The Man, The Muslim, The Movie

The new screen biography of Muhammad Ali runs out of canvas.

Tribute movies of living people are always a gamble, but the complex, charming character of Muhammad Ali is especially daunting. In the 1977 docudrama "The Greatest," even Ali played himself unsuccessfully. Ali, who danced around the ring with the ease of a ballerina, and mimicked his opponents with wise quips and pompous remarks, was more than a boxer. He was a talker, a performer, an objector, and in all ways, a fighter.

He is also a symbol, and this is the Ali we get in Michael Mann's new movie about the heavyweight champ who can still draw attention by visiting the World Trade Center after the September terrorist attacks, or by overcoming his Parkinson's disease to light the Olympic torch. Ali embodied a fiery wing of the civil-rights movement, capturing in his exotic name and his vocal anger the rise of black power in the United States. He brought Islam into the American consciousness--even if few people distinguished between the unorthodox Nation of Islam and mainstream Islam.

If Ali could not play Ali, if he could not carry his own weight, then who can? Can Will Smith, aka the Fresh Prince, be trusted to do justice to the King of the Ring? Size-wise, Smith has transformed his body into a fighter's build, and pulls off the quips that made people love to watch Ali. Director Michael Mann, who won acclaim with "The Insider," depicts the tension of being in the public eye and the ring. The beautifully choreographed fighting, even for non-boxing fans, is fun to watch, as are the people Ali brought with him. His relationship with Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), his ringside cheerleader known for coining the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," provides some of the most comical lines in the movie.

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The best developed and most entertaining relationship is the one between Ali and Howard Cosell, played here by John Voight. Their bantering--it originally unfolded on TV, after all--is a natural for the screen. "Ali" also brings home the unlikely personal relationship that developed off-screen between the opinionated, older broadcaster with the signature abrasive whine, and the young, honey-voiced champ. Their relationship spanned race and religion, with Cosell accepting Ali's Muslim name earlier than others were willing to, and supporting the champ even in his rougher times.

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