Muhammad Ali thrilled the world as the wildly outrageous heavyweight champion. At the same time, he did battle with a political establishment aggressively opposed to his political positions while he was grappling with a tumultuous romantic life. Filmmaker Michael Mann evokes Ali in his fullest human dimension in this new cut. Experience the epic drama from Academy Award nominees Will Smith (Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness) and director, writer, producer Michael Mann (The Insider, The Aviator) on Blu-ray for the first time.
There are two main types of Biopics that Hollywood has to offer us cinephiles and moviegoers. The kind that tell the entire life of a person ('Ray,’ 'Walk the Line,’ Malcolm X'), and then there are the kind that picks key elements in that person's life and focuses on that ('Capote,’ 'Jackie,’ 'Lincoln'). The first gives a traditional beginning, middle, and end story with a complete story arc, while the second is a little more unconventional, by zeroing in on major events from their lifetime. 'Ali' is a film that falls firmly in that second camp. It wants to focus on Muhammad Ali's trials and tribulations with his religious beliefs, and his refusal to be a part of the Vietnam draft, but it forgets the fact that we are talking about a fascinating man with a long list of accomplishments under his belt.
Will Smith plays the larger than life character of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali with effortless ease in what is easily the best role of his career. This is a role that requires so much from the actor, and he steps up to the plate in every scene. Ali was a devout Muslim and had a close relationship with other influential figures such as Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), Howard Cosell (John Voight), and Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx). All three actors are just as comfortable in their roles, and Voight particularly is unrecognizable in the role of the legendary sportscaster. The story mainly focuses on how the death of Malcolm X and his religious beliefs fueled Ali to stand up against our government and refuse to be drafted in the Vietnam war. He wasn’t knocking the war or anyone in it, it just simply wasn’t his fight. As he so eloquently put it, "No Vietnamese did nothing to me. You my opposer. You my oppressor." Right or wrong, that is what Ali truly believed at that particular point in his life. He fought against our government with the same heart and conviction that he had in the ring, and in the end Ali remained victorious against our government and never served jail time. The story then follows his road to regaining his belt after having it stripped from him by the boxing commission, ending in 1974 with the classic 'Rumble in The Jungle' against George Forman (Charles Shufford).
Now, this ten-year span of time between 1964 – 1974 was probably the most widely known period of Ali's life, but there are far more interesting facts to tell. Before doing my research, I had no idea that he had actually won an Olympic gold medal in boxing right before this movie takes place. Or that during the trial while suspended from boxing, he actually went to the great white way in the musical "Buck White" in December of 1969. Or the fact that his rhymes where so widely loved by everybody at the time that Columbia Records released a record in 1963 titled 'I Am the Greatest.’ I realize that these details can seem insignificant or minute compared to the bigger picture, but it’s the little details about us in life that make us well rounded individuals and give us our individuality, something that was woefully overlooked here. In doing my research for this review, I learned that Muhammad Ali was a wonderfully complex man that lived a full life, and I can't help but feel that by honing in on only one element of his life, director Michael Mann lost sight of the bigger picture. Muhammad Ali was a larger than life figure, and this movie makes him feel small in comparison, no fault of the tremendous acting by Smith, who truly embodies the character.
Don’t get me wrong, the story here is actually an important story to tell. It was during this period of Ali's life where he was his most charismatic, and Smith does bring that to the table. He is extremely antagonistic throughout, with his wisecracking quips, but you get the sense that for him it was all about putting on that show. In real life, he had real relationships with the people he antagonized, and in fact they loved and admired him dearly. This all comes across expertly well with his interactions with Howard Cosell. The two went back and forth, trading gentle ribbings that made them fun to watch. But behind the scenes, they both admired each other. When Ali was at his absolute lowest, I feel like this film did a great job displaying that Cosell was there by his side, and maybe had a hand in why he never saw jail time. Whether that is actually true to life or not, I do think it fits this story quite well and the scenes where the two friends traded their jabs at each other were the best scenes this movie has to offer.
