Tag Archives: Jon Voight

STEVEN LAMBERT: From Reel to Real by Kent Hill

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Steven Lambert has crafted what is, the apotheosis of a war chest of cinematic tales, told in such a vivaciously detailed manor . . . you crave each and every page. It was staggering to read this man’s life and his journey from the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, to the Mount Olympus of the movies.

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Buckle up for what has to be the wildest tell-all, behind the scenes peek into movie history, bursting at the seams with an incredible life, never before told. A self-proclaimed “punk kid”, Lambert trained in the martial arts before becoming an in-demand stuntman in the final golden age of Hollywood, rising from glory to glory, working with and beside screen legends such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino and James Woods.

Lambert relates such staggering exploits – putting his life on the line for death-defying stunts in films such as Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, where he literally hung from the Statue of Liberty without a harness, doubling Sho Kosugi, the original screen ninja, in films such as Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination. He witnessed the meltdowns and bad behavior from Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn on Racing With the Moon while doubling Penn. And, last but not least, “THE TRUTH” behind the Gene LeBell and Steven Seagal showdown on the set of Out for Justice.

But it’s not just action stars on offer . . . no . . . film-making masters also feature: such as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Roland Emmerich – plus the infamous producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of the infamous Cannon Group.

He’s heard and seen it all – from Chuck Norris to Charlton Heston. I personally could chat to Steve for days, but I’m honored to have been given the time I had, and was humbled to read his utterly absorbing tome that is so packed with awesomeness, you just gotta get out there and get it! From the Streets of Brooklyn, to the Halls of Hollywood – NOW!

(See link below)

GET STEVE’S BOOK HERE:

Michael Bay’s Transformers

Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.

-Nate Hill

Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Ever had one of those days where literally everything seems to go wrong and there’s some kind of invisible cosmic force aligned against you? Sean Penn’s Bobby has one of those in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, a deranged, sun drunk parable by way of neo-noir and near Boschian displays of brutal human behaviour punctuated by pockets of the blackest comedy one can find. This is a deliberately, brutally unpleasant slice of nihilism that wouldn’t be easy to swallow were it not so fucking funny, so gorgeously visual, so perkily acted by the knockout ensemble cast and so beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone. Penn’s Bobby has the rotten luck of breaking down in the one horse town of Superior, Arizona, where bumpkin mechanic Billy Bob Thornton takes his sweet time patching up the rig, leaving him to drift about town and get in all sorts of trouble. There’s a rockabilly maniac named Toby ‘TNT’ Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who wants Bobby’s head for ‘making time’ with his girl (a loopy Claire Danes). The menacing local Sheriff (Powers Boothe) seems hellbent on doing anything other than protecting and serving. Jennifer Lopez is sultry babe Grace, who snares him up in a dangerously lurid love triangle with her husband Jake (Nick Nolte at his utmost Nick Nolte-iest), who also happens to be her stepfather (!). This all boils into a mucky miasma of murder, violence, sex games, insurance fraud, gas station robberies, betrayal, severed limbs, manipulation and any other noisy calamity you could think of to befall a small town in Arizona that the rest of the world has seemingly forgot. Bobby is on the run from a scary Vegas loan shark (Valery Nikoaelev), but nothing he can do compares to the level of hurt these warped townsfolk inflict upon him, so it’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type scenario. The thing is, Bobby himself is something of a reprehensible scumbag anyways, so there’s a cheeky masochist edge in watching him traverse this dusty, 9th ring of Americana hell and circle an ending of inevitable doom. ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated’ is an adage that almost every single character in the film seems to have sadly forgotten or chose to ignore except one individual, a blind old native man played with disarming truth by Jon Voight. Bobby has several encounters with him, and he’s the only one who isn’t after something, doesn’t display hostility or unkindness, he speaks plainly and offers Bobby bitter pearls of wisdom that ultimately go unheeded. Stone employs the same type of jittery, whacked out visual surrealities he used in Natural Born Killers, a deeply saturated colour palette, tumble dry editing techniques and more breathe life into this vivid version of curdled small town life in the vast, lonely desert. Morricone’s score is a spring loaded jack-in-the-box in areas and a melodic, melancholic lullaby in others, an underrated composition that gives the film an eerie sadness and zany vibration all it’s own. There’s more going on than meets the eye here; at surface level it’s a dark crime comedy with a quirky edge, but both Voight’s character and a few mysterious hints at Lopez’s backstory with the tribes in the region hint at a deeper, darker sense of malice lurking out there with the coyotes, suggestive of an almost mythic aspect. Stone gets high praise for his political dramas, but I’ve always loved him best when he’s doing genre stuff, he’s such an expressive storyteller and the real fruit of his imagination comes out when he’s turned loose. For me this is his second finest work after Natural Born Killers and before Savages, the three films that seem most genuine and celebratory of the medium. In any case, U Turn is a southern fried, asphalt laden, angry, sexy, perverse road trip to sunny noir heaven or hell, and a masterpiece. Watch for neat cameos from Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Julie Hagerty and Liv Tyler.

