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Ali (Michael Mann) 2001 

Michael Mannís epic length Ali opens with a stunningly accomplished, sustained, and almost non-narrative segment that uses music to evoke the feel of the filmís era thatís brilliant, sensuous, and completely unexpected. Filled with such riffs, Ali is a hand-held, down in the action epic, and as a result there's real moment-to-moment sense of excitement generated. Even though weíre familiar with the movieís events, the intelligent and frenetic pace with which they are presented works wonders in making them feel fresh. The film doesnít really work as a polemic explaining why we should admire Ali (Will Smith), but instead simply recreates the events of the boxerís life between 1964 and 1974, leaving most judgments off screen. Ali seems fascinated with the freedom that its subject gains when he wins his title. It mentions Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to show the privilege that Aliís title provided him. He gained, with his title, an untouchability that provided him a freer right to speech than any other black person in the United States at that time. The film is far more successful when it tries to evoke the time that made Ali the symbol that he is than when it tries to explain his part in that equation. Itís as if the filmmakers were so struck with admiration for Ali that could conceive no way to consider him except as an idol. Heís presented as the ďPeopleís ChampionĒ and many of the filmís scenes show him talking with the people that admire him or interfacing with the press. Few scenes show Ali behind closed doors, and the majority that do examine his unenlightening if spark-filled relationships with three women. 

There might be a gap in explaining exactly why Ali stuck to his convictions when he opted not to enter the Vietnam draft, but perhaps the decision was in actuality as simple and bold as the film suggests. Maybe there was no outside manipulation or psychological depth behind it, and Ali simply would not be told what to do if it went against his beliefs, and if thatís the case the film is stronger for refusing to spruce up reality. Certainly the muted tone of the movie suggests that its subject, for all his braggadocio (which is presented here more as innocent play than self-promotion), was a thoughtful, contemplative calm in a media storm. The picture's direction is its strongest asset, and the look of it is stunningly cohesive (almost to the point of distraction - everything looks so good that you know itís fabricated). The script is serviceable, and the acting was just okay. Jon Voight, as Howard Cosell, looks like a big special effect though he emerges as something resembling a human in the second half of the film. Jamie Foxx as Bundini, Aliís rhyming mascot, fares worse, with a seriously overplayed melodramatic role. Smith himself as Ali is certainly a bit better than adequate, and his work here occasionally rises above mere imitation into something more soulful (particularly the scene after his first court loss), but although he is both witty and sweet, one canít help but wish the script challenged the actor a bit more. Surprisingly, the figure that emerges from Ali most defined is the filmís director. Mannís work does a great job of recreating the community that created the legend. 

***1/2 

12-27-01 

Jeremy Heilman