(in case you don’t, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and holy god, that Neil Leifer photo above is freaking amazing isn’t it? One of my favorite athletic images ever.)
So my best laid plan was to go through my DVD collection alphabetically, but, sometimes things change when one of your heroes dies.
I remember reading that Muhammad Ali was hospitalized and of course thought, “is this it?”
Turns out it was.
The Greatest is gone.
So, in honor of the monumental life that Ali lived, I’m starting my DVD purge quest with Michael Mann’s Ali (2001). I’ll revert back to the alphabetical course after that.
In many ways, I think I was drawn to Ali for the same reasons everyone else was. He was boisterous, funny, charming, talented. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned more about his life and doings outside of the boxing ring. The man lived life-like we all should…with kindness, grace, bravery, and perspective. He fought for what he believed in.
“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
Ali was one of those people I’d pick if you asked me the question, “if you could only pick 4 people to have dinner with…”. (Robin Williams and Johnny Cash would’ve been on that list too) Not only because he could tell amazing stories, teach life lessons, etc., but because I guarantee you that anyone who came in contact with him was made a better person just by breathing the same air that he did.
His trainer, Angelo Dundee, was quoted saying Ali, despite losing the very prime of his boxing career after having his boxing license revoked for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and refusing the draft, never heard him complain about losing those years. The world never got to see Ali at his finest.
With that in mind, let’s get to the movie…
If you had to boil down this movie to its simplest idea, I’d say it’s about a man who fights to gain the heavyweight boxing crown, has it taken from him unjustly, and then fights to get it back.
But it’s not that simple, of course.
Michael Mann does a fantastic job in picking a period of time that shows us Ali’s most turbulent years. (Some of my favorite films are Mann-helmed: Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Collateral, Public Enemies) The deaths of the Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X basically had most of the country in a state of perpetual despair. Ali was the light in the midst of that darkness.
Will Smith does an excellent job of portraying Ali, complete with mannerisms, verbal genius, and charm. His performance lead to a Best Actor Oscar nomination. (The award went to Denzel Washington, for Training Day) Equally as adept and entertaining is Jon Voight’s turn as Howard Cosell. The give and take between these two whether demonstrative (Ali grabbing Cosell’s toupee during an interview), to the quiet, (when Cosell calls Ali to tell him he TKO’d the U.S. Government), are masterfully done. The scene when Cosell is screaming “It is over! It is over! It is over!” after (spoiler alert) Ali knocks out Foreman is just pure emotion. Voight’s Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was well-deserved. (Jim Broadbent won the award for Iris)
I definitely identify with historical figures and characters that have flaws. There’s something about the imperfection. There are times during this film where I found myself feeling stagnant…bored even…mostly, these scenes were the ones where Ali was interacting/courting women. He was a womanizer, but I felt like those parts of the movie were just awfully slow.
Some of my favorite scenes though are just when Smith is riffing as Ali. When he’s in his hotel room watching television and learning about termites…”these itsy-bitsy things eatin’ people’s houses down” and “ah man…” when the house actually falls. When he asks his trainer Angelo Dundee if he think’s that Ali still has the tools to beat Foreman. “You still have the tools, but they’re different.”
The score is amazing, perfectly capturing the essence for the time-period, the discourse, and the triumph of Ali’s greatness.
Overall, I’d give this movie 4 stars out of 5. I think it could have done a bit more to show how much of a Titan Ali was to people of all ages, races, ethnicities, financial backgrounds, etc.
For a few more minutes of an excellently narrated and produced goodbye to Ali, check out this HBO Sports tribute: https://youtu.be/ThJbZR8M9a0