Courant Film Critic

Michael Mann opens ``Ali" with an invigorating burst of music and images, bouncing through the early years of Cassius Clay, as a surrogate Sam Cooke rocks out ``(Don't Fight It) Feel It" and Will Smith rockets through a fusillade on a speed bag.

With glimpses of a black boy's awakening to the virulent violence of bigotry, Mann's overture stings as it floats. But such dazzling film work only leads to a gradual letdown. As ``Ali" moves into narrative, it becomes all too clear that Mann and Smith have taken on a daunting, perhaps even undoable task.

Muhammad Ali was and is one of the giants of our time, a genius not only as an athlete but also as a public person, as fast with his mouth as his feet. To have watched him on television and on film leaves an indelible imprint. More even that a great actor playing a great role, Ali is an impossible act to follow.

Mann and his screenwriting partners - Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson - have elected to tell only the middle part of the story, skipping the early Golden Glove years as Clay, and ending before his aging and physical decline. This is a sound dramatic decision and it serves Smith well, as the youthful 31-year-old need not pretend to be a teenager or an old, halting man. In 1964, when the film begins, Ali is 22 years old. The film ends 10 years later.

That was a decade of turbulence, to say the least, covering the years of the civil-rights struggle, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the rise of Malcolm X and his murder in a packed assembly hall, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that tore at American cities. Ali found himself at the center of many of these things, after his conversion to Islam and his adoption of Malcolm as his friend and prophet, and his subsequent decision to refuse induction into the military and his forthright declarations of having no quarrel with the Viet Cong. His unpopular stances cost him his title, and robbed him of his livelihood. In his prime years, he was forced to sit on the sidelines, slipping into modest, almost penurious, circumstances when he could have been piling up millions.

Mann's film details all this, and provides a remarkably true depiction of the times, even as he puts Smith through Ali's major fights, beginning with his winning of the championship from the dangerous Sonny Liston and culminating with his triumph over the strong, younger George Foreman in Zaire, the legendary ``rumble in the jungle" that again made Ali the champ. He also provides glimpses of Ali's personal life, with suggestions of his voracious womanizing. And there are a few, too few really, looks at Ali the wit, taunting Liston and Foreman, playing the joker with Howard Cosell.

There is also too much to cram into two and a half hours, but Mann succeeds in painting a remarkably complete portrayal of the man and his era. And if Smith is not always totally believable as Ali - in part because even with all the iron-pumping, his body type is leaner, less awesome - he fights impressively, and exhibits humor, anger and moments of confusion. He is especially affecting near the end, when his visit to Zaire opens his mind to his almost godly image in the great continent where his forebears lived before they were stolen and enslaved. In one of the film's most telling shots, Smith's Ali stands transfixed before a primitive wall painting that depicts him as a near deity.

Neccessarily, some of the people in Ali's life are merely sketched. Jamie Foxx brings a flamboyant playfulness that turns to bitter ashes as Drew ``Bundini" Brown, his manager. Foxx, sporting a bald spot, makes Brown the most important figure in Ali's camp, a good-time partier whose slide into poverty and addiction coincides with the fall of the champ after he is stripped of his title. Ron Silver is deeply credible as trainer Angelo Dundee, but the role is a narrow one, and Jeffrey Wright functions almost as a prop as photographer Howard Bingham.

Ali's life centers as much on his connections to Islam as his career in the ring. Mann has an outstanding Malcolm in Mario Van Peebles, intelligent and eloquent. There are also glimpses of Elijah Muhammad, persuasively played by Albert Hall, who honors his most famous disciple with a new name. Muslimism enters his boxing too, with Barry Shabaka Henley as a portly, rather absurd Herbert Muhammad. While Malcolm comes across as a sincere and thoughtful figure, both Muhammads seem opportunists.

Islam figures in Ali's private life too, After picking up Sonji Roi, sharply drawn by Jada Pinkett Smith, in Chicago's Tiger Lounge, Ali quickly marries her, then sheds her because of her failure to conform as a Black Muslim wife. Nona Gaye brings a blend of submission and anger to the proper Muslim wife, Belinda, while Michael Michele lends seductive glamor to Veronica Porche, wife No. 3.

The most entertaining and lively performance comes from an unrecognizable Jon Voight, as Ali's odd ally, Howard Cosell. But Mykelti Williamson also strikes some high notes as the promoter of the ``rumble," electric-haired Don King.

But it is Smith who must carry the picture, and in many ways, he does. It is an ambiguous characterization, part narcissistic showboat, part headstrong innocent. This Ali is a spiritual man drawn to Islam because it supports his own feelings of black pride, and emphasizes independence from the slave mentality encoded in the name Cassius Clay. There is much to think about in this portrait of a celebrity who turned the world against him when he chose a controversial, anti-white belief and defied the U.S. government. If Smith and Mann fail to plumb the mind of Ali, they have created a remarkable picture of a unique American icon.

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