Michael Mann Didn't Want Will Smith Faking Any Of His Fights In Ali

When you make a movie with Michael Mann, you're likely going to become an expert in your character's field of expertise. James Caan had to study safecracking to a level where he could actually pull off a job. The cops and crooks in "Heat" went through such rigorous firearms training, Val Kilmer's on-the-fly reload mid-shootout has been singled out as textbook by military instructors. So when Will Smith got cast as Muhammad Ali, the preternaturally skilled heavyweight champion, Mann had him bulk up and get in the ring with prominent boxing contenders.

Though Mann's "Ali" was generally well-received when it was released in 2001, critics complained that it essentially told the same "Rumble in the Jungle" story as Leon Gast's Oscar-winning 1996 documentary, "When We Were Kings." In doing so, they overlooked what is easily the most technically detailed and accurate dramatization of "the sweet science" ever put to film. Gast's movie was a rousing historical document. Mann's masterpiece is a deeply absorbing portrait of inconceivable greatness. To pull it off, Smith couldn't just look the part; he had to be the part.

Float like a Steadicam, sting like a crudely rigged VHS camera

The action set pieces in Mann's films tend to be meticulously staged and relentlessly rehearsed, which allows the actors to loosen up and fluidly perform their tasks. This is partially true of "Ali," but, to convincingly convey the rough ballet of boxing, Mann let his leading man slug it out with some formidable fighters. As he told Entertainment Weekly:

"First of all, Will became a fighter. He boxed every Thursday, and worked out six hours a day five days a week. He actually trained with [Ali trainer] Angelo Dundee. So Will hit and got hit. There was choreography where we knew certain things were coming, certain historical events that we knew we had to include, but in between it was all improvised sparring. In fact, everybody who plays a boxer in the film IS a boxer. We didn't use stunt coordinators or stuntmen. Michael Bentt, who plays Sonny Liston, was a WBO heavyweight world champion. James Toney plays Frasier. Charles Shufford [who plays George Foreman] fought [Wladimir] Klitschko on HBO, like, two months ago."

Inside the ring, Mann utilized a Steadicam and an early high-def camera built for medical procedures. They also rigged up a matchbook-sized low-res VHS cam that thrusts the viewer into every clinch and combination. You're in so close on the combatants that you wince at every landed punch. Only Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" can challenge "Ali" in terms of fistic verisimilitude.

A classic still waiting for its day

Mann's fierce commitment to authenticity failed to connect with Oscar voters in the Picture and Director categories, but his exacting work with his leading man earned the actor his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Alas, it was Smith's great misfortune to give the finest performance of the year at the moment voters monolithically decided it was time to atone for its egregious snub of Denzel Washington's portrayal of Malcolm X back in 1992 (yes, Washington is terrific in "Training Day," but that character was batting practice for him).

There's yet to be a full-blown reconsideration of "Ali," and maybe that day will never come. But anyone who knows a thing or two about boxing understands that this is the cinematic GOAT.