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C’mon, Mann: Ali

In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.

Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope during 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle is the stuff of legend: Lean back against the ring’s rope perimeter, cover the head, and cause George Foreman to expend energy on arm and body blows that would neither score points nor rattle Ali’s composure. 

Don’t forget Ali’s iconic gift for gab. To call it trash talk minimizes his elevation of taunting into an art form of Seussian swagger. When Ali clinched with Foreman, he dared him to throw more punches. Ali knew a mouth could run all night but a man could not. Lastly? Jabs. Crosses. Hard. Fast. Straight to Foreman’s face. Round after round. And after seven of them, a barrage of right hooks. A five-punch combination with a penultimate left hook to draw up Foreman’s head and a right to the face so tremendous that it didn’t just send Foreman to the canvas, it tore a hole in the skies over Kinshasa, Zaire, the crowds roaring and the clouds weeping for their champion.

The final scenes of Michael Mann’s Ali canvas this crowd, focusing on fans simultaneously inside this moment of elation and outside of it, enveloping the soundfield with the elegiac “Tomorrow” by Malian Afro-pop vocalist Salif Keita. More than mere ferocious fandom or a communion between champion and commoner, it plays like cumulative human heat of purpose and potential. An emotional liberation, perhaps fleeting given the geopolitical tumult at which Mann has previously hinted. A sensation thrust forth by a man in the crowd in a short-sleeved button-down white shirt that’s soaked to his skin, arms thrust skyward with socket-shattering power, bellowing loudly with a voice he’ll gladly lose for a moment to relish this forever feeling.

His reverie is a blink-and-miss instance in both the original 2001 theatrical cut of Ali and Mann’s director’s cut from 2004. No blinking required to miss it in Mann’s commemorative cut from 2017 … because it’s gone. Mann shifts the towering triumph of Ali’s victory over Foreman more to the champ himself in that cut, reflecting a tribute to Ali’s life that had ended seven months earlier. But Mann fans know his film’s milliseconds are often microcosms … and that Mann sometimes removes them because he always, always tinkers. With editorial shifts that range from secondary to seismic, Mann has recut six of his films to create a total of nine new versions.

Heat and The Last of the Mohicans are the only others for which Mann has crafted two additional versions. In Heat, Mann elided lines that didn’t land right for him, shaved seconds and switched shots here and there. He more considerably chopped and reassembled Mohicans. But the film he has refashioned most significantly across time is his film about Muhammad Ali. Much like Ali’s taunting, to call it a biopic diminishes its evocation of an era and its subject’s essence. Across three versions, Mann’s excisions and additions reflect distinct prismatic angles of someone’s life. A more blinding light of Ali’s primal instincts here, a more subtle glint of his private worries there. All of them are worthwhile, but each is considerably different.

Thankfully, no version addresses the absurd disappointment of those who sought a more conventional onscreen depiction of The Greatest. No one needed to see Will Smith donning dodgy old-man makeup and pantomiming the Parkinson’s disease that afflicted Ali after his boxing career ended. Only completists would complain about the lack of his first amateur match (when his name was Cassius Clay). Setting aside one essential snapshot from his youth as Clay, each of Mann’s cuts focuses on the 10 most culturally, personally and narratively significant years of Ali’s life. It spans from 1964, with his initial heavyweight title victory over Sonny Liston, to 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle, and touches on the crucibles he endured in between at cross-sections of athleticism, entertainment, Blackness, religion, politics and American civil rights. It’s an appropriately epic look at a larger-than-life man’s efforts to defy expectations rather than become defined by them. But it also examines Ali in his most quotidian state rather than simply his most quotable, assessing the delights and disappointments he brought to people.

Does Mann fumble a bit by foregrounding some contemporaneous cultural icons (like Mario Van Peebles’ Malcolm X) at the expense of shunting others (LeVar Burton’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) into perfunctory box-ticking cameos? Does Mann indulge his Moby-mania to disruptive aesthetic ends? Could there be more of Ron Silver’s weary paternal vibes as Ali’s trainer / cornerman Angelo Dundee? Less of Mann’s blown-out digital vibe that’s never felt more superfluous? A deeper connection between Ali and Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) beyond melodramatic redemption and comic relief? Complexity to any of the women in Ali’s life (Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, Michael Michelle), which is an ongoing concern for Mann but certainly the most noticeable here?

Yes to all that. But from their first frames, all of Mann’s versions — despite their varying shifts in nuance — feel like the enduring big swing to dramatize Ali’s life. Each cut kicks off with one of the most electrifying isolated acts in Mann’s filmography —  a dynamic opening sequence that juxtaposes Ali’s build-up to his first Liston fight against a live performance by Sam Cooke (David Elliott) and crests on a wave of emotional expressionism to Ali’s victory in an arena where Mann and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make the floodlights stretch into infinity. It’s the journey of Mann’s film, and Ali’s 10-year stretch, in a nutshell — inspiration, fear, trepidation, determination, compensation, compromise, clarity.

For all the bonafides Ali establishes in that Liston-victory prologue, the remainder is tempered by a childhood flashback present in all three versions: The newspaper story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, literally shoved in a young Clay’s face by an elderly man on a bus. It’s a thunderclap touchstone Ali carries throughout the rest of his life, a back-pocketed concern that such violence could visit even a beloved sports figure like him, and the potential opportunity cost of being an iconoclast eager to hold the championship as he sees fit and not within the systems, profits and comforts that movers and shakers sought to dictate. The director’s cut adds a scene to this segment of Clay and his father (Giancarlo Esposito) sitting before an admissions board, with Clay observing a painting of horses on the wall, and adds a postscript to the first Liston victory where some financial backers ask “Where’s your boy?” to Dundee.

