The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.
Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.Continue Reading
Based on a real criminal and inspired by his own TV movie, L.A. Takedown, Michael Mann directs one of the all-time great cop and robber films with Heat. He takes a highly established genre and digs in deeper—finding the truth and parallels between those who enforce the law and those who break it. Heat explores the sacrifices both sides have to make in order to do the job—mainly causing dysfunction at home. You can see years of preproduction that goes into Mann’s vision—building from earlier works as director of Thief (1981) and producer of TV’s Miami Vice.Continue Reading
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading