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Ali
The Director's Cut

review by Zach B.

 

 

Unrated

Running Time: 165 minutes

Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson

Screenplay by: Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann
Story by: Gregory Allen Howard

Directed by: Michael Mann

 

Studio: Columbia/Tri-Star

Retail Price: $24.96

Features: Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Michael Mann,

Specs: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (28 Scenes)

Released: June 1st, 2004

 

 

One of 2001's biggest and most high profile projects, "Ali" opened in the Christmas season of 2001 in hopes to dominate the box office with its buzzworthy performances, giant budget (well over 100 million) and a ride of hype on it. However, after much anticipation, the film opened. It wasn't exactly the hit that Sony was hoping for. It started out strong, but lost momentum quite fast. It didn't bomb completely, but it failed to make back its original budget. Arguably worse, the film was poorly received by many. That happens a lot when you hear so many good things, only to be let down. We all know that. I missed "Ali" in theaters and went in with some lowered expectations, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. "Ali" is not a perfect film, but I think it's a superbly underrated biography.

The story you ask? Well, it's the story of Ali's life. But not the whole thing. Hell no. His famous fights, his name change, his religious faith, his political nature... basically, all the major points of his life that made Ali who he was. It seems to me that a lot of criticisms of "Ali" stem from the story arc. People felt that the story jumped around too much (it really only covers a few years of his life), it lacked a cohesive nature, it was not even and that it exaggerated what "really" did happen to Muhammad Ali. Yes, more people focused on how "A Beautiful Mind" lacked key parts of John Nash's life more (probably since "A Beautiful Mind" got more attention), but I wish people would stop with all their ranting. It's a movie and we all know Hollywood... how many times have they strictly stayed by the book in a biopic? Honestly, it's just the nature of Hollywood to overblow, underwrite and dramatize everything in a person's life. It's just a movie... not everything has to be true.

Yet what I think so many people were thinking this was going to be a great, entertaining movie. What I think ruined this is that they were looking for something else. Honestly, what did they want? If you know the story of Ali's life and career, then you're not going to find anything new and entirely exciting. I personally disagree with some of the critics and their views on the film... I find "Ali" to be a well rounded movie, and one of the better biography films I've seen in recent memory. I can understand how audiences may feel awkward at how the film is presented, but you just can't cram someone's whole life into a movie. What the quartet of writers has done is simply take the most important bits of Ali's life from 1964 to 1974 and developed them into pieces. Not one thing dominates, it's all broken up. And it's all broken up so what happens to Ali is not overdone and it's not underdeveloped. You get a good sense of Ali through the series of events, and you get a good idea of the actual events. Basically, you get all that you need to know... so that you learn something and that each specific piece moves the film along.

I personally found the transitions to be pretty seamless, even if the film's narrative just keeps going on and on. You do know what time has passed and what has happened, which is truly important in all this. Though I must admit the film somewhat dwindled for me toward the end. It went a little downhill for the Africa and Rumble In The Jungle portions. Those are important parts and aren't bad, it's just that I was wondering if there was more of an impact to be found within Ali's life here. Still, it doesn't ruin anything really and is fine. Again, I really felt that Michael Mann setup "Ali" nicely and presented the story nicely, so that if you are familiar with the man or not, you get a good, rather true idea of who he was and what he did.

Speaking of Michael Mann, he really puts a good flow to this movie. I was rather intrigued throughout the movie, and I never really found it to be dull. Like I said, each piece of Ali's life is presented as it should be. The story moves and the story flows believe it or not. The film does run a bit over two hours and a half, and it really moved fast for me. The fight scenes (there are a good deal of these), are amazingly staged. They go on at a perfect length, and can be brutal. They look rather real and you'd think the actors were actually real boxers. I guess I really got into the story and what was going on. Mann creates the era well, has good shots and makes it a visually appealing as well as a tuned, driven story. While I don't think "Ali" is Mann's best work, I think he really makes the movie work and what it is. He gives us a fine biography about an important sports figures without overdoing it. Not one thing actually dominates it, but rather, Ali himself connects through it all.

