I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Muhammed Ali is #1

First off friends welcome to 2002. Sorry about that 2001 business. Just a couple more of these and Bush’ll be gone, we hope. Auld lang sine, etc. etc.

Anyway, enough holiday theme shit, let’s get to the point here. If I had a most anticipated movie of last Wednesday, it woulda been ALI. Why? Because it’s a movie about Muhammed Fucking Ali. To my knowledge it is the ONLY movie playing in theaters right now that is about Muhammed Fucking Ali.

I didn’t know what to expect from this movie though, on account of the casting. The real Muhammed Ali already played himself in the movie THE GREATEST and in the documentary WHEN WE WERE KINGS. And why fix what ain’t fucked? I didn’t understand this new casting of Will Smith in the part. I gotta admit I was pretty pissed, like the nerds get whenever they cast somebody new as Superman, James Bond, Dr. Zauis or Green Aqua.

And that’s what Ali is, is a super hero. Not the kind who wears a cape, although I must admit he does wear boots. Anyway I think we all agree that Muhammed Ali is one of the greatest american heroes there is. You don’t even have to like sports – and I don’t – to understand that Ali is what the kids call “the mothafuckin MAN.” They don’t make ’em like Ali anymore. In fact they never did. It was probaly some typa mistake on the assembly line. Some freak accident that only happens once or twice every thousand-thousand years.

AliIf you don’t know why Ali is the greatest, this movie might explain some of it. And you might get chills, just on account of the timely subject matter. I think there’s gonna be alot of these accidentally timely movies comin along in the next few years. I don’t think there has ever been or will ever be a better time in american history to release a tribute to a great american hero who’s also a muslim and a conscientious objector.

I mean you know my theory of Badass juxtaposition. What could be more Badass, and more juxtapositionary, than a boxer poet? A man who mixes punching people for money with radical politics? If Dolemite was a world champion boxer AND an icon of the civil rights struggle, than he too would be Muhammed Ali. And when Dolemite doesn’t even measure up to a guy, you know that guy is pretty fucking amazing.

I hope people really think about what they are watching here. You gotta be a little creeped out seeing the boxing association trying to make Ali apologize for saying “unpatriotic” things against the war, or the fbi following him around, wiretapping Malcolm X, etc. What a fucked up time it was, the movie says. Welcome back.

Seeing these scenes in a theater, right now, is pretty amazing. This movie was made at just the right time. Now, it probaly wouldn’t be made. I wished the theater was full, and either everybody woulda cheered, or they woulda shrunk down in their seats.

Unfortunately the movie as a whole is not really worthy of Ali. It’s not the great american epic he deserves. It’s not the ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA of Muhammed Ali pictures. Sure, it’s 3 hours long, but you don’t feel like you got 3 hours worth of movie. You didn’t learn anything. Alot of the three hours are spent on long shots of him running or of people singing. Both of these things can build a good mood, like in the long opening which switches between so-called Cassius Clay practing and some dude who’s supposed to be Sam Cooke singing. The song builds and builds until it and Cassius explode at the same time. It’s like an overture to the movie, instead of just opening credits.

There are touches here and there that show why Ali is such an important figure. You get some flashes of the civil rights struggle. Visions of lynching that haunt him from his youth. You get to see him with malcolm x. You see some Martin Luther King. And the climax of course is the rumble in the jungle, his triumphant trip to africa. And of course Ali’s struggle to be his own man. His refusal to go to war. You even get a rousing speech, one that he never made, but one that sums up every reason why he woulda been a punk bitch to go to Vietnam. “They ain’t my enemy, YOU my enemy.” “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.”

I loved seeing these things, but I didn’t feel like any of them went deep enough. I didn’t find out anything I didn’t know. I didn’t see it from a different angle. At the same time it seems like Michael Mann is trying to deflate the icon a little, for some reason.