-Nate Hill

Being Hal: An Interview with Amy Scott by Kent Hill

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There is no denying that a good percentage of the films we count today as iconic, came from the 70’s. With the birth of the easy riders and raging bulls, it would be the first and last time filmmakers would enjoy true creative freedom, as well as being able to present personalized films to the movie-loving audience at large.

Now. When we think of the 70’s, the new Hollywood, there are the usual suspects that come to mind. But, there is a name that, for whatever reason, has been absent from the list when it leaks from the tongues of cineastes the world over. That name is the name of Hal Ashby. One of the great individualists to come out of his era, Ashby’s cinema is at once quietly profound and intensely calm. He was an artist that saw the world for what is was – in its entire obnoxious, absurdist best, Ashby captured the beautiful frailty of the moment, no matter how strange, or violent, or sensual, or funny.

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Still, with all the freedom they enjoyed, the filmmakers of the 70’s were far from immune from the ‘tampering of the suits’. Ashby, like his contemporaries, raged against the ludicrous interference and mindless nitpicking of the powers that control the content that comes to a cinema near you. And, in fighting for his vision, he was labelled troublesome, rendered weary and eventually would succumb to a career that watched him bravely, and perhaps at times foolishly, burn the candle at both ends.

Amy Scott has produced, at last, the grand portrait of a man who made some of the defining films of his generation – or any generation from that matter. With the blessing of Ashby’s estate she as unearthed a veritable trove of Ashby gold, from letters to recordings of the man himself – telling it like it is, or was, or perhaps someday will be.

Hal is a documentary that has been on the road to find out. I for one can’t wait for you to see it – I for one, am just glad it’s out…

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE:

