We spend a lot of our lives learning about what other people did. Scientists call this “history”. And while so much has happened between the time our Mother’s birthed us unto this wretched Earth and now, we still think as most things having happened a long, long time ago. Then someone cool dies and you realize that “Shit, I was actually alive at the same time as this great dude”. I bet someone had that exact same feeling when badasses like da Vinci or Wyatt Earp died. In this case, it’s sad it has to be Muhammad Ali.
There’s tons out there about how great Muhammad Ali was. He appointed himself “The Greatest”, came up with loads of amazing quotes about being true to yourself, never giving up and so fourth, and was a figurehead for equality the world over. He was an important, nay crucial man. He was also a pretty decent boxer.
Ali is a film about 10 years in the life of a man called Cassius Clay (played by Will Smith – Independence Day). I only know it’s about ten years because Wikipedia tells me. Lots happens in the film, but there’s never any dates on show, so it could all take place within 6 months for all a laymen might know. It does tell us where we’re at whenever we change location though, so that’s helpful. Anyway, Clay is a superstar boxer. He talks the talk and walks the walk. We first see him batter the champ Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt – Collateral), who is a right scumbag who cheats by putting something dodgy on his gloves, nearly blinding our boy Cassius. After the fight, Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx – Miami Vice), a black jew, appears and ask if he can corner the young boxer from now on. Clay agrees because he’s cool like that.
At the same time as busting heads and being nice to people, he’s also into all this Black Power stuff. He’s mates with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles – Baadasssss!), who is a highly regarded member of the Nation of Islam. The two decide to take a trip together to Africa, the spiritual motherland. But, the government doesn’t like the pair being together. They have a man inside the top echelons of the Nation, and the nefarious Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs) convinces them to ex-communicate Malcolm from the group. At the same time, Elijah Muhammad, the head of the nation, renames Clay as Muhammad Ali. It’s kind of like a passing of the torch, from one champion to the next. It bums out Ali though, because he liked Malcolm.
X defies the nation and goes to Africa anyway, and randomly bumps into Ali. However, the champion sides with the Nation and refuses to speak to him. He feels bad about it, but at this stage I guess the point the film is trying to make is that Ali was much more comfortable doing what he was told around this time. The government back-pedal on the whole Malcolm X thing and bribe the nation into allowing him back. It goes deeper though; during his return speech, he is assassinated by three goons. When he learns of it, Ali is gutted for leaving it the way he did.
But he’s got other problems. He’s balls deep in ex-Playboy pinup (not disclosed in the film, I had to Google) Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith – Matrix 2) and all of Ali’s buds aren’t happy that he wants to marry her. She’s totally flamboyant and free-spirited, the perfect arm candy. They don’t mind him poking her, just as long as he marries someone respectable. Ali being Ali does what he wants and marries her anyway. Sadly, it all comes to a head at the second Sonny Liston fight where he knocks the challenger out dead easily. Yet Ali get’s all pissy because Sonji isn’t wearing a hijab. Not wanting to change who she is, she leaves him.
Things go from bad to worse as the Vietnam draft calls him up for service. It’s gonna be front line for old Muhammad Ali. There has always been speculation that The Man fixed it so they could get rid of Ali. Ali was championing equality for African American’s, and was never afraid to get into headlines or give a quote. The Government didn’t like such an uncontrollable commodity, especially one so public as the Heavyweight Champ so what better way than to get rid of him than to ship him off to ‘nam to get 86’d like the thousands of other Americans? But this film doesn’t really go into all that. Instead it just sort of happens in the background. We do get to hear Ali deliver the immortal line “no Vietcong ever called me nigger”. So it’s all gravy.
Despite standing up for himself, Ali gets labelled a traitor and a coward, and he has to spend pretty much all his wealth to afford for fancy lawyer Chauncey Eskridge (Joe Morton – Terminator 2) to keep him out of prison. His license to box is revoked, and the Nation of Islam excommunicate him. Dark times indeed.
