Mann vs. Machine

TKO: Will Smith in 'Ali'
Frank Connor

In the first scene of the Maysles Brothers' short documentary from 1980, "Muhammad and Larry," a flabby and mustachioed Muhammad Ali is seen lying on a cot, preparing to meet Larry Holmes in the ring and musing on his own celebrity. "People desire to understand that which they cannot understand," he says, likening his subsurface pull to that of the shark in Jaws. "People like to be puzzled, so I puzzle 'em."

Appropriately, perhaps, it's only in the most puzzling manner that Michael Mann's high-priced Ali biopic approaches its heavyweight subject. What's especially odd is that the director's previous film, The Insider, had to do with investigative journalism, while Ali--spanning the decade between the boxing legend's first bout with Sonny Liston in 1964 and his one and only battle with George Foreman--might well be the least investigative Hollywood biography ever made. In 157 minutes, the movie rarely reveals more than could be gleaned from the sports arena's upper deck--and sometimes less.

But maybe this isn't so odd after all. Come to think of it, The Insider is ultimately a lament for how the (whole) truth of a controversial matter cannot be told by a modern media conglomerate whose commercial interests extend well beyond the ring. In this sense, one suspects Mann and Sony of having entered into an artistic brawl that found the underdog throwing in the towel somewhere near the fifth round, with Howard Cosell's discerning observation that the champ sure takes an awful lot of sugar in his coffee. (The diagnosis of the fighter's excessive sucrose intake constitutes a scoop by default.) Particularly following Ghosts of Manila, sportswriter Mark Kram's recent pounding of the boxer's mythic status as a sociopolitical powerhouse, Ali comes across as more than a little lacking in footwork. Kram's contention, for instance, that Ali took financial handouts from his frequent opponent Joe Frazier before labeling him an Uncle Tom is reduced by Mann to the hero's playful dis of his rival as "the heavyweight champ of pimps." Frazier, you see, drove a Cadillac.

At least credit the white Mann with the conscious decision to deny his own claim to insight and authority (if not enough for Spike Lee's taste). As an exercise in mass alienation--a $100 million biopic that concludes its exhaustively chronicled subject can't be known--Ali is intriguingly perverse. Still, as a kind of reenacted vérité, it's hardly unique. Aside from the Maysles' late-period portrait, there is, of course, the documentary When We Were Kings, which leaves an infinitely more indelible (not to mention authentic) record of the African "Rumble in the Jungle" that Mann stages merely for third-act uplift. There's William Klein's 1974 doc Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (screening daily at Walker Art Center throughout December), which says more about the boxer's contentious relationship to the white establishment in its first five minutes than Mann's movie does in its entirety. And then there's The Greatest (1977), which offers the surreal spectacle of Muhammad Ali playing himself, even in period scenes where the "character" is nearly half the actor's age.

Awkward and even humiliating as that sounds (the interstitial use of actual fight footage from the Sixties hardly helps), the star of The Greatest appears twice as regal as fresh prince Will Smith, whose Ali has the look of fear in his eyes--and it's not a fighter's. Among the tragedies of the real champ's career is that he narrowly missed the chance to star in a 1972 remake (penned by Francis Ford Coppola!) of the second-chance fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan--on account of Elijah Muhammad's disapproval of the script's less than divine take on reincarnation. Speaking of Islam, Ali half-intentionally suggests that the fighter's faith was bolstered in part by watching old Mummy sequels on TV with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles). In The Greatest, the conversion of young Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali begins in the midst of his chasing a hooker into a fleabag hotel. Equally ridiculous as these scenes may be, the more honest of the two isn't Mann's.

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