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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Ali (2001)

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble young man rumble!"
- Muhammed Ali (Will Smith)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: April 28, 2002

Stars: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight
Other Stars: Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Michelle, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Joe Morton, Nona M. Gaye, Giancarlo Esposito
Director: Michael Mann

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief violence
Run Time: 02h:36m:32s
Release Date: April 30, 2002
UPC: 043396066892
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-A-A- D

DVD Review

Cassius Clay (Will Smith) storms into a throng of reporters and immediately begins hurling clever and energetic verbal insults at Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt)—the reportedly unbeatable heavyweight champion of the world. "That man's so ugly, when he sweats, the sweat runs backwards over his forehead, just to stay away from his face!" The lively showmanship at the weigh-in is not just the bombastic arrogance of a foolish young man. Instead, this unbelievably talented boxer provides entertainment while revealing an impeccable confidence. During the fight, Clay bobs and weaves away from Liston's vicious blows while inflicting punishment from all sides. His incredible poise and skill leads to a shocking upset, and the tumultuous story of Ali is born.

Covering the ten-year period between 1964 and 1974, this tale relates many of the key moments in Ali's life and provides us with a glimpse into his psyche. The plot does not follow a linear, easy path, but instead captures brief moments that convey his inner strength and great importance. Wonderfully textured performances add complexity to the story, and Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) provides inventive direction that helps to create a riveting experience. The prologue utilizes an effective montage of different settings to quickly draw us into the time period. Several quick glimpses of Ali's young life mix nicely with a stunning Sam Cooke performance and the training for the Liston fight. This sequence presents both the impressive power and possible drawbacks of this style of filmmaking. Mann ignores the typical by-the-numbers biography formula and takes an extreme risk by telling the story in a distinct manner.

Clay is a devout Muslim, and his boxing achievements have earned him a rare honor from the Nation of Islam—the right to change his given name. He is now Muhammed Ali. His father (Giancarlo Esposito) has an understandably serious problem with this change, and the press fails to endorse it, but Cassius Clay is no more. Ali's devotion to the Nation of Islam grew largely through his tight friendship with Malcolm X, portrayed convincingly by Mario Van Peebles. Their bond appears only briefly, but it resonates strongly with the boxer, especially following the leader's brutal assassination. This film does a nice job portraying the chaotic setting of the 1960s, with blatant racism and injustice occurring on every corner. During one memorable scene, Ali stands on a hotel balcony and watches the city burn following Martin Luther King's death. While this image may not be historically accurate, it generates the tense atmosphere of the time period. Ali does not say a word, but his expression deftly presents the anger in his heart. These emotions continually drive him to speak his mind about issues and defy unjust authorities.

The pivotal moment in this story occurs when Ali refuses to enlist after being drafted for service in Vietnam. Although he flunked the original tests, his draft status has miraculously changed, and citizens cannot deny this calling. If young men do not report into the army, they face jail time and a hefty fine. Ali's complete noncompliance with the government shuts down his boxing career and could land him in prison. When he utters the statement: "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," even his friends are shocked at his temerity.

Will Smith delivers an Oscar®-worthy performance and crafts an amazing character that proudly mirrors the real man. His past work in Men in Black and Wild Wild West could never prepare us for the impressive weight and confidence that he brings to this story. The energy has always been there, but Smith has never shown such a wealth of emotions. Jamie Foxx gives Drew "Bundini" Brown plenty of intricacies that also were not always prevalent in his earlier career. Howard Cosell is played accurately under loads of makeup from an almost unrecognizable Jon Voight. While this performance did not deserve an Oscar® nomination, it still works very effectively. Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona M. Gaye, and Michael Michelle all bring their own style to the women in Ali's life portrayed here. Gaye has the most success in presenting Belinda's inability to stand quietly while her husband acts wrongly. Their fierce argument offers one of the rare mentions of his womanizing, which receives little time in this lengthy film.

Michael Mann has succeeded in a variety of genres in the past, including the crime drama (Heat), suspense thriller (Manhunter), and historical epic (Last of the Mohicans). This biography presents his most difficult challenge to date, and he succeeds even while ignoring the seamless editing usually inherent within his work. The camera moves at will, and time flows quickly around several key events. The final act covers the "Rumble in the Jungle," the infamous battle between Ali and the young George Foreman. Although slowing down the story well past the two-hour mark may be a mistake, Mann takes his time and utilizes extended sequences of Ali running through the streets of Zaire. This tactic may lose a few audience members to nausea, but it still features some of the most powerful images in the film. Ali may not depict every key moment in his life, but it achieves the most important goal—it captures his heart.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Michael Mann's filming technique in Ali sometimes bears a closer resemblance to a low-budget documentary than an expensive Hollywood feature. During several of these moments, a significant layer of grain appears on the screen. While this is a minor problem and actually corresponds nicely with the prevailing style, it still is noteworthy. Overall, this 2.40:1 amamorphic widescreen transfer contains only a few defects and projects an attractive, nicely colored picture. The Africa scenes include lush images that have lost nothing in the conversion to DVD. The black levels are consistent throughout the lengthy running time, and even the nighttime scenes remain sharp and clearly visible.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: During the energetic moments of the story, especially the opening and the fight sequences, this 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer conveys a wonderful mix of force and depth. However, there are some quieter times when the volume level dips a little too far and the dialogue becomes a bit quiet. This occurs several times, and it slightly lessens the value of a possibly top-notch audio track. The press conferences sparkle with complexity; Ali carries the show while ambient sounds spring from all corners of the sound field. It does not reach the sharpness level of the premier transfers, but only misses them by a short margin. It still stands strongly on its own and offers enough positives to deserve an impressive grade.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Spiderman, Men in Black II
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Michael Mann has crafted some of the premier films of the past decade, but the DVD releases always disappoint in terms of extra features. Heat, The Insider, and Ali virtually demand audio commentaries, and there must be some deleted scenes available. Once again, this disc offers only the basic elements—a theatrical trailer and the previews for Spider Man and Men in Black 2. These promos come in decent widescreen transfers and nicely convey the energy of each picture. Their are some brief production notes on the inset, but that is not nearly enough to cover this complex biography.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Ali improves remarkably with each repeated viewing, which allows us to realize the tremendous achievements of Mann and Smith. However, I find it difficult to give this disc a high recommendation due to the complete lack of any significant extra features. How can a biography of one of the 20th century's most notable figures not contain any background information? The impressive audio and visual transfers make this release a worthy purchase, but it falls well short of its possibilities.


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