Has there ever been a biography of a great icon, say a jazz musician, or a civil rights leader, an artist, a filmatist, etc., where the guy DIDN’T cheat on his wife? I think even Last Temptation of Christ, jesus didn’t even have a wife, still they have him cheating. There could be a movie about a guy who was famous just for not cheating on his wife, there’d still be a scene of him cheating on his wife. Filmatists have it in their bones, that instinct. If you do a biography, the guy cheats on his wife. No way around it.

Yeah, like every fucking biography you ever seen, you get to see how Muhammed Ali falls for somebody else while he’s married.

I know, he’s human, the human side, vulnerability, blah blah blah. I don’t fucking care. I’m not convinced that this shows us anything about his character, or fits the theme of the movie. It’s just what they need to do. Can’t make him too much of a hero, and can’t make him human in a new way.

The relationships are one of the problems with this movie, and with doing a biography of anybody that had more than one gal in his life. To me, the story of Ali is not the story of every gal he ever married.

Even if you’re doing a movie about some disgusting fat guy who tells bad jokes, he’s probaly gonna have more than one girlfriend (or boyfriend if it’s Bruce Vilanch) in his life. And it gets boring and redundant to show every one.

I mean I can understand Michael Mann’s thinking. It was pretty fucked in BRUCE LEE: THE MAN, THE MYTH when halfway through the movie, Linda Lee walked in with two little blond kids and said “Hi Bruce!” and that’s the first and last time you knew Bruce had a family.

But this doesn’t work either. You really know the movie has biopic-itis when it ends with a little title saying that Ali divorced the woman he was with at the end of the movie, and married his mistress, and divorced her, and married someone else. I mean, of all the things that you could say about this man, is that really the most significant? Is that the last thing you want to leave us with?

On the other hand, thank god it didn’t go into recent years. We all know this is a “Gimme an oscar” movie. So we narrowly avoided having Will Smith struggle with parkinson’s for the last 30 minutes of the movie.

Most of the reviews you will read will hinge on whether or not this Will Smith is good enough as Ali. Shit, I don’t know man. He does a pretty good job, in a way.

I read one review that says there’s not one minute where you think of him as Ali, because Will Smith is Will Smith. Well I disagree. There are alot of shots where you see him from the back, and he looks alot like Ali. Or the part where Malcolm X is in the foreground, and Ali is in the background, but he’s all out of focus, so for all you know he might look exactly like Ali. The only problem is whenever you can see his eyes, then you know he’s Will Smith.

But I don’t know. Jason Scott Leigh doesn’t look anything like Bruce Lee and he still pulled it off pretty good in DRAGON. He’s the totally wrong body type and nationality but when he’s fighting he transforms himself somehow, changing his posture, molding himself into Bruce.

I mean, I’m not gonna say Will Smith does that. But he does the voice good. He got in good shape. Somehow he got his muscles lookin like the young Ali. He’s way more convincing than I woulda thought he’d be.

The problem is, it’s not good enough. Even if he was better, way better, it wouldn’t be good enough. It’s an impossible job. Nobody could pull it off. Because the only thing more powerful than Ali is the presence of Ali. And nobody else has that presence. In this movie, it is not present. So kids who don’t know anything about the guy will probaly see the movie and have no clue why he was so mesmerizing.

Obviously the filmatists knew from the beginning that they were on shaky ground with Will Smith playing Muhammed Al fucking li. So they filled the cast with other b-list actors playing important historical figures and celebrities. For example you got Mario “My Dad Started the Independent Black Cinema, and All I Got Was a Starring Role In Every Straight to Video Movie released in the Past Five Years” Van Peebles playing Malcolm X.

I repeat. Mario Van Peebles playing Malcolm X.

Then you got the dude who played Bubba in Forrest Gump as Don King.

And what’s more you got Levar Burton from Reading Rainbow, he’s playing Martin Luther King, Jr.

I mean the only thing missing is Coolio as Nelson Mandela. Maybe you coulda got Urkel in there somewheres. Maybe the sound effects guy from the Police Academy pictures.

