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How do you capture an entire life on two hours of film? You’ve got to cut a lot, and in this case, Ali sacrifices some of its narrative structure. The same could be said about The Shipping News, also opening today, but that movie deliberately chooses atmosphere and characterizations over plot. In Ali, downplaying the plot seems to have been a compromise.

In the Ring and Out

Will Smith is The GreatestWill Smith plays Muhammad Ali in this biopic from Michael Mann (whose last film, The Insider, was best-of-the-year quality). The film begins in the mid-sixties with Ali’s first rise to Heavyweight Champion of the World, and runs through the early seventies and his “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman.

In between, it sees Ali’s friend Malcolm X shunned from the Nation of Islam and later assassinated. It sees Ali’s comment that “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” and his later trouble with the draft board. It sees his relationship with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) grow from antagonistic to brotherly.

Muhammad and Howard

Through it all, Will Smith acts his ass off. His performance deserves comparison to the great Sir Anthony Hopkins, who without the benefit of makeup or physical resemblance, became Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon.

In that same vein, Smith seems the wrong choice for Muhammad Ali. He’s too small, skinny, and smirky to play the beefy, deadpan Ali. But Smith proves he’s a great actor (yet again) by capturing the essence of Muhammad Ali. After the movie a friend said she had no trouble imagining she really was watching Ali.

Almost as convincing is Jon Voight as the inimitable Howard Cosell (although Voight is aided by lots of makeup, including a false nose). It wasn’t until Voight’s second scene that I recognized him.

Cosell and Ali were two articulate men, but in very different ways. Their friendship makes for good entertainment, and Smith and Voight captured that chemistry.

Boxing Day

In addition to the drama, Ali features a handful of boxing matches, and this is where the film really shines. Michael Mann is a master of tension, and the boxing sequences are the best in the movie. They are well made, well edited, and interesting to watch.

Though I’ve never been a fan of boxing, Mann was able to convey not just Muhammad Ali’s speed and strength, but his strategy as well. Early on, when Ali is young, Smith dances around his opponent with incredible agility. The scene conveys just how apt Ali’s brag (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”) is. At the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali is much older and doesn’t have the same tools as he had when he was younger. The movie shows how Ali’s “rope a dope” strategy works for the less agile, older boxer.

No Measure of the Man

Still, Ali is merely good. The movie’s biggest flaw is that it never found a theme to tie it all together, whether it be “faith conquers all” or “friendship is all-important” or even “boxing takes brains as well as brawn.” As I heard another critic say, Mann never tells you “this is the measure of the man.” Instead, Ali just a series of vignettes, tied only by a lifetime and not by any theme.

Maybe that’s not the worst thing you can say about a biopic, but still, we expect movies to be larger than life, to tell a story and not just to portray. I particularly expected more from Michael Mann after The Insider.

Ali is an interesting portrait, but why choose Muhammad Ali? Why now? Mann never answers those important questions.