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By Brad Cook | June 23, 2004

How does one judge a film that requires you to do some research (or, in this case, listen to the director’s commentary) in order to understand the little details in the story? Typically, I feel that a filmmaker must give us all the information we need and not require us to scour other sources to understand plot points. In the case of Michael Mann’s “Ali,” however, his storytelling is so powerful in its raw images and emotion that I don’t mind that I had to listen to the commentary track to fully understand everything that happened in the film.

Perhaps that’s because I find Ali such a fascinating figure that I don’t mind learning more about him. In fact, I look at Mann’s film as a visual accompaniment for other sources about the champ’s life. And I don’t even like boxing. Ali, however, had such unique mannerisms and such conviction in his beliefs that one is hard-pressed to find his equal in any other sport, especially when one considers that he hit his prime during the height of the civil rights movement, which happened to coincide with the rising tide of sentiment against the war on Vietnam. The 60s almost ripped this country apart, and Ali was right there in the maelstrom, willing to be ripped apart along with it rather than go against his beliefs. I can’t imagine similar events happening today, especially not in a sport ruled by such thugs as Mike Tyson.

The strongest part of this film–which covers the 10-year period between Ali defeat of Sonny Liston, earning him the heavyweight crown for the first time, and his victory against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” which was fought in Zaire as part of sleazy Don King’s plans to fleece the sport—is Will Smith’s portrayal of the title character. While I don’t think anyone can completely capture the essence of Ali, Smith gets about 90 percent of it, and that’s enough to transform him. Some doubted his ability to pull it off, but, like other actors whose talents have been in doubt until they showed their chops, he completely loses himself in the role. Jon Voight is similarly incredible as Howard Cosell; in fact, you wouldn’t know he was in the film if you didn’t see his name in the opening credits. The real-life Ali and Cosell had a unique repartee that I don’t think any pro athlete and announcer have ever had, and the two actors do a great job making us understand what it must have been like to watch those interviews for the first time.

In fact, that sense of watching history unfold makes this film almost come across as a documentary with its jittery handheld camera shots and aloof point-of-view. Some have viewed the latter as a serious fault, but I think it’s obvious Mann chose that approach because he wanted us to feel like flies on the wall during some of the major moments in Ali’s life, rather than making us participants. The only exception would be the fight scenes, which include shots snagged with a tiny handheld camera that literally put you right in the middle of the punches. They’re definitely the best fight scenes I’ve seen in a boxing movie, and I should point out that Smith also does a fine job mimicking Ali’s fancy footwork in the ring.

Like Voight and Smith, Ron Silver also loses himself in the role of Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, as do Mykelti Williamson and Mario Van Peebles as Don King and Malcolm X, respectively. The only casting dud is LeVar Burton as Martin Luther King, Jr., but his role is scant, at least in the Director’s Cut.

I say “at least” because I haven’t seen the theatrical version, so I don’t know if this is a better way to tell Ali’s story. My understanding is that Mann removed about 22 minutes of footage but added 30, putting the emphasis more on the social upheaval of the time and less on Ali’s personal life, which I suppose means this version comes across as even more of a documentary than the other one. Like I said at the beginning of this review, you’ll need to check out Mann’s commentary, and possibly some outside sources, to fully understand everything happening in this film. For example, Ali experiences serious trouble with his eyes during the Liston fight, but the commentary track explains that Liston was fighting dirty and had likely put something on his gloves. The movie doesn’t have a “Sonny put something on his gloves but I knocked him out like a dove” scene to explain it. (Yeah, that was my weak attempt to mimic one of Ali’s rhymes.) The same goes for many other moments in the film. One could argue that Mann was so close to the story that he forgot not everyone lived through the 60s, but, as I said, I’m willing to give him a pass only because the film is so powerful.

The rest of Mann’s commentary, which sounds like it was culled from separate sessions or perhaps had some interview responses spliced into it, delves into the history that unfolds in the film, as well as how Ali fit into the external forces that pushed and pulled him. He also points out spots where he introduced new footage and why he brought it in. Mann rarely does commentaries, so this one is a must-have if you’re a fan of the director.

Unfortunately, Columbia TriStar skimped on the rest of this disc. Their original press release promised a two-disc set with multiple featurettes, but “Ali: The Director’s Cut” is a single disc release accompanied only by the commentary and a 29-minute documentary that I think is from one of those HBO “First Look” specials. It’s not a bad making-of, but this was a film that really should have come with more documentary materials, especially considering that the studio was willing to revisit it for another release. Why not go the extra mile and put out something special for fans of the film? We don’t even get a trailer, nor do we get the excised footage presented in a cut scenes section, which would have been a nice treat for people like me who haven’t seen the theatrical version. Hell, they could have simply stuck the original disc in with this one and called it a day. That would have been good enough for me.

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