Director Michael Mann got his start mainly in television. Although he had helmed a few smaller films in the late 70's and early 80's, the director really rose to fame with "Miami Vice", which he wrote/directed and produced. It was the early 90's when Mann really took the next step; directing "Last of the Mohicans", he proved that he was a filmmaking force to watch. Years later, he has been at the controls of several impressive pictures, including "Heat" and "The Insider". "Ali", a film that was in development for quite a while, is Mann's biggest project ever - a film that came with major expectations and a cost of reportedly 90 million.
while I certainly don't think that director Mann has made an outstanding film, he's made an enjoyable one that is livened by a wonderful performance from Will Smith. The film opens intensely, with a terrific montage that skips back-and-forth, finally landing on Ali finishing preparation for his fight with Sonny Liston. A sequence that has Ali exploding out of the door and throwing some sharply funny verbal challenges at Liston is energetic and engaging and the fight itself is beautifully crafted. "Ali" opens with force - a fury that, unfortunately, is not consistently sustained throughout the film.
The following thirty minutes after the Liston/Ali opening explore Ali's relationship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles). These sequences are interesting if not entirely compelling, as they seem to be attempting to explore situations and relationships in less time then they have to. Those not knowing a great deal about this part of history might be slightly confused by this somewhat underdeveloped section.
"Ali" then focuses on the champ's refusal to be drafted to fight in Vietnam and his fight back towards the championship, including bouts against George Foreman and Joe Frasier. In-between, we are shown the relationships that Ali had with Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith), second wife Belinda Boyd (Nona M. Gaye), and to-be third wife Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele). We also hear from trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and the enigmatic Bundini (Jamie Foxx), not to mention sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight in a very good performance).
I must say I did have some considerable problems with the film. At a little over 150 minutes, Mann could have used some considerable editing. While a fuller portrayal of Ali's life probably would have easily filled up a 150 minute picture, there were a few instances in this film where scenes either went beyond their borders or simple sequences remained in that didn't have substancial or necessary information. While I was never bored or felt the movie dragged, I got a sense that the film could have flowed a bit better had some moments here and there ended up on the cutting room floor. Some questions about the hows and whys of actions or situations remain unanswered and some of the supporting characters are not terribly well-developed, either.
I was also a bit surprised with the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, an extremely gifted cinematographer who has filmed some almost impossibly beautiful pictures in the past few years (such as "Great Expectations"). Here, the film has a subdued, somber appearance, when the main character is larger-than-life. However, the fight sequences are very well-directed, getting right into the middle of the action.
Still, the performances and the story still combine to make for an engaging movie, despite the film's problems. Will Smith has always been sharp and funny and has always had terrific timing. Here, he's able to combine his superb comedic skills with elements of drama and sadness. As Ali, he can go from being quiet and subtle to dazzling and hilarious, and do so quite easily. He definitely gives it his all and succeeds; his fantastic performance makes the film consistently very engaging and enjoyable. The scenes with Smith and Voight as Cosell and Ali are some of the film's best, with the verbal boxing between the two often becoming very funny. Jamie Foxx, previously known more for comedic performances, started heading into a bit more dramatic territory with Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday" and he continues to show stronger dramatic skills with every new performance. Voight, under a ton of make-up, is perfect as Cosell.
Overall, "Ali" is a film that I felt remained engaging and enjoyable, if slightly dissapointing in the fact that I think it could have been even better. I was always entertained and never bored, but I really don't think that I learned a great deal about the life of Ali from the film.
VIDEO: Columbia/Tristar presents "Ali" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation stands out as one of the very best that the studio has released in recent months. Lubezki's subdued - but still beautiful - cinematography looks smooth, crisp and wonderfully well-defined, with few, if any, flaws. The sequences that were filmed in digital video are the only instances where the the picture appears somewhat softer than the rest of the film. Still, as I've said in regards to DV films like "Anniversary Party", digital video seems to be looking better and better, if still definitely not up to the look of film.
The film seemed to be almost free of flaws. Very slight grain was briefly seen and only a couple of instances of tiny edge enhancement appeared. Not even the slightest hint of pixelation or print flaws were seen. In terms of print flaws, I was pleased to not see any instances of specks, marks or other faults. Given the fact that this film was in theaters only a few months ago, I wouldn't expect any print flaws, but that's not always the case. Thankfully, Columbia/Tristar has delivered a fresh, clean picture.
In terms of colors, as I noted earlier, the picture has a pretty subdued color palette. Colors do look accurate and do not suffer from smearing or other flaws, but there are only a few scenes here and there that boast somewhat more vivid colors. This is a very, very strong effort from Columbia/Tristar that captures the film marvelously.
SOUND: "Ali" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is not the most active soundtrack, but it at least does have a fairly strong amount of activity when the film gets in the ring. The boxing sequences deliver the impact of the punches with appropriate audio force, while the surrounds do their best to convincingly recreate the kind of crowd noise that one hears in the middle of these arenas. However, the sequences outside the stadiums are more subdued; the surrounds come in for some ambience and reinforcement of the music, but they otherwise remain silent or very subdued. The music/score remains warm and crisp, while dialogue sounded natural and clear throughout.
MENUS: A very nice montage of images from the movie paired with music leads into a fairly basic set of main and sub-menus.
EXTRAS: Mann has never contributed much in the way of supplements to any of his films and "Ali" is no different. We don't even get any "making of"'s; all that's included are trailers for "Ali", "Spider Man" and "Men in Black II" in Dolby Digital 5.1. If anything, all are at least fun trailers with good sound that might inspire more than one viewing (one particular moment with actress Kirstin Dunst in the "Spider Man" trailer might have viewers reaching for the pause button, as well).
Still, while I didn't expect any supplements since Mann has never participated in any that I know of, it seems particularly dissapointing here. There could have been a lot of supplements regarding a major picture such as this one; how did Will Smith prepare for the role? How was the visual style of the film chosen? These questions and others could have been tackled quite enjoyably with either a commentary track or several featurettes. There also could have been a documentary about Muhammad Ali today and his battle versus Parkinson's disease. I doubt that Mann will participate in a future "Special Edition" of this film (and it seems somewhat questionable that he will revisit any previous ones), but I hope that he will rethink his position on supplemental features, given that his films are particularly well-crafted, major productions.
Final Thoughts: While I didn't learn a great deal about the life of Ali from the film, I still think it's still certainly worth viewing, especially for the terrific performance from Will Smith. Columbia/Tristar's DVD only offers minimal supplements (although that's no surprise, given that Mann films hardly ever have any), but audio and video are strong. Recommended.