http://hal.oscilloscope.net/

https://www.facebook.com/halashbymovie/

Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate

If you ditch the idea that Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a remake of the 60’s Frank Sinatra flick, you’ll have a much better time watching it without those strings attached (Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is similarly panned by the misguided hordes). Demme’s version is a new adaptation of the novel by Richard Condon, and in my eyes the far superior thriller. Given a charged military twist, deeply disturbing psychological angles and the powerhouse acting juice of leads Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and a staggeringly good Meryl Streep, this is where the buck stops with political thrillers. Demme’s narrative is a thickly laced web of secrets, mind manipulation, lies and corruption that isn’t always apparent or clear, given the unreliable, ruptured psyche of ex gulf war soldier Ben Marco (Washington). He’s shellshocked, but not in the traditional sense, and somehow feels as if something went very, very wrong with his unit following a deadly skirmish in the Middle East. His former fellow soldier and friend Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Schreiber) is up for senate election, fiercely prodded and chaperoned by his mad dog of a mother Eleanor (Streep). Everyone from their unit has either wound up dead or suffering from terrifying nightmares, psychosis and brain trauma they can’t explain. It’s up to Ben to trust his dodgy memories, leading him out of the dark and finding what really happened before a vague impending disaster that is Demme’s fulcrum upon which ample, nerve annihilating suspense is built around. Washington is his usual quietly implosive self and makes unnerving work of getting us to believe he’s in real psychological stress but somehow lucid. Streep is the ultimate mommy from hell, and despite the script getting near maniacal with her arc at times, she always sells it as a rogue extremist who only sees her side of the arena and will do literally anything for her son, no matter what the cost to country, colleagues or even herself. They’re joined by an impressive league of supporting talent including Bruno Ganz, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, the sinister Simon McBurney, Ann Dowd, Charles Napier, José Pablo Castillo, Bill Irwin, Al Franken, Zelijko Ivanek, Roger Corman (!), Obba Babarundé, Jude Ciccolela, Dean Stockwell, Tracey Walter, Sydney Lumet (!!) and more. There’s really terrific work from Jeffrey Wright as another troubled former soldier, Kimberly Elise as a fed tracking Ben’s movements who catches feels for him, Jon Voight as a suspicious rival candidate to Shaw and Vera Farmiga as his daughter. What. A. Cast. This was one of the first R rated films I was ever allowed to see in theatres and as such the chills haven’t quite left my spine every time I go in for a revisit. It almost reaches horror movie levels of fright and nightmarish, half remembered atrocities that taint the senate election like political voodoo and give the proceedings a dark, very uneasy atmosphere. Demme goes for a big scope here with a huge cast, large scale story and high impact set pieces, but at its heart it’s a very tense, inward focused story that shows the sickness in power and just what some people are willing to do to get ahead. Like I said, forget the Sinatra version and watch this as it’s own film, it’s an incredibly special, affecting experience onscreen and you won’t find a freakier political thriller.

-Nate Hill

Anaconda

Anaconda is great stuff, no matter what anyone says. Revered as a B Movie cheese-ball, it holds up far better than anyone remembers, and there’s a lot to love about it. Reminiscent of creature feature stuff like James Cameron’s Piranha 2, Lewis Teague’s Alligator and Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, it carved out its own nasty little adventure/horror story with neat characters, impressive effects for the snake and a knowing sense of fun. It sets the tone with a suspenseful prologue that sees poor poacher Danny Trejo stalked, attacked and killed by an unseen serpent, before the title card marches gloriously across the screen in true horror form. Then it follows a national geographic film crew led by intrepid Jennifer Lopez, whilst Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Vincent Castellanous, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson and sexy Kari Wuhrur tag along, pretty much for snake bait and for us to place drunken bets on who’s gonna get nabbed by the beast first. Along the way they meet the most engaging character of the film, a whack job big game hunter played to cockeyed perfection by Jon Voight and his greasy ponytail. Sputtering out ominous warnings in a warped, tailored South American accent, willfully misleading their party into danger and staring creepily at anyone in his scope of vision, he’s hilarious and clearly knew the right recipe of branded camp and genuine menace to put into the work. It’s a glorified B Flick for sure, but one that knows its place, showcases a big old fashioned movie monster and whisks the viewer away for some solid gold escapism. Do avoid the sequel though (Hunt For The Blood Orchid), it’s about as interesting as cardboard.

-Nate Hill

Pride & Glory

Pride & Glory is a gritty police melodrama that grabs the audience, shakes them till the point of concussion and wrings the life out of them with it’s nonstop intensity and performances that could raise buildings to the ground. Think I’m exaggerating or overselling? Give it a go, it’s fucking nuts. NYC cop dramas are a common occurrence out there, and have been for a long while, but something about this one just rings eerily true, rattles your cage and lets both the violence and corruption seep into the marrow of one’s viewing experience. After a drug deal erupts into multiple murder, a family of cops is thrown in an uproar. Haggard straight arrow Edward Norton is on point of investigation by boozy patriarch Jon Voight, and ends up finding out way more than he bargained for not only in regards to the NYPD, but about his fellow cop brother (Colin Farrell) too. Their third brother (underrated Noah Emmerich) is too busy taking care of his sick wife (Jennifer Ehle) to notice the corruption, or maybe does and looks the other way. Every faction adds to the pressure cooker of an atmosphere, rooted in the familial relationships that can’t withstand dangerous secrets. They should call the guy Colin Feral, because he’s a right beast as a guy whose moral compass is so out of whack he doesn’t know who he is anymore. The actor is fervently complex in his work, and makes the guy way more human than other performers would, but he’s still terrifying, whether threatening a newborn baby with a hot iron or full on brawling with Norton in a fracas of a man to man bar-fight. Voight is one of those characters who is so corrupt he doesn’t even notice it anymore, which is a dangerous avenue to arrive at when you’re in such a position of power. The supporting cast is pockmarked with fiery work from terrific actors including super underrated Carmen Ejogo, Wayne Duvall, John Ortiz, Lake Bell and two arresting turns from reliable firebrands Frank Grillo and Shea Wigham. Built around a script by Joe Carnahan, who feeds off of authentic dialogue and realistic shaping of events, this is one that pulls you right into it’s suffocating world of beleaguered sentinels of law enforcement whose eyes have become dim to that thin blue line separating order and madness. Brilliant, heavy stuff.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor 


As much as it pains me to say it, I’m a die hard fan of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour. It doesn’t pain me because of the backlash I get for praising it or anything, I could give a possum’s rectum what people think of my film taste, but the fact remains that I am well aware of how ridiculously dumb the love triangle at the centre of this film is, and yet I’m a sucker every time. Every other aspect of it is actually very well done, but it’s attempts to be a historical epic that uses a love story as its lynchpin are sorely misguided. Worse is the fact that I know all this to be true, yet I still get misty eyed as the heavy handed schoolyard fling between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale plays out, and further lunge for the Kleenex box as Josh Hartnett enters the picture to drive a Bruckheimer sized wedge between them. So what’s my problem, you ask? No clue, other than being a hopeless romantic whose brain flatlines at the first hint of a soppy sideshow. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s talk about the two things that make this film work really well: the deafening, thunderous recreation of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, and the jaw dropping cast of actors on display here. All wildlife was cleared from the harbour area prior to filming, and legions of period authentic boats and planes were shipped in to make this one of the most ambitious cinematic versions of a siege ever assembled. When the ambush starts, we feel every percussive blast and fiery crash as the US army/navy forces are taken completely by surprise, foxholes and sadly decimated by a cunning Japanese armada. When the fog of the first wave clears, we see the carnage left in its wake and feel the sheer desperate urgency of nurses and medics as they race to collect and treat the wounded, a well staged yet heartbreaking sequence. Hans Zimmer gives it his all to accompany all of this too, my favourite strain called ‘Tennessee’ opening the film with a prologue involving young Affleck and Hartnett, with a moving cameo from William Fichtner. Speaking of the cast, it’s unbelievable, and I’ve always considered this to be the sister film to Black Hawk Down, purely for the amount of actors who appear in both. Alec Baldwin scores grit points as a salty veteran heading up the eventual counter attack, Cuba Gooding Jr. is most excellent as a navy cook turned war hero, Tom Sizemore kicks ass as a plane mechanic who grabs a shotgun when the shit gets heavy, Jennifer Garner, Jaime King and more show resilience and compassion as nurses who step up when needed most, Jon Voight is stubborn and stoic as Teddy Roosevelt himself, Dan Akroyd brings salty wit to a military analyst, Mako is noble and reluctant as the Japanese commander, Scott Wilson is quietly diligent as infamous General George C. Marshall, and the list just goes on with vivid work from Kim Coates, Ewen Bremmer, Leland Orser, Glenn Moreshower, William Lee Scott, Michael Shannon, Cary Tagawa, Matthew Davis, Colm Feore, Sean Gunn, Graham Beckel, Tomas Arana, Sung Kang, Eric Christian Olsen, Tony Curran and more. Say what you want about this one, many loathe it (just ask Trey Parker & Matt Stone), but there’s no denying its scope, ambition and technical undertaking. Also it just has an exquisite love story to rival that of Gone With The Wind and Titanic. Haaaa… just kidding. Or am I? 😉

