Just about a month ago, the Brooklyn Academy of Music held a Michael Mann retrospective. The big news of that retrospective for the numerous through-thick-and-thin Mann auteurists, the ones who cling to Miami Vice and Public Enemies like the general public does with Heat, was the director’s cut of Blackhat, a movie most of them already liked more than the majority of the population. I have nothing against these proud men and women, and I count myself as one of them (I’m Team Digital Skies all the way), but I must admit to being puzzled by one aspect of their Mann fandom (Manndom?); their seeming ignorance of the Mann film that screened the day after Blackhat‘s reedit, Ali. Ali was neither well-received enough to join the Best Picture-nominated company of its sister film, The Insider (it did get two acting noms, for Will Smith and Jon Voight’s uncanny Howard Cosell impression), nor was it panned hard enough to merit the strong defenses that its follow-ups received. It’s the closest thing Mann has to a “lost” film, and that’s a shame, because it deserves much more serious consideration than it’s gotten.
Perhaps what drives some hardcore Mann auteurists away from Ali is the fact that it’s ostensibly a biopic, that most tired of genres, about Muhammad Ali (embodied very well by Will Smith). Except Mann seems to have as much contempt for the typical biopic structure as many film fans do. The film’s structure is primarily a study of ten years in Ali’s life, from him beating Sonny Liston in ’64 to the Rumble in the Jungle, and the film gets any necessary biographical bits out of the way within the first ten minutes, with a series of disconnected vignettes that nudge when many other films of its kind would push (the opening is maybe the greatest sequence of any Mann film, and he’s not at a loss for those). But Mann goes even further than that, shooting the film in a bracingly modern style, full of exhilarating handheld work (no shocker that he got Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot the thing) and off-kilter compositions, with no “good old days” golden-sunshiny look to be seen. This is not history as remembered by Mann; this is Mann using cinema as a means of time travelling, creating a vision of the turbulent 60s and 70s as they must have been seen by their participants (this has his first use of digital, showcasing the Miami skies as Ali would have seen them). Beyond the filmmaking, Ali is so loaded to the gills with great character actors (aside from Smith, Voight, and a wonderful Jamie Foxx, there’s Mario Van Peebles, Giancarlo Esposito, Jeffrey Wright, Ron Silver, LeVar Burton, Bruce McGill, Barry Shabaka Henley, Joe Morton, Ted Levine, and many more), Smith is so charismatic as Ali, and Ali’s story is so inherently fascinating that there really is something here for everybody, whether you think Blackhat is a masterpiece or a mistake.
Ali is available for free for HBO GO subscribers.