Clint Eastwood had a great weekend, with “American Sniper” grossing Marvel money. Meanwhile, another stubborn, aging director, Michael Mann, did not have a great weekend. His $80 million cyber thriller “Blackhat,” barely cracked the top 10. This is a shame (especially because it’s very good), but it underlines that Mann is an iconoclast, one who has grown increasingly and impressively wonky in his directorial obsessions.
These qualities, however, have always been present in Mann’s work. One need only look at “Ali,” his 2001 biopic about the pugilist, to see a project that took bucketloads of Hollywood money only to return with an eccentric art film. On the page it’s a comeback movie, charting the 10 years that included his banishment from boxing to the “Rumble in the Jungle.” But it delights in denying audience members biopic pleasures, much less the joy of its subject’s fiery, charismatic public outbursts. Instead, it’s a funereal epic, in which Will Smith’s boxer flips on the charisma like a switch. When he’s “off,” he’s a quiet depressive prone to anguished staring. “Mohammad Ali” is a media construct, and it takes hard work and great pain to get him going.
Mann gets lost in the film’s second hour, which can be explained away as mimicking its subject’s own meandering life, resulting from his refusal to serve a Vietnam stint. Still, the first hour is razor sharp, and Manndoesn’t hold back on his subject's anger; this is staunchly on Ali’s side on an issue that was, at the time, contentious. In fact, he doesn’t hold back in other, even more surprising ways. This is a film from 2001 whose first order of business, after the championship fight, is to show its hero triumphantly converting to Islam. The film’s best segment is its opening: a dizzying, time-jumping 10-minute montage backed by live Sam Cooke that contextualizes him inside the Black Power movement.Later it won’t shy away from delving deeply into his friendship with Malcolm X (Melvin Van Peebles), and the whole film is building not just to a victory but to a return to Africa.
“Ali”’s staging of big historical moments — Malcolm X’s death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, even the "Rumble in the Jungle" itself — aren’t as thrilling as the scenes of Ali’s everyday life, especially when Jamie Foxx, as trainer Drew Bundini Brown/hangout buddy, is around. This makes sense: This is a film about the juxtaposition between the public self and the private self, so there should be a degree of artificiality and staginess to the former. (Speaking of which, Smith rarely seems comfortable rattling off Ali’s sometimes rhyming boasts.) “Ali” can be a pain in the ass — a film desperately searching for its own unique self, just like its protagonist. Ali’s line “I want to be the champ the way I want to be” could apply to Mann himself. Sometimes it only achieves this theoretically. When it achieves it viscerally too — see, again, the opening — the hairs on the back of the neck stand up straight.