-Nate Hill

John Singleton’s Rosewood: A Review by Nate Hill 

John Singleton’s Rosewood is a partly fictionalized, greatly dramatized retelling of one of the largest lynchings and subsequent conflicts in American history. The time is 1923, the place is Rosewood, a small southern town populated largely by African communities. When borderline insane local housewife Fanny (Catherine Kellner) is caught in the midst of a violent sexual fling, a young black man accidentally stumbles upon the scene. Being the crazy bitch she is, she melodramatically pins it on him, inciting the wrath of the town. The real culprit was of course a white dude, played briefly by Robert Patrick before fleeing the county for good. Because of this selfish misdirection, every white man and his mother now wants the boy hung, and it escalates with the speed of a prairie fire until a full scale race war rages through Rosewood. A lone mercenary called Mann (Ving Rhames) happens to be around and lends his quickdraw talents to the townsfolk who are being hunted. The sheriff (Michael Rooker) is somewhat of a pushover, and unable to quell the mob anyway, especially when it’s led by a rabid Bruce McGill, who is scary and then some. The only white boy who has anything but ropes or torches to offer these poor folks is a kindly store owner played by Jon Voight, who shelters a group of them on his property, much to the mob’s anger. Voight’s character is odd; when we meet him he is in heated coitus with one of his shopkeeps, a young African girl. It’s later revealed that she’s afraid of him. Despite this dark piece of his arc, Singleton treats him as a hero, begging the question, were there scenes cut that elaborated on his relationship with her? Such imbalances in tone can be found in the story as well: much of the film is treated with a combination of severe melodrama and true crime drama, speckled here and there with jarring little bits of pulp that feel like they’re from a Django type flick. Wouldn’t have been the narrative mix I would have used, but perhaps Singleton’s hand slipped and too much of an aspect fell in which he only ever meant as a subtle garnish. Nevertheless, it’s very solidly made, wherever it sits on the genre map, with all the actors, particularly the African townsfolk, shining nicely. It’s disturbing as well, with the black body count reaching sickening heights and the racist fever at a vicious spike in temperature. It’s a scary scenario when the hunters greatly outnumber the hunted, and mass deaths are imminent, especially when such anger is involved. Sympathy is earned in spades from the viewer, as well as the urge to look away at least a few different times. I haven’t done my research on the real story so I couldn’t tell you where it falls on the authenticity charts, but I suspect a great deal of it has been exaggerated for effect and impact. In that, it succeeds, if faltering in tone a few times to puzzle the viewer, before getting back on track. 

ALI – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Ever since Ali was released in 2001, I have felt that it has been one of Michael Mann’s most under-appreciated films. It received decidedly mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office. While Will Smith was praised for his impressive physical transformation into legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, the film itself was criticized for revealing nothing new about the man. Herein lies the problem that Mann faced: how do you shed new light on one of the most documented historical figures of the 20th century? His angle on the material was to look inwards.

Proposals for an Ali biopic had been around since the early 1990s when producer and one-time business partner of the boxer, Paul Ardaji, pitched the idea to the man on his 50th birthday. Ali gave the project his blessing and financing quickly fell into place. A number of scripts were written by the likes of Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (Nixon), but they all failed to please the powers that be. The project bounced around various studios for years as executives tried to decide who should make it, who should star in it, and would it even make a profit? In 1991, Oliver Stone met with Ali about making a film about his life but the collaboration ended when the director refused to share creative control. In 1992, Ali’s best friend and personal photographer Howard Bingham and Ali’s wife Lonnie got together with Ardaji. Gregory Allen Howard’s take on Ali was delivered in 1996. His angle was that the key to the boxer’s life was his relationship with his father, who ignored him.

When Will Smith met Ali in 1997, the boxer asked the actor to play him in the film. Smith was flattered but said no. He was not ready and too intimidated for such a demanding role. The actor almost did it when Barry Sonnenfeld agreed to direct. Both men had worked together on the Men in Black movies and Wild Wild West (1999). Thankfully, their version never saw the light of day. After he turned 30, Smith realized that he had to make the decision about playing Ali. However, when no one could settle on a script, Sonnenfeld dropped out. There were several more rewrites and directors, including Curtis Hanson who expressed interest. Smith was ready to give up on the project.

It then came down to Spike Lee or Michael Mann to fill the director’s chair left empty by Sonnenfeld. Sony Pictures, the studio bankrolling the film, was faced with a $100+ million budget and went with Mann who had just received several Academy Award nominations and all kinds of critical praise for The Insider (1999). Upset, Lee voiced his anger through a friend in The New York Post: “Only a black man could do justice to the Cassius Clay story,” he was reported as saying. Mann responded that he “wanted the film to come from the point of view of the main character, Muhammed Ali. I’m not interested in showing a white man’s idea of how someone suffered racism. The perspective of the film has to be African-American.” When asked why he did not pick a black director Ali said that he wanted the best qualified person regardless of color, and his wife said, “Muhammad didn’t want it to be a movie just for black audiences. He wanted it to be a movie for all cultures and all people.”

When Mann was approached to direct he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to tackle such challenging subject matter but was sure of one thing; he did not want to make a docudrama or idealize Ali’s life. After meeting with Ali and his wife, they told him that they did not want “a teary Hallmark-greeting version of Muhammad Ali … What they didn’t want I didn’t want,” Mann remembers. The director liked Rivele and Wilkinson’s screenplay but rejected their flashback structure and their use of Ali’s 1978 fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” as the present frame of the story. Mann felt that Ali’s 1974 fight in Zaire was more significant. He was also not interested in spelling things out for the audience: “I wanted to insert you into the stream of this man’s life, orient you without doing it in a blatant way with exposition.” Ironically, this is what would scare off a lot of people.

Smith’s agent arranged a meeting with Mann that changed his attitude towards the film. According to the actor, it was “the clear picture he had of the road from Will Smith to Muhammed Ali. He explained it in a way that made it seem, in my mind at least, not so utterly impossible, just marginally improbable.” Smith and Mann agreed that the film’s focus should be on ten turbulent years of Ali’s life, from 1964 to 1974. The director set the film during these years because “that formation of everything by ’74 is the beginning of what is now culturally in the United States.” Mann identified Ali with the spirit of change that occurred in the 1960s. “He consistently defied the establishment and its conventions, and we loved him for it.” Ali led such a colorful, eventful life that a focused story was crucial to the film. Mann said in an interview, “It would be catastrophic to divert into every interesting story. Everything this guy does is fascinating. I could have made an entire movie about Ali’s relation to women. Music, Cadillac convertibles and women. It would have been great.”

By February 23, 2000, Mann signed on to the film and went to work transforming Will Smith into Ali. Smith remembers that Mann created the “Muhammad Ali Course Syllabus” that began with a study of the boxer’s physical attributes: “learning to run how he ran, to eat the food he ate, spar the way he sparred. Essentially creating the physical life and physical appearance of Muhammad Ali.” From there, Smith moved on to the mental and emotional aspects and finally the man’s spirituality. Boxer trainer-choreographer Darrell Foster spent a year training Smith. Foster was Sugar Ray Leonard’s conditioning coach when the boxer turned pro. According to Foster, the key to becoming Ali was “looking for specific movements. Hand speed, ring generalship, how he made guys miss. Will had to become Ali, because you can’t demonstrate those moves through choreography.” Foster created a high-carb, high-protein diet for Smith and had him run in combat boots through snow in the thin air of Aspen, Colorado for ten months before the start of filming. His training schedule consisted of five miles of roadwork starting at 5:30 am, in the gym at 11:30 am, six days a week for three hours of ring work and weight training, watching fight films at 3 pm, and weight training in the evening. Smith put on 35 pounds of pure muscle in four months and went from bench-pressing 175 pounds to being able to press a very impressive 365 pounds. The finishing touch was being fitted with a hairpiece and a prosthetic nose.