And then to confuse matters worse, you got a couple of really great actors in roles they can’t do nothin with. You got Jeffrey Wright, from BASQUIAT and SHAFT 2000, playing Ali’s brother. He has some lines but he mostly just takes pictures and grows his facial hair to different lengths. And Giancarlo Esposito has a small part as Ali’s dad. I’m surprised they didn’t give Yaphet Kotto a part as a referee.

Don’t get me wrong though, all these people do pretty good. The most impressive performances is Jamie Foxx as Ali’s buddy Bundini Brown, and especially Jon Voigt as Howard Cosell. It’s one of those makeup roles, where they put a rubber nose on you and you do a voice and suddenly you’re some other famous celebrity. But it’s a good one.

I can’t fault Michael Mann and friends for making this movie. Until they let us build an 800 foot statue of Ali in Washington DC, a tribute movie will have to do. And unless you’re unusually sensitive about seeing young actors try to put on shoes they can’t fill, it’s worth seeing. I hope it gives the kids of Bush’s America a new hero to consider.

And now, for archival purposes, I present to you a column I started to Write in July but never finished.

VERN TELL’S IT LIKE IT IS #60

WHY YOU MOTHERFUCKERS COULD LEARN A THING OR TWO FROM MUHAMMED ALI

By Vern – July 21st, 2001

The other day I was reading my nerd-news over on the Ain’t It Cool News. If you aren’t familiar with it it is where this guy from Texas Writes about how he saw all these movies. Then everybody Writes to him, and they say they are robots, etc. Then they read comic books.

Well today there was a link to something that just about made my heart skip a beat. Which isn’t saying much because my internal organs and what not have seen better days. but still.

It turns out that my arch enemies at “entertainment tonight” have a web sight which has premiered the trailer for ALI, the upcoming Michael Mann movie which will either be glorious and life affirming or, sadly, the hugest fucking waste ever of a great american icon.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it goes like this. Once upon a time Barry Sonnenfeld (who did the addams family movies) announced that he was going to do a movie where Will Smith (who does that fresh prince of bel air show, I believe) plays Muhammed Ali.

31 days later, the hostages were released, Sonnenfeld agreed to drop the project, and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, it was over. The people had banded together and stood up for what they believed in. They had won a great victory for democracy and for Cinema.

Or had they? Quietly, the project kept developing, with a different director in mind. Sonnenfeld had retreated into his fortified bunker to read Dave Barry books. But the bizarre casting stayed intact. It seemed that Ali himself had met Will Smith and really liked him. He was training with him and insisted that only Mr. Smith could play Ali.

Many americans, including myself, were outraged. This is not some bullshit where superman’s cape is the wrong length or something. If they fuck up this movie they are fucking up one of the great american outlaw heroes. This is a real super hero, and we don’t want this scrawny bitch big willy playing him. He doesn’t look like Ali. He doesn’t have the muscle. He doesn’t have the charisma. He doesn’t have the presence. And he sure as fuck isn’t funny. Lets not even get into the rhyming skills.

But nobody can say no to Ali, or especially to a really bad idea that might make alot of money. So Michael Mann went off and quietly made what we all hope will be a powerful epic not just about sports, but about what it means to be a man, an american, a hero.

Michael Mann is a better man for the job than Sonnenfeld. I kind of liked that movie he did, Heat. It’s about how Robert Deniro and Al Pacino are in the same movie, but only in one scene together. It’s also about bank robberies and huge gun fights and then Natalie Portman is in it for about three or four minutes, but kills herself because her dad is too busy chasing bank robbers to talk to her about her problems. Asshole. Leave the bank robbers alone, anyway.

But I have a duty to tell it like it is so I have to tell you that Michael Mann is one of the most overrated directors among internet nerds, right up there with that moonlighting commercial director Ridley Scott. I haven’t seen the smoking movie where russell crowe wears makeup to make him look like an older, oscar nominatable type character. so maybe it’s as good as they say. But Last of the Mohicans? I mean come on, boys. Let’s cut the comedy here.

