Float like a butterfly and sting like a, uhm, something. I forget.
Meet Cassius Clay, Jr. (Will Smith), a twenty-something boxer who is fresh, young and chock full of fight. He’s also got a bit of a mouth on him that doesn’t make him the most popular boxer among his fellow confidantes, but definitely makes him popular in the eyes of the media that wants to hear/see everything he says/does. But like it is with most celebrities in the public limelight, there usually comes controversy and Clay’s was filled with plenty of it. First came his name change; then, his alliance with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles); his numerous marriages and affairs; his defiance against joining the U.S. Army due to “religious reasons”; his relationship with known sports-commentator Howard Cosell (Jon Voight); and plenty more where that came from. All of this eventually leads up to the infamous fight he had with a boxer by the name of George Foreman, in which most people dubbed, “the Rumble in the Jungle”.
Some of you die hards out there may already take notice to the fact that I’ve reviewed this one before, but honestly, that was so far back when, I can hardly remember what I gave it. All I do remember is that I watched it, wrote a terrible review on it and hardly remembered anything after seeing it. That’s what happened to me with most movies back in those early, immature days of my life, but nowadays, when I see something, I give it my full, undivided attention.
So yeah, I decided to give this a re-watch because I knew there was something about I needed to see once again and decide what about it drew me back to it. And after having seen it, for a second time mind you, I can’t really come up with an answer. That’s not because I didn’t pay attention again this time; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I fueled up on so much coffee, I was about to jump right out of the window before seeing this. Meaning, that I was so ready to see this and be able to give it the response it’s worth and not something I put out those many years ago.
But nope. Somehow, nothing seemed to change. Sure, I remembered the movie a lot better now than I did before, but there’s just something odd about this movie and I think that all comes down to Michael Mann himself being the director. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Michael Mann as a director; in fact, I think he’s one of the better ones out there nowadays and I can’t wait to see what he’s got cooking next with this new film starring Chris Hemsworth. However, the problem with him is that when he’s feeling extra “artsy”, it gets in the way of his story – or, in this movie’s case, the lack thereof.
Which, for a biopic about one of sport’s most influential icons ever, means something. Not only do you get in the way of actually connecting to a character that some can deem “misunderstood”, but you don’t really allow there to be anything remotely interesting driving this character, or their story along for us to say. Throw on a two-and-a-half-hour run-time and you’re asking way too much of an audience, especially when you’re not giving them anything to really hold onto.
And that’s not to say everything Mann does here is bad – the look, sound and overall feel of this movie is, predictably, wonderful. You can tell that Mann didn’t take this as some sort of “paycheck gig” and throw in the towel (excuse the pun); he actually puts a spin on the look of this movie when re-creating the environment the United States in the 60’s. Even the boxing sequences themselves are pretty neat, but not in the way you’d expect them to be; rather than having the boxing bouts be full of hooks, jabs, punches, punches and hugs every single second, Mann focuses on what most boxing matches can be: Boring. Now, I’m not saying that boxing in and of itself is boring, but there can be the occasional lull in the action and Mann focuses on that quite well, almost to the point of where it’s too realistic.
Still though, I’ll take realism over any goofy, over-the-top boxing match (which is pretty much what the Rocky films ended up being).
But, like I said before, those bold moves don’t really work unless you can find a way to make the story work as well and that’s just what the problem is here. Mann literally places us right slap dab in the middle of Ali’s life without much rhyme, reason, or even a background on who this person is, why he is the way he is, and exactly who/what made him this way. A part of me feels like Mann was just assuming that all of us know this, or simply don’t care, which isn’t true; getting to know somebody famous and iconic from where they came from is probably the most compelling aspect behind getting a full picture of a person really is and why they’re so worth studying in the first place.
Here though, we just get Ali, who talks a lot, bangs a lot, fights a lot, and changes his mind about whatever it is that he believes in with the drop of a hat. Which, yet again, is another interesting spin Mann takes on this story, but it hardly ever goes anywhere. Instead, we just see Ali act this way and hardly ever get anymore development on it. And that’s pretty much how the rest of this movie plays out: Stuff happens, you never really get a reasoning behind it and it’s off to the next sequence of stuff happening. But while for most movies, from some directors out there (namely Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc.), this would work because of how exciting and compelling this stuff is, Mann goes at such a slow-pace, it’s downright dreadful to sit through at times.
For instance, did we really need a seven-minute concert performance by Sam Cooke to start the movie off? Better yet, did we need to see a whole, nearly ten-minute sequence in which Ali jogs through the streets of Africa? Sure, all of it looks and sounds pretty, but when it doesn’t really add much to the final product, what’s the point? By then, you’re just taking up space and precious time, so don’t bother with it!
Another problem that most seem to have with this movie that I can somewhat attest to is how Will Smith is doing more of a full-fledged impersonation of Ali, rather than an actual performance in and of itself. And while I don’t necessarily think Will Smith does a bad job in the role (he tries so very hard, it’s almost uncomfortable to watch at times because you never know if he’s going to sprain an acting-muscle), I can’t say that I think this performance is “Oscar-worthy” or even the best he’s given, ever. Regardless of what some may say, Will Smith is a very good actor when he wants to be and when he’s given the right material, and here, he just doesn’t have it. He’s supposed to sound, look, and act like Ali and he does a fine job at that, but really getting to the core of somebody the media usually portrays as a “misunderstood, yet incredibly influential icon”, is just not something he’s able to do.
Once again, most of that blame is put onto those who gave him this thin-material to work with, as well as Mann for not really pushing Smith harder than he’d ever been pushed before.
The same can sort of be said for the supporting cast as well, which has plenty of recognizable names and faces, yet, aren’t given much to do except just act like other famous people. Jon Voight, for no other reason than that he’s Jon Voight, was nominated for an Oscar here as Howard Cosell which, like in the case of Smith’s Ali, is nothing more than an impersonation aided by very well-done hair and make-up; Giancarlo Esposito shows up as Ali’s daddy and gets a few scenes to work, but seems like a lot of his stuff was cut-out; Mario Van Peebles has some impressive scenes as Malcolm X, but, yet again, is just doing an impersonation; and Mykelti Williamson, despite being quite hilarious as Don King, feels more like a caricature than an actual boxing promoter (much like the real Don King, I guess, but that’s not the point). The only one who really steps away unscathed is Jamie Foxx who, before this movie, was mostly known for his comedy, but at least shows that he had some dramatic-chops in his system as one of Ali’s trainers.
Makes total sense now why Mann would later cast Foxx in the much-better Collateral, but that’s another review, for another day, folks.
Consensus: While it’s clear that mostly everybody involved tries, Ali comes off more like an uninvolved highlight-reel of the famous boxer’s most famous and controversial moments, that would probably be more compelling to actually read in a biography, than everything here.
4.5 / 10 = Crapola!!
Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images