For the fights, Foster started Smith on the basics: balance, footwork and defense. Then, he worked with the actor on the offensive aspects: a mix of overhand rights, hooks and upper cuts. Foster remembers that Smith “thought he knew how to fight because he had some street fights. But really, he couldn’t fight at all.” Smith worked on his hand and eye reflexes in order to perform eleven of Ali’s signature moves. Smith spent days studying film of Ali, including early footage shot when he was an Olympic boxing champion to interviews with Howard Cosell. Much of the material, unseen for years, was supplied by Leon Gast, a documentary filmmaker who made When We Were Kings (1996), a celebrated and acclaimed documentary about Ali’s championship bout with George Foreman. Smith also took classes in Islamic studies at the University of California.

aliThe focus on the years 1964 to 1974 are arguably the most fascinating ones of Ali’s life because they are so rife with dramatic possibilities. It was during this period that Ali became the World Boxing Champion after beating Sonny Liston, then lost it when he refused to serve as a foot soldier in the Vietnam War, and finally reclaimed the Championship Title after beating the odds-on favorite, George Foreman in Zaire. It was also a time of great social and political upheaval in the United States with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Finally, Ali also shows the man’s private side: his numerous wives and failed marriages, and his friendships with Malcolm X and Howard Cosell.

Mann immediately immerses the audience in the time period with a montage of footage that features Sam Cooke performing in front of a live audience juxtaposed with Ali jogging alone at night and being harassed briefly by the police. Mann then goes into a montage of Ali training and two boxers fighting with Ali watching. Mann fractures time by also intercutting footage of Ali as a child witnessing the brutality of racism and its effects as he sees a newspaper article about the vicious beating of Emmet Till. The film then cuts back to a mature Ali sitting in on a lecture by Malcolm X. The entire montage is masterfully edited to the beats of a medley of Sam Cooke songs. This opening sequence establishes the Impressionistic take that Mann is to going to have on Ali’s life. It is also one of his most complex, layered opening credits sequence because he shifts time frames and presents us with all of these apparently unconnected images without explaining them. This is done on purpose in order to establish a mood, give an impression of the look and feel of the film and to set up that we are seeing the world through Ali’s eyes.

The fight scenes are covered from every conceivable angle as Mann cuts back and forth from shots outside and inside the ring. The first shot we get of the ring is a close-up of the red ropes and in Mann’s films this color signifies danger. There is the potential for Ali to not just lose the fight but possibly his life. This is a risk every time a boxer steps into the ring. In the Liston fight, Mann alternates between camerawork inside the ring, with tight and close point-of-view angles so that we are right in the ring with the boxers, and shots just outside of the ring but still close to the fighters. This gives the fight scenes a real visceral impact and immediacy that has not been seen since Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). The Liston fight also shows how Ali could work a crowd of boxing fans just as well and in just the same way as the crowd of journalists before the fight.

Unlike most boxing films, Mann wanted to get inside the ring in order “to bring you inside the strategy and tactics, to bring you into the round as far as I could.” To this end, Mann would often be in the ring with the fighters with a very small digital camera. To achieve the most realistic fight scenes possible, Mann really had Smith and the other boxers hit each other. The director recalled one such incident: “When James Toney as Joe Frazier knocks Will down, we did three takes of that — every single one of those left hooks he connected. When Will stands up on the one that’s in the film, that wobble is not acting — you can tell how shaky he is.”

Mann also uses a cool, blue color to suggest intimacy and does so in the scene where Ali and Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), who would become his first wife, dance in a nightclub. They are close together, flirting with each other as Mann drenches the scene in blue much like he did with Neil McCauley entering his house in Heat (1995) and Will and Molly making love in Manhunter (1986). Ali is temporarily in an area of safety and love but this will change very soon.

After an interview with legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), Ali’s life takes a turn for the worse as he refuses to be inducted in the Army and is arrested. He then denounces the war in an interview and is subsequently labeled as being unpatriotic. He is stripped of his boxing title as Heavyweight Champion of the World, his boxing license and his passport. Like Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Ali is threatened by the powers that be for telling the truth and being his own man. It becomes obvious that this is a war of attrition in an effort to bleed Ali dry financially and threaten him with five years in jail. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the Temple of Islam suspends him just like they did to Malcolm X.