Ali is the closest project to a gladiator film Mann will ever make, and not just in its overt moments of physicality and combat. The horses, like Ali, are just prizes in white men’s minds, property to be put down with minimal fanfare, grief or memory after they’re no longer useful. Many a Colosseum champion was felled over time by small slices and the same threat faces Ali here, chiefly when his refusal of his U.S. government conscription into the Vietnam War prompts him to lose his boxing license, passport and heavyweight title for several years. Ali’s was a masculinity others attempted to own with their own codes in every context, and Ali’s stance against that claim lends Ali a fire and feeling Mann’s other work can sometimes lack in coolly detached dissections of criminal behavior or morally righteous arguments. It’s complemented by the performance from Will Smith, who’s never been more magnetic or transformative whether he’s expressing Ali’s conversational vivacity, his confrontational muscle or his eventually contemplative humbling among fans. After Ali arrives in Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle, he discovers something even larger than the giant persona he’s created, and Will Smith nails this embrace of vulnerability that his blockbuster efforts rarely afford him.

Mann typically finds his film’s rhythms through his characters’ processes. But training, sparring and exercise did not define Ali, and Mann is smart enough not to fall into that trap. Ali’s legacy is less about process than it is protest. From the springboard of Jeffrey Wigand’s conscience that Mann explored in The Insider, the filmmaker locks into the groove of fierce, but also Franciscan, persistence Ali embodied. And setting aside concussive force brought to each connecting punch and an unsettling depiction of Malcolm X’s assassination, violence here is generally of the more socially and politically insidious variety. Even the boxing scenes, as thrillingly choreographed as they are, come to feel incidental to Ali’s internal struggle and achieve a form of sin-eating endurance for Ali to absorb society’s strikes against him. 

The director’s cut leans harder into eulogizing the fruitful years taken from Ali by those most offended by his defiance, and not only because it is the longest of the three. Extended moments also clarify Ali’s rift with Malcolm X and the mercurial demands of the Nation of Islam, his father’s disappointment in his religious decisions, the geopolitical underpinnings at play in Zaire before and during the Rumble in the Jungle, and the American COINTELPRO factions working against Ali in his heyday (the last two featured peripherally and a bit disjointedly in the original cut). Featuring more of that governmental wet work further dampens the idea that Ali was somehow untouchable by way of his athletic success, plays up the possibility of war within a breath that America so often facilitates toward its own ends, adds a modicum of Parallax View-style paranoia, and allows a bit of Mann’s more traditional cinematic sensibilities to sneak back in. Banners of Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko and American flags also loom more ominously over Ali’s shoulder during the Rumble in the Jungle. They billow like specters of supremacy that haunt and stalk him and the people who have gathered to watch him fight, reminders of vicissitudes visited upon Black people across too many eras and cultures, as well as the gratitude Ali and the people of Zaire come to feel for each other.

The only other character on whom Mann spends any considerable amount of time for any cut is Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), the sportscaster with whom Ali formed an atypically friendly connection that bridged the traditional distance of objective reportage. Mann is too canny to let Cosell stand-in as a surrogate for America’s conscience coming around to a compassionate understanding of Ali’s protests. The film portrays Cosell and Ali as mutually, and playfully, beneficial parasites, playing up and playing off their animosity for one another. There’s more of Cosell in the director’s cut, particularly in the way of such japery with Ali but also in his empathetic concern for all that Ali faced.

These grace notes make the grade of Ali’s road back feel steeper and more Sisyphean in the director’s cut, and they render Ali’s man-of-the-people epiphany in Zaire a resurrection of purpose, will and determination. They also emphasize the political and pugilistic dimensions of Ali as an aging underdog and also let you see just how much wind Ali’s verbosity gave to his sails beyond self-promotional hot air. Ali’s multifaceted tribulations are better realized. His climactic victory over Foreman is more cathartic. The director’s cut is the definitive version here.

However, after Ali’s death in 2016, Mann created what he called a commemorative cut, prompted by “the hindsight of history” and “changing times.” There are introductory shots of characters played by Jeffrey Wright and Paul Rodriguez not present elsewhere, and a little more introspection and a little less pageantry in that opening sequence. It plays up comparisons between Ali’s depicted visits to Africa — an earlier trip to Ghana before the Zaire fight. His noted distance from the people and culture in Ghana stands in stark contrast to the proximity he finds in Zaire. There are even more establishing subtitles for key figures and moments in history and a handful of ADR lines thrown in for further explanation of governmental plots in play.

But the commemorative cut is essentially a Frankensteined version of the director’s cut that finds a few fights and flourishes missing. Again: No version has quite enough of Silver as Dundee, but this one prunes back the director’s cut’s positive additions on that front. And while this is still a more confident balance of solemnity, swagger and subtext than the original cut, it doesn’t hit the same as the director’s cut because it imposes a mortal finality the others lack. Ali was still alive in 2001 and 2004, but the knockout blow of his legacy reverberates in the final moments of those years’ versions. Slapping the time span of Ali’s life as a postscript to the commemorative cut only serves to confine him to a specific calendar rather than a collective consciousness. And again, it lacks the shot of that one fan in the rain, as well as impressions of the Zaire crowd interspersed amid the closing credits. It’s a choice that minimizes Ali’s meaning to so many people he’d never meet and shifts reverent relief into stately, but stifling, grief.

So, to rank the versions of Ali: Director’s cut, commemorative cut, original cut. Clearly, the film is malleable where the man was (mostly) not. But any version of Mann’s film — generally unheralded among his works given its shortfall toward commercial or awards goals — makes it clear: The rope-a-dope was something Ali perfected outside the ring, able to cobble it together as a combination move inside only after he reconciled himself to his singular status.