He spends them making the odd appearance on the street, wooing new beau and appropriately conservative Belinda Ali (Marvin Gaye’s daughter, Nona Gaye – Matrix 2), and fixing up some fights for his return. But he’s running on empty. He pretty much has to beg Smokin’ Joe Frazier to fight him. Frazier, ever the gent, agrees, and even offers Ali some money. He refuses naturally, but it’s still pretty touching. Eventually, the tide of opinion swings against the US government in regards to the war, and Ali is regarded a hero for standing up to be counted. His conviction is overturned, and he’s free to return to the fight game.
Now if you know anything about the fight game, you’ll know that three years off is a long time. Joe Frazier messes up Ali, and hands him his first proper defeat. But before Ali can reclaim the belt from Frazier, some other big dude who Ali labels the Mummy, George Foreman, appears and mangles Frazier. Out of the shadows appears Don King (Mykelti Williamson – Black Dynamite) like a giant spider to orchestrate the “Rumble in the Jungle” – the showdown between Foreman and Ali in Zaire. But with numerous distractions such as his advancing age, the press, and pretty ladies getting in the way, what hope does Ali have of ever beating the undefeated power-puncher?
When I was a lad, my Dad bought me one of those monthly publications you see advertised on the TV. You know the one where you get a little magazine and a collectible. The first issue is usually a reasonable price, like £1.99, then subsequent editions are charged at £10. It’s like Yaphet Kotto’s scheme in Live & Let Die about giving away loads of heroin for free. The idea is to hook your user, then charge them out the ass when they want more. So this publication that my Dad got me was on boxing, and the free gift was a VHS tape of the Rumble in the Jungle. Now at the time, watching the bout without context, you see Ali getting beaten up round after round, only for him to knock out George Foreman in the eighth. I kind of felt like Foreman was robbed. It’s only later that you begin to understand the task Ali had achieved.
Basically, The Rumble if the Jungle was about Ali backing up everything he’d been saying. It was about all the sacrifices he’d made paying off. It was him ascending to legend status. Unfortunately, if you only ever watched Ali, you wouldn’t really get any of this.
Ali, the film (not the guy) falls flat, with few highs and few lows. It’s more a timeline than a dramatic piece of cinema art. There’s no doubt that there was a lot to Ali’s existence. While Ali the film documents Ali the man over a period of ten years, a whole load of shit still happened in that time. And it’s too much. The film only touches on his boxing, only touches on his involvement with the Nation of Islam, and only touches on the various women (heheh) in his life. Is it a film about him boxing, his politics, his problems with women, his semi-father-son relationship with Voight (oh, I forgot to mention Jon Voight is in the film too, my bad)? I don’t know. The film doesn’t know.
There’s no focus. No laser beam sniper-precision that director Michael Mann is usually so on point with. You watch Mann’s masterpiece Heat and there’s a whole load going on there. Loads of characters. Pacino being Pacino and de Niro being de Niro. But you’ve also got Natalie Portman being some messed up kid the back ground, William Fichtner betraying everyone, Ashley Judd sleeping with some dude from the Simpsons behind Batman’s (Val Kilmer – Batman Forever) back! Yet it’s all woven together beautifully like some snazzy rug by a gnarled old rug-weaving woman. Ali, sadly, isn’t.
It’s not all Mann’s fault. It just suffers from the same issues that befall many “based on a real person” films. Astute viewers will realize that real life isn’t like a movie. The story doesn’t play out like your standard, 90-minute, beginning-middle-and-end plot. There’s all kinds of wild and wacky shit thrown in there too. Take, for example, Men of Honor. It’s a great “against all odds” type movie based on the first African American master diver in history. So much happens in this film. So much so that you’re kind of bummed out by the end. The Master Chief (not the Halo dude) suffers a load of shit like losing his leg, being hazed, being called “cookie” by Robert de Niro, that by half way through you just want it to end. Yeah, applaud the poor bastard who suffered it in real life, but please, Cuba Gooding Jnr, just make it stop?
