Plot: What’s it about?
To quote the Godfather of Soul, “It’s a man’s world!” In “Ali” the female characters are submissive to the men. When they aren’t, they are quickly discarded. Will Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith plays Ali’s first wife Sonji Roi. The sexy Sonja makes the conversion to Islam in order to marry Ali, however she doesn’t want to forgo the fancy clothes that Ali’s winnings afford her. She is quickly sent packing with a 90 day Islamic divorce. Pinkett-Smith doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impression. The real impact from the ladies side of the aisle comes from Nona M. Gaye (daughter of the late Marvin Gaye) as Belinda, Ali’s second wife. Belinda is a practicing Muslim. The two fit well together. The Bible mentions that a couple shouldn’t be unevenly yoked, i.e. a believer should stick with other believers in marriage. This principle seems to hold true to the Islamic faith too. Ali and Belinda seem to be true soulmates whose marriage is strengthen by their faith. There is a scene in which they hold hands for the first time after temple that is beautiful in its simplicity and grace. Smith and Gaye have great chemistry together. When Belinda tells Ali that be should beware the old “friends” from the Nation of Islam who deserted him when he was down, you feel the deep concern she has for her man. She also portrays the submissive side of women in Islam when after saying her piece to her husband in private, abiding by his decision in public. The viewer also feels for Belinda as the couple’s marriage hits rocky seas. When her husband betrays her, Belinda rightfully abandons the submissive role in a realistic confrontation scene. While not an Oscar caliber performance, Nona Gaye becomes one more solid brick in this insightful film.
Michael Mann is a post-modern David Lean. Even his short films such as “Manhunter” are epic in scope. “Ali” is at once his most lyrical movie and at the same time the most realistic. It’s realism lies in the way it fathoms through the depths of Ali’s character. The fact that Mann spends nearly an hour exploring the relationship of Ali and Malcolm X in order to show that relationships effect on Ali’s later hardships was a bold and brave decision. If this period of Ali’s life had been glossed over with a five minute montage of the two men, the later set piece involving Ali’s battle with the draft board would not be as understandable or powerful. Ali witnessed Malcolm stand up to the Nation of Islam to the point he took several bullets for his convictions. Ali saw a man who listened to his own voice. Ali became a man who listened to his own voice.
Listening to your own voice is best illustrated in the film’s final fight sequence. This final scene also is a perfect example of the film’s lyrical composition. While Angelo Dundee and others are yelling their opinions about how Ali should handle George Forman, Ali sits in a place of personal solitude. Mann uses the voice over to let us in on Ali’s own thoughts and strategies. Ali listens to his own voice and triumphs. The musical choices also add to the lyrical quality, especially during the African sequence.
For some reason, Mann seemed to have used digital video during a couple of scenes. When Ali and Sonja spend their first night together, the love scene has a video look about it which is distracting. Other than these couple of scenes, the movie is beautifully filmed and edited. I especially liked Mann’s decision during a few of the fight scenes to use quick snatches of distorted, multi-imaged photography to capture the point of view of the opponent who was being pummeled by Ali. The attention to detail of the fighting styles of the various fighters is also appreciated. There are no “Rocky-esque” fight montages. The fight scenes go round by round and capture the drama of the sport. Even to fans who know the outcome of each fight, the sequences create palpable tension. Mann also takes care to recreate the actual combination of punches which felled Ali’s victims. Smith pegged Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” style absolutely.
As is the case with many great men, faith is central to Ali’s character. Following the events of September 11th, many have voice suspicions about Muslims. Ali is presented as a true believer who uses his faith as a moral center and source of strength. Ali comes across as tolerant of other religions. He is also forgiving, even of those who betray him. It is a positive portrait of religion in film. This is a rare thing to see. It challenges the audience due to September 11th, but it serves as a reminder that Islam and terrorism are not synonyms. As a Christian, I only wish Hollywood would present a Christian character with such a brush. Though Ali comes across as a true believer, he is not shown to be a pious prude. Ali sins willingly at one point even though the act is in direct conflict with his faith. He tells the woman he is about to commit adultery with that he wished he had waited until he was 50 years old to find Allah. He has a weakness for girl flesh. Bold and honest filmmaking which has the hero talk about God on the way to a tryst.
Video: How does it look?
Ali, despite some of the scenes being filmed in DV, looks grand. As epic in scale as the movie is, we have come to expect a fine image from the folks at Columbia/Tristar and we’re not let down in the least. The 2.35:1 image is enhanced for widescreen TV’s and it only suffers from just a few minor errors. There is a bit of grain during the scenes and the entire film has a dingy type look and feel to it. It’s not bad, just different. Just as “The Insider” and “Heat” each had their own look and feel, so does this. While it’s not perfect, it’s almost the next best thing.
Audio: How does it sound?
As with most of Michael Mann’s movies, the soundtrack rocks. Each punch feels like thunder and the sheer depth and dynamic experience of it all send chills down my spine just listening to it. The Dolby Digital soundtrack has the power to pull it off and again I use the reference to “Heat” for which the downtown shootout scene is some of the best examples of how a hom theater should sound. While Ali shouldn’t be synonymous with sound, I think it is. Sure, the action is going on the screen but the audio brings it out. The 5.1 track makes the movie come alive and makes it more of what it should be…an experience.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Alas, the theatrical trailer is the only extra (trailers for Spider-Man and Men in Black II are shown as well).