Yet what brings the whole film to life is truly the acting. The ensemble here is fantastic. Of course, what gave "Ali" a lot of buzz was Will Smith's charismatic performance that earned him a load of critical acclaim and award nominations. But does anyone remember a time when everyone thought Smith was going to win the golden Oscar®, but then the film came out and wasn't well received and then it sort of lost momentum? That was all marketing bullshit if you ask me... Smith's performance as the man himself is quite electrifying, true and rather outspoken. You can tell he put the heart into this performance. Forget the training, the dialect coach and all the other pre-production stuff, Smith has crossed many barriers before (music, television, movies) and crosses many more here with his portrayal of the boxing legend. Smith's acting work has been mainly comedy, and while he has trekked into drama, "Ali" simply proves that Smith is quite a fine actor. He nails the role of Ali down perfectly. His movements, his expressions, his voice... this is a must see performance. A big bravo for Mr. Smith.

But while Smith is the focus, the other actors show some true skills. For one thing, I was surprised that Jamie Foxx didn't get more notice. He's also quite charismatic and great here. Mario Van Peebles has a short role as slain African-American leader Malcom X that was I found to be quite believable, but then there is Jon Voight as legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell. Voight basically pops up here and there and doesn't have too much screen time, his performance earned him a supporting actor Oscar® nod. Many people have portrayed Cosell before, but I think what makes Voight the best Cosell ever is not the glossy makeup, but how he portrays him. Besides nailing the voice, it's how he acts it out. Many actors act like their doing an imitation of good old Howard, here, Voight ditches that and just becomes him naturally instead of overdoing it. It's a bit more subdued in my opinion, and I think that's why his performance is the most impressive.

A few other notes: I enjoyed the Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard score, but I found interesting was the musical pieces played during some scenes. This is supposed to be 1964 to 1974, right? Then why am I hearing hip-hop and more recent urban songs during scenes? They work, but it can be a little confusing... maybe there could have been more consistency. Otherwise, "Ali" is a wonderfully strong biography flicks that works with Mann's sharp directions, the inspiring performances and a story that's put together pretty nicely. This was an obvious passion for Mann and Smith (they gave up some of their own salary when it became overbudget), and it shows on screen. Don't let the negativity the film generated turn you off... if you're interested and can stand the long running time, "Ali" is one film worth checking out.

 

Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, the director's cut of "Ali" features a very similar transfer as the first time. With that said, the picture here is still a real winner - I couldn't tell where new scenes or shots had been inserted to the exisiting film. The film's print is incredibly clean, with only a little speck here and there. The color saturation is great and finely tuned, and does a fine job of representing the film's vast locations. Taking place in many environments such as Africa, the boxing ring, city streets, different homes, a lot of the scenery and colors are constantly changing and this transfer keeps up. The transfer is rather sharp and fleshtones look great, and there's a pretty natural look to the image that can't be denied. Though at times it can be somewhat soft, fuzzy and grainy (especially during the night-time scenes) and there is some shimmering, those complaints don't detract much from this lovely, bold and stylish transfer.

 

Also quite similar to last time, if pretty much the same, is the English 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Once again, the film features a pretty strong mix and makes good use of surrounds. It's a pretty good showpiece actually, as the surrounds here create a superb ambiance and atmosphere that really bring you into the ten year period of Ali's life. I wasn't expecting something incredibly strong, and while not every sound in the movie is, there's a good strength to the surrounds and overall sound arc. The punches in the boxing ring, the clicks of cameras going off, the echoes from boxing announcers, the crowd cheers and the fatal shots that kill Malcom X to name a few bring amazing life to the channels. The film also features pretty awesome use of the subwoofer. Very good mixing is to be found here. The music also sounds great through the channels. Dialogue is clear and easy to hear, while many other elements such as the music and variety of sound effects don't overpower it at all. Very nice overall. English, French and Spanish subtitles are included plus English closed captions through your television.

