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Chronicling the life of a living legend

Whittling a story as complex, compelling, and steeped in history as Mohammed Ali's down to a few cinematic hours can't be an easy task. Besides being an uber-charismatic heavyweight boxing champion, the man was shaped by the Civil Rights movement, was close friends with Malcolm X, and his involvement with the Nation of Islam not only gave him a sense of Black identity--it also stripped him of heard-earned money and showed him the hypocritical mask organized religion can wear.

Director Michael Mann (The Insider, Heat, Last of the Mohicans) gravitates toward testosterone-heavy historical drama, and his particular talents — namely chaotic, cerebral action sequences — aren't lost on Ali. But at times all of this stylistic grandiloquence seems more important to Mann than the story he's telling. We do get a glimpse of Ali (born Cassius Clay) as a young boy deeply affected by the racial injustices he witnesses in the world around him, but then Mann quickly jumps to 22-year-old Ali's first fight with Sonny Liston for the championship title — a lengthy, meditative sequence with a Sam Cooke concert woven in. But no matter how beautiful this all looks and sounds on film, it feels like the director traded in some critical details (Ali's teenage years, and more importantly, what led him to boxing) for aesthetic visuals.

But these slight gaps in the story don't taint the film as a whole. Will Smith (who's been deserving of a role like this since "Six Degrees of Separation") buffed up for the part and endlessly studied Ali's distinctive speech and mannerisms, and the result is stunning. As much of a "star" as Smith is, his persona's swallowed by the character, the metamorphosis complete. His range never wavers. In one scene where Ali jogs through the alleyways of Zaire, in preparation for the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with George Foreman, the countless emotions passing over Smith's face says more about Ali's humanity than the entire screenplay. It all comes together in this sequence, and the remainder of the film portrays the historic fight in Zaire (A fight chronicled in Leon Gasts' 1996 documentary "When We Were Kings").

Another mistake Mann makes is assuming that audiences know not only the history surrounding Ali's story, but the story of his life as well. A woman in the theater asked her friend "Was that Malcolm X?" after he (played by Mario Van Peebles) had spent a good 20 minutes on screen. That's a detail most viewers should know, but it also shows again that Mann, and writer Gregory Allen Howard can shoulder some of the blame here, tends to emphasize style over substance. Still, "Ali" is a moving, well-crafted film that touches you with the humanity of its subject, and boasts inspiring performances from the entire cast, especially Smith and Jon Voight as a spot-on Howard Cosell. If anything, Mohammed Ali is just too Herculean a figure in our consciousness to pin down on film.


Rated R
2 hours 42 minutes

Will Smith
Giancarlo Esposito
Jamie Foxx
Jada Pinkett Smith
Jon Voight