Fight Songs

Now that the western is no longer with us, there are three basic modes with which Hollywood represents history. The first is the Great Man biopic, the second the total immediate immersion in a particular Event, and the third the artifact-stocked theme park. The modes can cross-fertilize in unexpected ways—the Watergate teen comedy Dick combines all of them—but this week three movies offer unusually pure examples.

The most enjoyable and thoughtful of the trio, Michael Mann's Ali amounts to a victory lap for one of the American century's most compelling personalities. Actually, it's more of a parade headed by a bulked-up and toned Will Smith, radiating absurd if appropriate self-confidence as the heavyweight icon Muhammad Ali. Mann reports on the action in the heroic journalistic style of The Insider, but this pageant is livelier than that dour exposé. Aliis filled with vivid cameos and set to an infectious soul beat that effectively covers the underlying hum of calculated precision.

The first half percolates wonderfully—and the first half hour is even better than that. Mann opens with a thrilling montage that, spinning in and out of a nightclub performance by Sam Cooke, contextualizes the hero in his times; this builds to his first title fight in February 1964 with the supposedly unbeatable champ, Sonny Liston. Shown at various stages of his life, the young Cassius Clay is nearly wordless until the weigh-in. Suddenly, he's right in Liston's face with a nonstop chanting harangue: "Sonny Liston, you ain't no champ! You a chump! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! You want to lose your money, bet on Sonny! Rumble, young man, rumble!"

Are you Jon Voight? Will Smith wants to know.
photo: Frank Connor
Are you Jon Voight? Will Smith wants to know.

Details

Ali
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann
Columbia

Black Hawk Down
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Ken Nolan,
from the book by Mark Bowden
Columbia
Opens December 28

The Majestic
Directed by Frank Darabont
Written by Michael Sloane
Warner Bros.

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Mann stages the first of the movie's four major fight scenes to reinforce the action choreography of the ducking, dancing Ali. If nothing in the movie ever regains this level of excitement, it may be because the first ascension of Cassius Clay to world champion was one of the key mind-altering events of the Kennedy assassination aftermath—along with the arrival of the Beatles a week before the bout and the release of Dr. Strangelove. The new champ immediately broke the mold by dropping his "slave name," turning Muslim, and openly fraternizing with Malcolm X. The Ali-Malcolm relationship didn't figure in Spike Lee's biopic, but Mann makes up for it with Mario Van Peebles's credible performance as Malcolm. Indeed, the ensemble cast is so showy that even an accomplished scene-stealer like Jeffrey Wright (as court photographer Howard Bingham) gets lost in the Alishuffle. (The outstanding support includes, among many, Jamie Foxx's Drew "Bundini" Brown, Mykelti Williamson's Don King, and Jada Pinkett Smith's Sonji Clay.)

Neatly framed by Ali's two most important title fights, against Liston in 1964 and George Foreman 10 years later, Ali reworks a trajectory already familiar from feature documentaries like William Klein's Muhammad Ali, the Greatest and Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, not to mention Ali's own psychodrama, The Greatest. Mann, however, presages the Zaire climax by dramatizing Ali's first, lesser-known trip to Africa and devotes nearly a third of his movie to the champ's career as the single most celebrated draft resister of the Vietnam War, apparently drawing on the Mike Marqusee book Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. (Much of this analysis is articulated, with superb nasality, by Jon Voight's astonishingly impersonated Howard Cosell.)

Unfortunately, it's at this point that the movie begins to lose the rich context of its first hour. There's no time, for example, to make the connection between the "scandal" of Ali's opposition to the war and that of Martin Luther King's near simultaneous attack on U.S. policy. Nor are we shown the impact that Ali's militancy had on other black athletes, most famously in the televised black-power salutes given at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. (Instead, Mann goes for generic "1968," flooring the wah-wah pedal and flooding the narrative engine.)

The historical texture fades altogether as Ali heads toward the Rumble in the Jungle, surely the best-documented prizefight in history and—along with the transformation of Patty Hearst, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the release of The Godfather II—one of the magical events of 1974. (Ali's pre-fight couplet—"You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whup George Foreman's behind!"—is tactfully omitted.) Still, the movie does convincingly establish Ali as a world figure as well as illuminate the genius strategy he used to suddenly knock out Foreman in the fight's eighth round.

The combination that floored Foreman was arguably the most ecstatic wallop in 20th-century sports. In any case, the action speaks for itself. Smith surely grew into the role he plays here, but in a way, the actor stands beside his performance. The contradictory mix of calculation and innocence, clowning and gravitas, sweetness and steel that characterizes Ali's astonishing personality is skillfully evoked but, in the end, remains a mystery.


Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden's bestselling minute-by-minute account of the Battle of the Black Sea, the worst incident in the ill-fated U.S. humanitarian mission to Somalia and the most costly firefight to involve American troops since Vietnam, first appeared as a 29-part series in The Philadelphia Inquirer and was subsequently reconfigured as a video, a CD-ROM, and an integral part of the Inquirer's Web site, before it was published as a book.

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