'Ali' is a movie that has great performances all around, and tells the story it sets out to tell relatively well. Unfortunately, they chose to make a movie about such an influential figure like Muhammad Ali, and those are some big shoes to fill. Many would say that it's a fool’s errand, and a part of me feels inclined to agree. This feels like small potatoes in the larger scheme of this man's life. The story of Muhammad Ali feels more suited to be a story that spans through his entire career. Instead, what is here is a reasonably well told story about a man who had an incredible career.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Sony brings 'Ali' to Blu-ray with a Commemorative Edition hardcover case that showcases this as being a new cut of the film supervised by none other than Michael Mann himself. Inside we are given a BD-50 Blu-ray disc with an Ultraviolet Digital HD code. Once we hit play, we are brought to a main menu that allows navigation from there.
Sony accentuates the grime of late 60s, early 70s cinema with a 1080P MPEG-4 transfer that displays Mann’s usual gritty cinematography quite well. Framed at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio and filmed in 35mm, grain is so apparent it is almost as if it is a character in the film. It is mostly always controlled, and almost never seems unintentional. Instead, it lends itself to the time period. That is, until we get the training flashes in black and white. DNR tends to rear its ugly head a bit, and it takes away from the quality and style of the image making it stick out like a sore thumb.
The color palette here is lush with rich texture throughout. The streets of Africa rarely look as striking here while maintaining their grit and true beauty. Some of the palette can look muted, like most of Mann’s films tend to. Blacks are quite light and lack depth, while whites are quite striking and sometimes even blinding. This is the case in many of the boxing scenes, with the white lights above the two boxers. In those scenes, we also see slight aliasing around the lights from time to time. Blink and you will miss it, but it is there. All in all, this is a track that will please any fan of the film, but not sway anyone over to its side if they are already not into the movie itself.
Sony tries for a rope-a-dope with ‘Ali’ on Blu-ray with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that feels like more of a subtle affair. It isn't a surprise to anyone to say that this is a front heavy track. Much of the film leading up to ‘Rumble in The Jungle’ is a personal battle which means less boxing and more long ponderous walks. When we do enter the ring with ‘The Greatest’ what we expect is the roaring of the crowd in our rears and the thudding of every punch rattling through our subwoofers until we feel it in our chests. Unfortunately, surrounds are subdued throughout this track. The crowd can be heard faintly in the surrounds as can the underwhelming score, but it all lacks weight and presence, especially when you take into consideration more active boxing mixes.
The same goes for the LFE track here. My little blue LED light I love to see so much wasn't blue at all for the large majority of this film. Punches land with subtle impact, and some smaller events, like cameras going off, do lend themselves to minor effect from the subwoofer, but those moments are few and far between. Dialogue is clear, audible, and at a decent volume. This mix does what it was designed to do, and that is to focus on the drama the same way the movie does. For that, I can't fault this mix, but I can't be wowed by it either.
On Set with The Greatest (11:39 SD) - A new addition to this edition, and a heartwarming look at Smith trading gentle ribbings and hanging out with the real Muhammad Ali on set. Ali's actual trainers were on set as well, and it is interesting how they contributed to the authenticity on how to clean a cut and what cut is the worst to get during a fight.
Making of Ali (28:56 SD) - An in depth look at transforming Smith into 'The People's Champ.’ From the mannerisms, to his attitude, to his light feet in the ring, Smith embodies the essence of Muhammad Ali perfectly. Choreography is also a focus here as Mann would watch the tapes from the actual fights and mimic them on screen. It is also admirable to shoot on location like they did in Africa and Miami to the point where Ali's house in real life at this particular point in time was where they shot the film.
Theatrical Trailer (2:33 HD)
‘Ali’ is a biopic that has grown on me throughout the years. It has a career defining performance from Smith, and a wonderfully unrecognizable performance from John Voight. The subject matter of his Muslim religion, his fight with our government, and how that all affected his professional career is a gripping story to tell. Unfortunately, it feels like the ‘Slice of Life’ way of telling this story glosses over the little things in Muhammad Ali’s life that really made him who he was. I know from doing my research that the reason he started boxing stemmed from getting his bike stolen at a young age, and from then on, he didn't like bullies. But the movie never even brings up that question. The only time I understand why Ali does what he does is when he is fighting his oppression. In the end this is an interesting topic that needed a wider scope to delve deeper into this influential figure in American History.