The legend of Michael Mann is built on the legend of Manhunter. That’s the lesser known Hannibal Lecter movie, that came out before Silence of the Lambs and over the years developed a small, embarrassing cult following of people who tried to claim that since it was lesser known, it was therefore better, or at least surprisingly decent.

The truth is that it’s a decent movie, but nothing special. Sort of along the lines of Silence of the Lambs. Nothing against that movie but let us give a serious quality ranking to the movies inspired by that sick fuck Ed Gein:

  1. Texas Chain Saw Massacre
  2. Psycho
  3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2
  4. Deranged
  5. Ed Gein
  6. Silence of the Lambs, Ed and His Dead Mother (tie)

Actually I’ve never seen that last one, but that’s beside the point. The point is, there are alot of scarier, better movies about weirdo serial killers that cut off people’s skin and wear it and dig up their mom, etc. And Michael Mann didn’t direct any of them. Which proves my point that he is not necessarily the best director for Ali.

(?)

(Don’t ask me what I’m trying to say here, your guess is as good as mine.)

So I didn’t think there was a chance in hell this movie would be any good. I was looking forward to an embarrassment of biblical proportions. Like that mini-series they did where david spade had his first big dramatic role playing J. Edgar Hoover. And the guy from the 7-up commercials played Martin Luther King.

The thing that turned me around a little was when I saw in some magazine a picture of Will Smith in the movie. He’s got the right hair cut, and they gave him a padded jacket and a prosthetic nose that made him actually look kinda like Ali.

And it made me wonder – what if it IS good? Is there ANY chance it will work? You see, that’s how little faith I had in Michael Mann and Will Smith. I was putting all my hope in a rubber nose.

In all my rage about Will Smith’s lack of dramatic, comedic and dramedy skills, I just hadn’t foreseen the rubber nose factor. But yes, it turns out, he is wearing a rubber nose. So I give him credit for that.

And now that I’ve sort of seen the trailer, there’s a new factor. I have no way of assessing the rubber nose’s performance, since entertainment tonight presents it in a window so small even birds would complain if it was showing in a birdhouse. “We need a bigger tv, I can’t even make this shit out. (chirp)” But Mr. Smith does a surprisingly good job of taking on Ali’s voice and speech patterns.

From what I could tell, the trailer seemed to be edited together well with music and a real heroic, epic feel. I hope it will be good. I don’t know if it will. But let me tell you young motherfuckers why it’s important.

(For the short answer, just watch When We Were Kings, one of the greatest Badass Documentaries ever made. For the long answer, read on.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I got in this damn column. Reading this over I was expecting that I would make some prophetic type statements about a great hero standing up to america, things that would be all the more vital just a few months later when it was a whole different world, a world with no twin towers and where nobody would get be beat up for liking dragons and elves and shit.

Well I woulda Written that type of shit but I didn’t finish, so just imagine what I Wrote. Thanks.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 31st, 2001 at 1:30 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Sport, Vern Tells It Like It Is. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Muhammed Ali is #1”

  1. Well, Vern, multiple internet web page sites (sights) inform me today with advertisements that LAST OF THE MOHICANS is now available on a “definitive director’s cut” Blu-Ray edition.

    October might not be the time for this request, what with the mostly horror lineup and obviously the REVENGE OF THE GREMLIN CHEERLEADERS TAKE TRANSYLVANIA 3: THE BLOOD MOON MURDERER STORY FROM THE TOMB OF THE UNDEAD SEXUALLY ACTIVE TEENAGERS WITH COLORFUL INNARDS 3D hoopla but, hey I don’t ask for much in these comment sections so how about you give Mann’s most badass film another chance, hmm? Nothing you write is likely to reduce my opinion of LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992), so no harm either way.

    I’ll be checking back here in November, motherfucker.

