhunter - (L.A. Takedown) – The Last of the Mohicans (1992 film) - Heat – (The Insider) – Collateral – Miami Vice – Public Enemies - Blackhat - (Ferrari) - (The Auteurs #74: Michael Mann)
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