Cosell and Ali meet up and the veteran broadcaster, conscious of how bad off his friend is but not acknowledging it publicly, puts him on television despite network pressure. Cosell allows Ali to speak his piece about his ban and dazzles everyone again with his showmanship. It really is a testimony to Cosell that he did this. When everyone else had abandoned Ali, the T.V. personality stuck by him and used his considerable clout to put him back in the public eye. This interview is the turning point for Ali who wins a fight. Only then does Herbert and the Temple of Islam come back to him but Ali makes it clear that they do not own him. His eyes have been opened and he now knows just how much he can trust them.

Ali culminates with the legendary Rumble in the Jungle where Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire. Ali was not the favorite going in as Foreman was younger, stronger and the Champ. Mann, again, hints at the potential danger of this opponent when we see Foreman training, pounding a punching bag with powerful hits all with a greenish filter, a sign of peril in a Mann film. Sure enough, during this period Ali drives away his second wife (Nona Gaye) who does not like his relationship with the Temple of Islam because she feels that they are exploiting him. While still married to her, Ali becomes interested in a female journalist (Michael Michele) from Los Angeles who is in Zaire doing a profile on the boxer. This relationship effectively ruins his second marriage and Mann does not gloss over this showing that Ali was clearly in the wrong.

This portion of the film was shot in Johannesburg, South Africa and from there, an hour journey to Maputo, Mozambique because Mann liked the architecture in Maputo. In 1974, the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” bout between Ali and George Foreman took place in Kinshasa, Zaire which had since become the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there was too much political unrest for Mann to shoot there in 2000. Associate producer Gusmano Gesaretti remembers that Mann fell in love with the architecture in Maputo. It was predominantly built by the Portuguese during the middle to later part of the century with buildings done in Art Deco-style curves and arches alongside others with straight lines in the block style of the 1960s. All were very aged and weather-beaten and looked very much the way Kinshasa was in the 1970s.

The “Rumble in the Jungle” was filmed over five weeks in Machava Stadium, five kilometers northwest of Maputo. The stadium was used to host large international soccer tournaments but had fallen into disrepair — there wasn’t even any electricity. The production spent $100,000 repairing and upgrading the 64,000-seat capacity stadium. They structurally engineered and replicated a ring and canopy that was 40 feet high, 82 feet wide and weighed over 40 tons. Over 10,000 extras were needed for the scene where Ali makes his entrance into the stadium. Fliers were distributed in Maputo inviting people to watch the filming. The production also cast 2,000 extras that would be costumed and fill seats on the floor around the ring. On the night of the scene, over 30,000 people showed up.

Known mostly for mindless, yet entertaining action films like Bad Boys (1995) and Independence Day (1996), Will Smith was not exactly most people’s first choice to play Muhammad Ali. However, Smith shows that he has the capacity for more substantial work with Six Degrees of Separation (1993) but he had never attempted anything as challenging as this project. Smith captures Ali’s distinctive speech patterns, especially his flamboyant, larger-than-life public persona. Like Anthony Hopkins before him in Nixon (1995), Smith does not look exactly like the actual person he is playing. Instead, he manages to capture the essence and the spirit of the man. He also does a good job of conveying Ali’s conflict between his loyalty to Islam and to his family and friends. Smith peels back the layers to show that there was so much more than Ali’s flashy public side. For example, most people only saw Ali and Cosell as antagonists, but this was only for show. In fact, they were good friends and the sportscaster was willing to help him out in any way possible.

Ali-Howard-CosellWhile Smith was praised for his impressive physical transformation into legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, the film itself was criticized for revealing nothing new about the man. Herein lies the problem that Mann and company faced: how do you shed new light on one of the most documented historical figures of the 20th Century? Ali eschews the traditional docudrama for a more impressionistic take on the man and life. Mann’s film may not say anything new about the famous boxer, but it does depict an exciting ten years of his life in a masterful and richly evocative fashion. It’s a surprisingly soulful take on Ali and an excellent addition to Mann’s impressive body of work.