Back in theaters… not for the happiest of reasons, but I’ll take it. Electrifying for the first half hour, then gradually settles into a biopic-groove despite all of Mann’s trademark flair. But with energy and performances this good, I wasn’t worried at the time, just floating on the great history and character and love in this movie.
Best appreciated in a theater, with a real sound system. The sound mix is key to the legendary opening montage, the way Mann brings Sam Cooke forward and backward, providing structure to otherwise-random memory footage that serves as exposition and context, without feeling like it. The sound is also the key to the fight scenes, in which Mann puts on the screen the subjective feel of being in a boxing match in a way rarely-matched.
Unfortunately, sound at the Grand was turned way down, I guess so the retro boxing movie wouldn’t audibly compete with whatever Care Bears nonsense was playing next door. I get better sound from my barely-in-stereo TV at home.
Even when its momentum falters, its visuals never do. Lubezki, the wizard who went storybook-painterly for Tim Burton’s gruesomely entertaining Sleepy Hollow, shoots nearly the entire film with handheld cameras and gyroscopically stabilized Steadicams, shifting focus spontaneously in each shot as if he’s recording history as it happens. It’s arresting, alive and provocative – a documentary affectation reimagined for Hollywood, and it goes a long way toward making Ali exciting even when it’s not making much sense.
You can tell that one was written in 2001/2002, because not since The New World and Children of Men has anyone equated Lubezki with Sleepy Hollow. This points to another reason that the Ali re-release is less revelatory than I hoped – handheld spontaneity has become de rigueur in Hollywood since its first release (not nearly as purposefully as it’s done here)
So there’s another element to Ali — a ghost in the machine that courses throughout the film. Ali the man desires to be free. But the meaning of that word slowly changes. (“Free ain’t easy,” Bundini says. “Free is real. And real’s a motherfucker.”) Ali seeks freedom not just from the reality of America, but also from everything else with dominion over him. He finds this freedom in the construction of his ever-changing, ever-moving identity. (“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”) In essence, he liberates himself by becoming larger than anything that ever tried to control him — larger than the Nation of Islam, larger than the media, or boxing, or even, ultimately, America itself.