Sunday, July 21, 2002

Reviews of recent films seen:

ALI, directed by Michael Mann

Mann is one of the great contemporary American mainstream directors. Mainstream? Maybe not quite. He subverts mainstream film-making with his radical style. At the same time, the energy and sweep of his story-telling, not to mention his use of ‘stars’ for his cast, do not seem to lend themselves to the epithet ‘art’ film, with its connotations of a deliberate pace and brooding themes. His style is muscular and fluid at the same time. And he never appears less than in command of his large, crowded canvases.

Ali is a superb film. After a dazzlingly stylish first ten minutes, Mann gets into telling the story of Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali; and Ali being who he is, the story becomes one of the times. Great attention has been paid to period detail and the fights are re-created with meticulous attention to the original footage.

At the centre of the film is Will Smith, in the lead role. The role calls for a physical performance, and Smith delivers. The publicity for the film said ‘Will Smith is Ali’. Though his performance does not have the resonance of psychological truth to be found in, say, de Niro’s Method oeuvre, it impresses in the way he emulates Ali’s essentially extroverted spirit – the confidence, the swagger, the wit, the cheek. Smith dominates the cast, which has big names in small roles. I spent three-fourths of the film expecting Jon Voight to pop up, since he was mentioned prominently in the cast, only to realize towards the end of the film that it was indeed Voight in the role of the funny-looking sportscaster who had been present all the time. But the stand-out among the impressive supporting players has to be Mario van Peebles, for the gravity he brings to the role of Malcolm X.

The widescreen photography is marvellous, and Mann uses it effectively in giving the film an epic sweep worthy of its hero. But the one major flaw that keeps Ali from reaching the level of success of Mann’s previous opus, the remarkable The Insider, is over-length. At almost three full hours, the energy level wanes perceptibly during the final third.slfr