Before entering the ring, boxers must undergo extensive training, working for months to direct their bodies and minds toward a single goal, an event that in minutes will sum up everything that's come before. This paradigm makes boxing a perfect match for the sensibility of director Michael Mann, who, whether directing thrillers like Heat and Manhunter or the true-life ethics drama The Insider, lets his films' often brutal turning points evolve out of long stretches of slow-building action and tortured contemplation. Such stretches are everyday elements in the life of a boxer. A towering symbol not just for the world of boxing, but for the world at large, Muhammad Ali isn't anyone's idea of an everyday boxer, but Mann's skills are put to good use as he attempts to get behind the symbol in the new biopic Ali. Dramatizing the eventful decade between two upsets that won Ali heavyweight titles—his first encounter with Sonny Liston in 1964 and the Rumble In The Jungle with George Foreman in 1974—the film employs an episodic structure that focuses on key phases of his development, showing him as a brash young fighter, a spokesman for Black Power, a legal martyr for his refusal to be drafted for Vietnam, and an international icon. Will Smith plays Ali, and while the choice might seem odd, it proves inspired. The newly bulky Smith has Ali's look and vocal inflections down, but his ability to carry Ali's charisma and vulnerability proves just as crucial. "I ain't scared," Smith declares at his weigh-in with Liston (played by ex-boxer Michael Bentt), and he sounds as much like a man trying to psych himself up as one trying to psych out his opponent. Only a fool wouldn't be afraid of Liston, and Smith plays Ali as nobody's fool, even when it comes to acknowledging his limitations; if the film's private moments didn't capture the doubt behind the bravado, Smith's eyes would. Unconventional casting pays off elsewhere, as well. Neither Mario Van Peebles (as Malcolm X) nor Jamie Foxx (as the colorful, troubled corner man Drew "Bundini" Brown) seem like natural choices, but both do justice to their demanding roles, as does Jon Voight's uncanny realization of Howard Cosell, Ali's public foil and private ally. Ali captures the collapse of the division between public and private best of all. Recalling a conversation with John Lennon on the oddness of fame, Smith quotes the Beatle as saying, "The more real you get, the more unreal it's gonna get." As his career progresses, Smith's convictions became less a private matter than a public issue. As the opposition lines up against him, his finances dwindle, and his friends (most notably those in the Nation Of Islam) abandon him, Ali becomes less the story of a boxer than the story of one man hanging onto his soul. With so many wrong ways to dramatize that process, Mann's approach seems all the more right. Never taking the easy way out, eschewing dramatic speeches, and stopping well short of hagiography, particularly in his hero's relationships with women, Ali provides only as much detail as needed, telling Ali's story as often through sideways glances as through grand dramatic gestures. In boxing and in filmmaking, every gesture, grand or otherwise, should count. Mann's Ali, like its subject in his prime, seems incapable of making a false move.
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