Michael Mann's "Ali" begins with the rhythmic throb of a punching bag, as the young Cassius Clay (Will Smith) works out in a gym prior to a big bout, and the rapid thwap-thwap-thwap sound gives the film a pulse that never lets up. The movie feels as swift as its title character's ever-dancing feet as we travel from Louisville to Madison Square Garden to Zaire (played, quite effectively, by Mozambique), and from Clay to Ali to "The Greatest."
Mann, as he showed two years ago in "The Insider," is a wonderfully idiosyncratic storyteller, sketching out a plot line with quick scenes, jumping into the middle of a story and letting us figure out who's who.
"Ali" begins in 1964, as the boxer — who'd already won a gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960 — faces Sonny Liston for the World Boxing Association championship.
Smith is all seething, barely contained energy as the boxers go through the pre-bout rituals of taping and weighing; he bobs his head and talks in a rapid-fire voice ("What's my name? What's my name?" he taunts Liston in their second match). He's surrounded by noise and buzz: trainers, officials, entourage, hangers-on. Throughout "Ali," we see the contrast between the noise of Ali's public life, and his private, quiet isolation. In pivotal moments of the film — when he hears of Malcolm X's death or as he jogs through the streets of Zaire — he's alone and silent.
The film takes us through Ali's controversial name change to Muhammad Ali shortly after his conversion to Islam, his rejection of a U.S. Army draft notice ("I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," says Ali, his real-life words), his banishment from the boxing world, his string of wives and his return to glory at the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman.
Ali's life is such a rich one that, oddly, the film seems to stall out just a bit during the boxing scenes. The screenplay has so effectively captured our interest in the man outside the ring, with his convictions and contradictions, that we don't necessarily even need to see him inside it. (Boxing fans, of course, may disagree.)
Will Smith, though, demonstrates not only impressive boxing prowess (he's beefed up significantly and has had his rather prominent ears pinned back, giving him a fairly good ballpark resemblance to Ali), but a maturity and subtlety that he's never before shown on screen. The trademark Smith charm is here, particularly in a scene where Ali walks the sidewalks with his fans after the 1964 win. But there's something else too: a stillness, an obstinacy, a quiet fire that grows more so as the movie progresses.
Jon Voight, despite a scary toupee, doesn't look much like Howard Cosell but captures the sportscaster's weird speech cadences — and his bantering, touching friendship with Ali. And while Ali's wives receive fairly short shrift, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye (in an impressive feature-film debut) and Michael Michele all make indelible impressions.
In the end, it comes down to a signature pose: From behind, we see Ali, head slightly bowed but arms raised in triumph. As is the movie: "Ali"is definitely victorious.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.