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ALI: DIRECTOR'S CUT

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson
Director: Michael Mann
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 165 Minutes
Release Date: June 1, 2004

“This was supposed to be the fight that Muhammad Ali was ended! Supposed to be the myth that Muhammad was gonna fall! Supposed to be my destruction!

… WELL THEY MISCALCULATED! THEY MISJUDGED! THEY GOT IT WRONG!”

Film ****

Ali was one of 2001’s most hyped-up films, and it truly lives to up to the hype and beyond. At the same time, it seemed to have turned off most mainstream audiences who weren’t expecting the lengthy, distinctively paced film they got. They had no doubt flocked to see Will Smith’s portrayal of legendary boxing great Muhammad Ali, and Smith’s Oscar nominated performance is the driving force for the movie, but the real star of the film is the masterful directing of Michael Mann, who has followed up his Oscar-nominated masterpiece, The Insider, with yet another stirring biographic film. Mann structures his films and shoots them in a manner that few filmmakers can even attempt to match. Every individual shot, in fact, in a Mann film strikes a remarkable visual impact. Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider each carried this distinctive quality, and now Mann’s genius filmmaking is captured again in this remarkable film which chronicles ten struggling years for the man who would soon become known to the world as simply, The Greatest.

The film opens with a breathtaking introduction which is so mesmerizing; words can barely describe its brilliance. Mixed in with footage of soul music great Sam Cooke performing his show stopping song, “Bring it On Home To Me”, each main characterization is introduced perfectly. In addition to Ali, we meet his acquaintances in the boxing world, including his primary trainers Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) and Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx), who aspires to be the boxer’s personal “motivator”. Also introduced is that of civil rights leader Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), who was as much a teacher to Ali than just a friend and a proper alliance.  The opening sequence also give brief flashbacks of the fighter in his pre-teen years, as he is exposed to the headlines of such tragic events as a local lynching. I have rarely seen such a remarkable introduction to a single film in the way Mann has structured this one.

“THE CHAMP IS HERE!”

What follows is one of many pivotal moments in Ali’s life, when the fighter, then known as Cassius Clay, stuns the boxing world by defeating Sonny Liston. It garners his first heavyweight championship, and Clay is soon engulfed in the world of the spotlight. Clay, inspired by Malcolm X, joins the Nation of Islam and is soon given the name, Muhammad Ali by the religion’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall). Not too long after a small falling out with Malcolm, the civil rights leader is soon assassinated, leaving Ali saddened and remorseful in a stunningly shot and performed moment. Smith’s reaction is nothing short of heartbreaking.

The next pivotal moment in Ali’s life came when, at the near high point of his career, he made a bold move by refusing to be drafted to the Vietnam War, which he openly criticized. The result is the ultimate backlash, as his dodging the draft eventually strips Ali of his title, but through sheer determination and endless and outrageous self-promotion, which what Ali was known for; he begins a quest to win back what he lost. This leads to two landmark fights for Ali, one against Joe Frazier, and the other against George Foreman, also known as the Rumble in the Jungle.

“THE CHAMP IS HERE!”

There are many joys in the glorious film experience that is Ali. One of which are the televised encounters between Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell, played with jaw-dropping authenticity by Jon Voight, who garnered a much-deserved Oscar nomination. It’s hard not to chuckle at the scene when Ali, during an interview by Cosell, dares to fiddle with the sportscaster’s hairpiece in front of the viewing audience. Watching the champion get in his opponents’ faces to talk endless trash also garners numerous laughs, too. This was a distinctive trait Ali carried in him, and it’s probably not intended as comedy, but watching it is simply a hoot.

Mann’s most dynamically shot sequence comes during Ali’s stay in Zaire for his fight against George Forman. It is a breathtakingly awe-inspiring scene of Ali jogging down the streets of Zaire. As numerous kids jog along with him, he discovers slowly but purely how much of an important person he has become to this part of the world, which is revealed in a superbly done and mesmerizing manner. Mann, I feel, executed this sequence to an emotional perfection.

“THE CHAMP IS HERE!”

Ali is a purely remarkable cinematic biography of one of our history’s most eccentric and important athletic personalities. Headlined by Michael Mann’s absorbing directing and Will Smith’s drop-dead astonishingly incarnation of the title character, along with the strong ensemble supporting performers. As the taglines suggests, “Forget What You Think You Know”, as Mann’s film will most definitely reveal Ali, the legend and the man, like he truly is.

Video ****

Columbia Tri Star’s first round of Ali on DVD remains one of the studio’s most triumphant reference quality presentations. With this new Director’s Cut edition, not only is the quality in the anamorphic picture just as good, but it may even be a bit stronger. The image is thoroughly clean and crisp and has been given a huge level of detail, making the unique shots in the film, courtesy of Michael Mann and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, appear before you with an even bigger impact. Whenever you experience a Michael Mann film, you’re in for a visionary treat, and this remarkable DVD handling from Columbia Tri Star is brilliant, illustrative proof.

Audio ****

Likewise, the 5.1 audio mix has the same striking level of sound fury and clarity that was present in the original offering. The boxing sequences alone, where the sound plays a pivotal role in, are worth the price of the disc, but the audio has even more treats to supply. The collection of music used in the film, ranging from soul classics by Sam Cooke to the mystically powerful voice of composer Lisa Gerrard, to a striking piece of music from Salif Keita titled “Tomorrow”, the music highlight of the film, also play an important part in the audio mix. This presentation epitomizes the full effect of dynamic range, as dialogue, music, and other technical areas have each been given an equal dose of detail. More than two years following the first release, this remains one of CTS’ most outstanding releases to date.

Features **1/2

This was the one area of the disc that was in dire need of some adjustments, and although the extras aren’t heavy, they will indeed suit me, as well as any additional fans of this film. For starters, this new director’s cut includes about 15 minutes of new footage. In addition, there is a running commentary with Michael Mann (a genuine and pleasing surprise), and a 30 minute making of documentary.

Summary:

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Ali has made a striking return to D-V-D. Michael Mann’s poetic piece is easily one of the great sports biopics, as well as always a unique experience of a film. This new director’s cut is a more than fitting answer to the feature-less first release.