 

I was pretty surprised that the first "Ali" disc only had theatrical trailers on it, given how big of a project it was (or maybe because it was a box office misfire to an extent and Columbia Tristar wanted to rush the DVD while the movie was still fresh in the public's mind). Some time passed and I assumed there wouldn't be a better edition of the film on DVD, but surprise surprise - there now is. I don't know if the public demanded it, but maybe the first DVD sold decently and there was a market, or maybe this release is to please the film's bigger fans (now that DVD has surged in popularity even more). Who knows why this has popped up over two years after the first DVD's release - I suppose the important thing is that the film now gets some extras, but by no means is this an expansive edition.

First things first: the movie is presented in an unrated Director's Cut - which means if you really dug "Ali" the first time, you'll probably want to revisit it again. Those of you who think the new cut is just another eight minutes of footage are in for a real surprise: Michael Mann recently stated that he recut the film (even if he was happy with the original cut - go figure) - he cut out about twenty minutes, and added in about whole new half-hour of never before seen footage. I noticed that there's a much bigger political emphasis in this cut and a lot more about Ali's connection to Africa (especially toward the end). There's also more detail about Ali's background and devotion to Islam. But overall, I don't think the film's focus changes drastically - it's just a bit more articulate in certain areas (which may not appeal to everybody). The new cut didn't change my opinion of the film as a whole, but it is a little different from what was offered the first time around. If you liked "Ali" originally, then I'm sure you'll want to see what Mann has done differently (I guess the director has a lot of time on his hands to create a somewhat different version of the film).

The major surprise on this disc for me is the Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Michael Mann. I didn't think Mann was a fan of supplements or even did commentaries, but I'm glad he contributed one to this film which he worked really hard on. Mann is constantly talking and is by himself - which is hard given he talks for nearly three hours (he stops toward the middle of the film's credits). He has a lot of appreciation for those who worked on the film, but he outright dedicates the commentary to Will Smith. And while Mann has a few production stories to tell and some technical things to say, a huge percentage of this track is about the real Ali and the film's historical background. Mann keeps it scene-specific, and not only does he come across as intelligent, but the man really did his research for this film. His track is kind of like a biography sorta as he traces additional facts with the film's characters and moments, gives some thoughts and even talks about what was dramatized. This is a pretty dry commentary overall, and Mann's monotone voice doesn't exactly help things move quicker, but if you're a fan of the movie or the real Ali, then it's worth sitting down and listening to - there's a lot to learn here, maybe you history/Ali scholars will pick something up. Again though, I'm glad to hear Mann doing a commentary.

The only other extra on the disc is The Making Of Ali. Lasting about twenty-nine minutes in length, it has what'd you expect: film clips, footage from the set (including visits from the real Ali) and interviews with the main cast and some of the crew (not only Mann, but includes boxing trainers and consultants). It may seem a little fluffy at first, but it actually goes pretty in-depth into the film's perspective and just how much effort was brought to bring the movie to life (Ali's former trainer was actually hired to help train Smith). There's a good focus on Smith's training and how Smith prepared for the role, as well as he went about understanding Ali as a person. There's praise for Mann and how his directing style worked for the movie, plus information on creating the musical score (with interviews from composers Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard and clips of them at work). Of course, there's also a load of information on Ali and the social history the film covers. Very well produced and very informative - there's a lot to gain here for those who watch it.

I think there still could be more to this given Ali's life and how big (and somewhat troubled) the movie's production was, but this is certainly better than nothing and a MAJOR improvement over the film's original release on DVD. I guess if there were more extras it'd be on a second disc given the film's long running time - but the featurette does cover a lot of the aspects of the creation of the movie. Oddly enough though, there are no trailers on this DVD version. But the keepcase insert has a nice biography about the real Ali.

 

I thought "Ali" was somewhat underrated as a film, and it is certainly shepherded by Mann's strong directing and the phenomenal acting as it takes a good luck at a period in the boxing legend's life. The new DVD of the film has the same great picture quality and strong 5.1 track that was featured on the original release, but now has some real supplements. If you're a really big fan of the movie, then "Ali" is worth picking up again. Not just for the extended cut of the film, but also for the two solid extras. Casual fans, you still might be interested in seeing Mann's new version of the movie (with a lot more footage than you think) so I suppose a rental will suffice.