Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Favorite Scene: Ali

Michael Mann’s recreation of The Rumble in the Jungle is my favorite boxing scene in all of film. Mann’s insistence on mimicry is a big reason why, as much of the fight in Ali is executed exactly how the bout happened in real life. But moreover, it’s the emotion of Mann’s scene that sticks with me. Throughout the fight, we’re privy to Muhammad Ali’s inner monologue, a monologue the fighter never shared in real life. Ali famously kept his strategy for battling George Foreman a secret. Many suspect this was because he didn’t know how to beat Foreman; he would have to face Foreman first to determine a resolute tactic.

“Legs heavy. Air heavy. Like I’m in water,” Ali tells us after Round 1. According to Ali, in the 60 seconds between Rounds 1 and 2, he decided to completely change his strategy against Foreman. He gave up his typical dancing style and opted to lean against the ropes until Foreman punched himself out, which would later become known as the rope-a-dope.

Context: George Foreman was a fucking beast. He was bigger, younger and stronger than Ali. Foreman could render a heavy bag useless after using it only once. That’s how strong he was. Most punching bags last professional fighters months, not mere hours. So, for Muhammad Ali to let Foreman pummel Ali for several rounds was dangerous bordering on insanity.
Mann’s film doesn’t touch on any of this implicitly. He instead lets camera movement and performance dictate Ali’s strategy, and his corner’s refusal to accept it. There’s a wide shot as Round 2 begins where the camera zooms in on Ali (Will Smith) and Foreman (Charles Shufford), as Ali slowly inches back toward the ropes. Ali’s longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver) is furious at this, as is Ali’s pal, Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx). They scream at Ali throughout the fight, their anger reaching apoplectic levels.

This goes on for several rounds, until the break between Rounds 7 and 8, when Ali, through his inner monologue, hints what is to come. “Can’t let you get that second wind which you don’t even know is there for you. You want the title? Want to wear the heavyweight crown? Nose broke, jaw smashed, face busted in. You ready for that? Is that you? Cause you facing a man who will die before he lets you win.”

When I saw Ali in the theater, I didn’t know what round Ali knocked Foreman out. (Hell, I probably didn’t even know Ali knocked Foreman out.) But I’ll never forget being in the theater, sitting next to my dad, and the moment my old man saw the ring lady hold up the Round 8 sign, my dad let out a quiet, “Ohhhh.” He knew what was coming.
As Round 8 ensues, the music builds and builds, subtly increasing the tension. Angelo and Bundini yell furiously for Ali to get off the ropes, and the final time Ali ties Foreman up, Smith carefully lifts his eyebrows as if to say, “Now? Yeah... now.”

And then it happens. Ali pushes Foreman away and delivers the best, most calculated combination of punches in the history of professional boxing. Mann, and his genius cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, wisely execute the flurry in slow motion. If you watch the real fight, Ali’s punches are damn near too fast for the human eye to pick up on.

Once Foreman has “fallen like a tree in the forest” as Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) exclaims, the crowd goes ape shit. Mann’s camera finds Ali’s wife (Nona Gaye), his mistress (Michael Michele), Don King (Mykelti Williamson), and Elijah Muhammad’s son (Barry Shabaka Henley), but the final person the camera lands on is Angelo Dundee, who is silently, patiently waiting for Foreman to be officially knocked out. Silver’s determined expression always brings tears to my eyes. It’s my single favorite moment in the film. Followed by my second favorite moment, when Voight exuberantly yells “It is over! It is over!” as the ref ends the fight. Ali raises his hands in victory, and the battle is over.
There’s another, personal reason why this is my favorite scene in Ali. So here’s a story, and it’s true. In college, my school hosted free movie nights for students. In late 2006, Ali was scheduled to play in a nice theater in the communications building. My roommate, Bereda, and I decided to go, as Ali was one of our favorite flicks to watch together.

Bereda was born and raised in Ethiopia, and the film’s concluding segment in Africa meant a lot to him. He would often get emotional watching Ali run through the streets of Zaire, happy that his homeland was portrayed in a positive light. Muhammad Ali was one of my personal heroes – I loved what he stood and how he stood for it – and any excuse to watch Ali was a good enough one for me.

Bereda and I got drunk beforehand (it was college), and when we entered the theater, we were stunned to find that we were all alone. But, being alone, we took it upon ourselves to drunkenly act out as much of the film as we could. Between hidden pops of Southern Comfort (again, college), we would yell lines at the screen and throw phantom punches during the fights. During Ali’s slow motion knockout of Foreman, Bereda and I stood up and imitated the blows beat-for-beat. We laughed as we counted down with the ref, and I excitedly screamed, “It is over!” with Jon Voight.

When the movie was done, we pulled ourselves together, crying with laughter. And then we saw her. We saw a professor from the communications department slowly walk down the aisle toward us. She had been sitting in the back row of the theater the entire time. We had no idea she was there, and we were absolutely mortified. As she walked up to us, I apologized profusely. (In moments like these, it was understood that my silver tongue would do its best to atone, while Bereda would stay virtually silent.) I finally asked why she didn’t tell us to shut up at any point during the film. “Fellas,” she said, “You don’t understand. You were infinitely more entertaining than the movie.”

12 comments:

  1. It's been a while since I've seen the film which I thought was good but not great though I think this is the best thing Will Smith has done as an actor. I recently watched the Thrilla in Manila as those last 2 rounds in the fight are some of the most violent and bruising moments in boxing I had ever seen. I'm glad neither man went to the 15th round. Ali and Frazier would've died on that day.

    This year fucking sucks. Bowie, Prince, Johan Cruyff, Ali, and so many other cool people. I'm still not over Bowie.

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    1. I agree, the Thrilla in Manila is one of the most brutal boxing matches ever. It's one of the reasons professional boxing fights were changed to 12 rounds max instead of 15. You're right, they would've died if it went to 15. Fucking brutal.

      And yeah man, this year sucks. Losing so many legends.

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  2. Such a loss. Great little anecdote at the end.

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    1. Indeed. Still sad about it. Thanks man, really appreciate you reading.

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  3. It's a bit embarrassing to say I've never seen this. *wears the cone of shame*

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    1. Ha. Well, very few people like this movie as much as I do, so it's all good!

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  4. That's a great pic for a favorite shot. And what a wonderful scene overall. Mann really captured something. This film was so underappreciated when it was released, as evidenced by the communication professor's reaction to you and your friend. By the way, that is a GREAT story.

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    1. Thanks man! I'm so happy you like this movie, it's one of my faves. I still think it is vastly under appreciated, which is such a shame.

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  5. As you know, I'm a rare fellow rider on the Ali train. I love it more every time I watch it and think the fight scenes are some of the best ever. Great anecdote at the end too.

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    1. Yes sir, you and I are steadfast Mann supporters, which is awesome. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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  6. Ha ha! Great story at the end of your post. I need to see this movie.

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    1. Thanks! I absolutely adore this flick.

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