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. Ali is 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!”

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 Ali shuffle. (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.

Rushed into release to catch the wave of the new bellicosity, Ridley Scott’s movie version is far less interactive. If anything, this Black Hawk Down exemplifies history as immersion, or maybe assault. Scott’s follow-up to Hannibal is some kind of accomplishment—it’s a Jerry Bruckheimer art film, perhaps the most extravagantly aestheticized combat movie ever made. Somalia is visualized as a land of gorgeous blue mist and exciting brutality. The opening scene has a starving mob storm a food-drop in a crowded Mogadishu marketplace, only to be machine-gunned down by the soldiers of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.

American soldiers don’t seem to know exactly what they’re doing here, but most of them are gung ho to do it anyway. Scott introduces the various army rangers and Delta commandos amid a welter of overlapping dialogue in a barracks the size of an airplane hangar. The cast includes a few young hotties (Ewan McGregor, Brandon Sexton III), but only Pearl Harbor vet Josh Hartnett makes much of an impression as a good-natured sergeant, aglow with ideals. Led to expect an hour-long mission in the Mog, the men are ready to rock and roll. Scott sensitively puts on Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” to set the mood, as the local villagers spot the Black Hawk helicopters flying overhead and phone ahead to their friends in town.

“Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes out the window,” says one seasoned warrior (possibly Tom Sizemore). The advice could well be Scott’s motto. Very little emotional capital is invested in the characters, and as the various choppers, tanks, and snipers converge in the bloody vortex of downtown Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down becomes pure sensation. The movie is a studied composition in flying debris, fleeing crowds, and detached limbs. Meanwhile, to add to the spectacle, the commanding officer (Sam Shepard) is watching—if not quite directing—the action from his video command center.

What began as a surgical strike turns into a harrowing rescue mission once a chopper goes down in a mob of hostiles. As it develops that the Americans have, as someone yells, “stirred up the hornet’s nest and are fighting the entire city,” it also becomes clear that Scott’s ambition is to trump Steven Spielberg’s D-Day landing and Francis Coppola’s aerial assault. The general may be winging it, but the director is not one to resist a sunburst on the twisted-metal, urban-rubble destruction. As grueling as the strewn body parts and staged battlefield surgery are, it’s difficult to repress the thought of Scott positioning the extras, daubing on a bit more makeup and fussing over camera placement—his point of view is the movie’s only constant. As the Somalis storm the Americans’ makeshift Alamo, the director plays hide-and-seek with the soundtrack, contriving a sudden hush as more Americans die, then underscoring the slo-mo with a frantic drumbeat.

Incoherent as it is, Black Hawk Down raises all matter of questions regarding American military intelligence and army procedure. One might also wonder if the U.S. forces sent to Somalia were as overwhelmingly homogenous a group as shown in this movie. Even if they were, the image of these white American soldiers suits Scott’s overweening artistry. The racial color-coding feels like just another design element.

Easily the worst Christmas movie I’ve reviewed this season, The Majestic marks a steep downturn in Jim Carrey’s career. Uplift has raised its ugly head. The star is not only seeking respectability but love—hence this cornball saga of heroic resistance to the Hollywood blacklist.

Seems that Carrey’s obnoxiously avid young screenwriter, Peter Appleton, made the mistake of once attending a Communist front meeting on a college date and has now, in 1951, been named as a red. Stunned by this development, the writer flees Hollywood for Northern California and drunkenly drives his car off a bridge to wake up in a picture-postcard small town still mourning its World War II dead (and listening to big band swing). This white-picket-fence timewarp may suggest Brigadoon, but it’s called Lawson, after the most voluble of the Hollywood Ten. Carrey has lost his memory and the locals have lost their minds—they take him for Luke Trimble, a late Congressional Medal of Honor winner inexplicably returned to life. This mass delusion is led by the dead hero’s father (Martin Landau), who joyfully reopens the local movie theater, the Majestic, which, to judge from a tattered poster, he had apparently closed five years before with It’s a Wonderful Life.

This situation could be a nightmarish one for Peter—but that experience is saved for the viewer. The Majestic‘s streamlined period look belies a sluggish pace rendered even more glacial by the many moments of slow-dawning wonderment, not a few of them shared by Peter and Luke’s old fiancée, Adele (Laurie Holden). As directed by Frank Darabont, the movie is heavy on the Greatest Generation sentiment and even more adoring of Golden Age Hollywood. It was the movie Zola that prompted Adele to go to law school. A key inspirational scene has Luke’s dad regale Peter with a litany of movie stars, half of whom were still working in 1951: “They were gods!” A less innocent anachronism is the use of Gerry Black as the Majestic’s faithful retainer, as well as Lawson’s only African American resident. (Darabont adds to the record of righteous tokenism established by his previous films, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.)

A mishmash of life-insurance commercials and Ronald Reagan campaign spots, this sexless orgy of self-congratulation is designed to make you feel good about Hollywood, America, and Jim Carrey—not to mention the nation’s motion picture exhibitors, who are praised at one point as the antithesis of Soviet Communism. Apparently mistaking this cozy souvenir stand for a suspense thriller, Warners has enjoined the press against revealing the film’s massively feel-good ending. Suffice to say that, even if you know your Capra, you may still be astonished by the shameless aspects of Rocky and Tony Orlando that the grand finale encompasses.