  2. So I’m like two years late here, but I just revisited MOHICANS on Blu-Ray and I agree that it is super badass and needs the Vern treatment.

    Christ, what a film!

    Madeleine Stowe.

  3. I always thought Last Of The Mohicans was a flawed masterpiece. I don’t think you could call them ‘badass’, but these Mohawk warriors have a code of honour and a brotherhood that really appeals, and elevates the film above it’s flaws.

  4. MOHICANS is in my badass pantheon for sure. Those gun stock clubs they fight with? Too cool.

  5. Speaking of Michael Mann, I just re-watched his version of RED DRAGON, MANN/HUNTER for the first time in 15 or so years. Brett Ratners version is the one thats been imprinted in my brain the most over the last decade, thanks to the popularity of that series, but I’d forgotten just how Mann-ish this one is, in a good way. Scene for scene I was recalling Ratners, but I was thoroughly enjoying this one. I think it’s the superior version.

    It’s got the atmospheric, sometimes driving 80’s synth score that Mann loves. The tinges of orange and blue in his compositions. This might be a criticism for some, not me, but it’s a mostly man-centric story(as in all of Mann’s films) with the women sidelined to vulnerable wife, or literally-blind-love-interest-in-danger-of being-bitten-by-scary-as-hell-Tom-Noonan, played by a younger Joan Allen. And she’s really hot. But so is older Joan Allen in my opinion.

    I like Mann’s choice and use of actors. Dennis Farina is a more gruff Jack Crawford than Howling Harvey Keitel. Stephen Lang is the sleazy reporter Freddy Lounds. William Petersen is a great Will Graham. I don’t know if it’s a Michael Mann thing, but he’s a more macho Graham than Ed Nortons. Several times when he’s pissed off he throws guys over car windshields and even tackles an innocent guy out jogging at night who he thinks is a suspect. When he realises it’s the wrong guy he doesn’t apologize, just storms off, shitty they didn’t catch the guy they were looking for.

    Petersen’s got this cocky, arrogant posture that he pulls off really well. MANHUNTER made me think of his cop in Friedkins TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA, where he was one tough, dirty bastard. Except, Friedkins answer to male posturing is to put an unexpected bullet through his protagonists head in a jarring finale, and Mann’s hero saves the day. And the woman, of course.

  6. Did you ever see the directors cut that Mann put out a few years later, Vern? I think it gets much closer to the kind of epic you were hoping the theatrical version was.

    I recently watched both the recent docs I AM ALI and THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI. In the latter towards the end it showed footage of Ali on the AMERICA: A TRIBUTE TO HEROES broadcast after 9/11, pleading his case that Islam is a religion of love and peace. I remember vaguely that part of it when I watched the show that night but seeing it again all these years later, I really admired him for going in front of a national audience and making that plea despite his physical condition. For someone as somewhat skeptical of spirituality in general as I am, a moment like that does make me admire the inner strength someone can find in their faith.

  7. I haven’t watched the director’s cut, but seeing WHEN WE WERE KINGS again got me thinking I ought to. How are those two documentaries? Worth watching? I’ve seen alot of the other ones, but overlap doesn’t usually bother me too much.

  8. I AM ALI is much more personal, as it features members with a lot of his family. If the film has any faults, it’s that it’s a bit too reverential of the subject. But with someone as one of a kind as he was, it gets a pass in that regard. It succeeds best as a look at the family man, and how he treated the people around him rather than just being a “boxing documentary”. TRIALS has the personal touch too, but it’s more confined to his life leading up to the Supreme Court case that decided his fate after his refusal to go to Vietnam. Overall I’d say they are both with your time, leaning a bit more towards TRIALS as it’s less sanitized, a word I strain to use since there’s not many if any at all, skeletons in his closet.

    I also saw the recent B.B. KING: THE LIFE OF RILEY. Not sure where you are on blues (except for Seagal of course), but I’d recommend that one too.

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