But back to Ali. It doesn’t answer the questions we want to ask. Why is he so good at boxing? Why does he say no to ‘nam? Why does he join the Nation of Islam? As there is no “humble beginnings” arc, no origins story, no prequel movie, we only join him in the middle of his life (albeit the most important or famous years of his life). But it doesn’t help us understand why Muhammad Ali is Muhammad Ali. There’s no badass training montages. It’s just a catalogue, a dramatisation of his life at a period of time. It provides no context. You try dipping into a book at the half way point and see if you can figure out what is going on. Why is that guy doing what he’s doing? You might be able to figure some of it out by the end, if you can manage it.
Where it does succeed massively is in the action boxing department. It looks as good as it can get, without being Rocky-esque unrealistic smashing of fists into sweat-soaked domes. Nor is it sped-up or heavily choreographed nonsense like in The Fighter. The blows look like they’re landing real. In fact, they were. According to Smith, who trained for 14 months for the role, “we really hit each other. I got hit by James Toney so hard he knocked me down.” Yes, he means that James Toney, the three weight world champion James Toney who features as Joe Frazier. What, you thought that punch drunk accent he puts on was just an act. That’s the real deal, you jive turkey. Toney is a real life badass. So much so, that in 2010 he proclaimed MMA to be for pussies, and challenged Randy Couture (The Expendables) to a bout. Couture took him down and choked him out within about 60 seconds, but you still have to credit Toney for trying.
It’s just a shame that the film doesn’t focus on this side of Ali’s life. Another area where it does succeed is the casting. Will Smith redefines his potential here. According to Mann, Smith absorbed every clip, quote and book about Ali. His physical transformation is mirrored in the delivery of his lines. Even his hair looks right. The support is also spot on, as usual. Jon Voight (Deliverance) is unrecognizable as Howard Cosell, an American journalist. Normally, Voight has that “I’m going to smack you” look of intolerance in his eyes. He doesn’t here. He’s totally benign and hidden beneath a hairpiece that Smith actually lifts. The pair share a weird kinship, with each asking the other deep, personal questions. Cosell, who loves Ali, pointedly asks just before the Rumble “There are many who believe you can’t win this fight”, and we all know deep down he’s really asking Ali if he knows what he’s doing. Awww.
This angle is one of the few that works really well. That whole thing with Jamie Foxx being a druggie and selling Ali’s belt for money, then begging his way back into favour…I didn’t like that. It seemed like just a moment for Jamie Foxx to sell his acting chops in the inevitable “I can change” scene. The relationship between the two isn’t really explored for you to give a shit.
Beyond Foxx and Voight, Mann has a ton of other regulars all in great roles. Pinkett-Smith. Williamson. Ted Levine. Barry Shabaka Henley. Bruce McGill. You’ll be pointing them out to your friends and saying “that’s that guy from Miami Vice/Collateral/Heat” and so fourth.
On a personal level, the documentary “When We Were Kings” really tells the Ali story on a much more triumphant and dramatic stage. And it’s a documentary! With old people in it like Norman Mailer and George Blimpton (they’re old literary dudes, you neanderthals). It charts the build up to the Rumble in the Jungle, and really ramps up the idea that Ali isn’t going to win. Unlike the Hunger Games, the odds weren’t ever in his favour. His training wasn’t going well. Foreman was destroying everyone. He was too old and too slow. He couldn’t dance around the ring like he used to. Even Ali’s friends were betting against him. It’s 90 minutes of history that is as riveting as any movie. Ironically, Ali, the dramatization, is far more like a dull text book read than it’s factual brethren.
Look, Will Smith does his best work here. He’s nailed the voice, the look, the hair, the boxing. Elements of this film work really well, and if anything it will teach you something about a genuinely righteous man who will be remembered for so much for all time. I can forgive Ali for not being the best film ever. It’s not even the best Muhammad Ali film. But like the stubborn great man himself, it tries to be all the way until the final bell. Get it watched.