“We had such potential. Such promise. But we squandered our gifts.”
Yes, Shane Acker, you really frigging did.
When the teaser for 9 first came out, I was beyond excited. I watched it over and over again, savouring the visual feast that was to come. The music thrilled me, the characters moved me, and the thought of a post-apocalyptic world filled with tiny sack-cloth constructs tickled the serotonin-producing parts of my brain until I could barely contain my excitement.
And then my brother told me that it sucked.
Trusting his judgment on such things, I opted not to drop $25 to go see it in the theatres, reserving my now drained enthusiasm for a later DVD rental. This past weekend, my wife and I rented it along with the movie version of Stephen Brunt’s Facing Ali; I read the book about 6 years ago and found it to be one of the best biographical constructions ever. The way we saw it, 9 was likely going to be a disappointment, but Facing Ali would likely deliver.
We were definitely right about 9.
I would be okay with watching a crumby movie if it never promised me anything. Start off with flat characters, a stupid premise, and a clichéd setting and I’ll happily sit back and revel in the pure crappiness of it. But when you start out with so much potential, with such interesting characters, with such a fantastic looking world, with so many great things, it really stings to see it all fall to pieces at the hands of poor direction and spastic pacing.
It was like they decided that taking the time to build up the characters, their interactions, their place in the lifeless world was just not worth the effort. Everything was rushed through as if the production company had some other project waiting in the wings. I desperately wanted to know why 7 left the church, and why 3 and 4 had been built as cataloguers, and how the government had corrupted the scientist’s machine, and how everyone seemed to know what to do and where to go even though that had only been self-aware for (in one case) 5 minutes.
I was left feeling very let down; I knew that 9 wasn’t going to be great, but I didn’t expect it to fail so badly in so many areas.
Facing Ali, however, was far more strongly constructed. It traced Ali’s illustrious boxing career by having his opponents narrate their parts in it, or by letting them weigh in on his other fights. The aging cast of retired boxers ranged from Sir Henry Cooper sipping tea to Leon Spinks working at the Salvation Army, all brilliant personalities in and of themselves, all rich enough to be the basis of their own movies had they Ali’s star power and name recognition.
Oddly, the movie shied away from the book’s more balanced assessment of Ali. Many fighters (Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes in particular) did not offer very flattering portraits of “the Greatest” in their interviews, and Stephen Brunt didn’t edit out their nastier comments for the sake of appeasing Ali fans. The movie, however, rarely allowed Ali to come across as anything but brilliant. It felt a bit neutered, but at least it didn’t completely deflate me the way that 9 did.
Instead, it left me not wanting to watch boxing anymore.
I love combat sports. I have my black belt. I spar for one to two hours each week. But seeing how all but a few of Ali’s foes can barely speak, listening to them slurring badly enough to require constant subtitles, watching their hands tremble, their eyes glaze, their creaking, aching movements made me never want to see another young man step into the ring with those ten-ounce gloves strapped on their hands.
These men were old, yes, but age doesn’t rob you of your speech the way that pugilistic dementia (now often called chronic traumatic encephalopathy) does. And when you watch the old footage, the knockdown after knockdown, the standing 8-counts, the ill-advised comeback fights, the blatant disregard by poorly-trained refs, you have to ask yourself if supporting such a sport is a defendable pastime. Facing Ali inadvertently exposes the dark side of the sport it venerates, not by showing the shuddering Muhammad Ali that has become the face of Parkinson’s, but by showing the “survivors” that he fought over the course of a 20 year career.
I don’t know how to reconcile these movies; they promised so much to me and let me down rather badly. I think I’m more upset with Facing Ali, though. While I expected to get hit by 9, Ali caught me with my guard down.