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Knockout Punch

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*Ali (R)
Columbia Pictures

Two things you should know going into the film biography Ali: 1) If you're a fan, you won't know any more coming out than you did going in; and 2) It's a long film, so set aside plenty of time. If you don't know the dope on Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, go out and rent the superb documentary When We Were Kings which explains far more about the man and his boxing strategies than this film. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy Michael Mann's (The Insider) fight direction and Will Smith's superb performance as the outspoken, former heavyweight champion.

The movie begins in 1964 with the championship bout between Sonny Liston and the young lion from Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Clay. Soul crooner Sam Cooke sets the scene and the time. We watch nightclubs packed with young African Americans, designed to illustrate the rise of Black popular music in a then heavily segregated America. In the gym and sparring rings, Clay is surrounded by his trainer, the legendary Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver); a mysterious soulmate/cornerman named Bundini (Jamie Foxx); and an assortment of Black Muslims from Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, including fan and personal friend Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles).

As played by Smith, Clay is a young black man troubled by the racism he has witnessed and endured. And while the film makes that point overtly, Ali's relationship with Malcolm X is a little fuzzy. The point seems to be that the boxer regretted quarreling with Malcolm X after X's suspension from the Nation of Islam and that he was profoundly influenced by this political/social/religious hero. But the first third of the film, setting up this relationship, is slow going and clunkily put together.

Ali picks up energy and pace in the middle section when Muhammad Ali, summoned by the draft board to report for service during the Vietnam War, refuses to be inducted. Smith's delivery of Ali's rationale ("I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong") and Mann's compelling film montage of black urban America where the racial war is boiling over into the streets are compelling and superbly told.

The final third of Ali tells the story of the famed "Rumble in the Jungle," promoted and organized by Don King, the heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman staged in Zaire. Here we see the champ coming to grips with his African heritage and putting American racism into an international context. The climactic fight scene is a perfectly choreographed re-creation of Ali's "rope a dope" back-door assault on the formidable Foreman, the strategy being to exhaust the giant by letting him swing and land blows, then turning the fight around with a last round knockout. Mann's depiction is nearly as painful to watch as archival film of the actual battle, and equally as gripping.

Most of the television commentary on Ali has concentrated on whether or not Will Smith accurately impersonates Muhammad Ali, an innately losing proposition. Good acting in a biographical context is not impersonation but transference -- that is, taking on the unique personality traits of the character being portrayed and bringing them to new life. Smith's performance, viewed in this context, is amazing. Ali, for all his notoriety and fame, especially in his later years, is a puzzling, beguiling and utterly unusual figure, and Smith translates his quirks, strengths and sensibilities in a way that helps us to understand why Ali has been so loved and so hated in his lifetime.

One actor in the film chooses to impersonate, and given the character, that's probably a good choice. Jon Voight in gobs of makeup with a bad toupee and a horrid fake nose plays television and radio sports commentator Howard Cosell with uncanny precision and humor. Cosell's verbal spars with Ali are lovingly re-created in the film, adding an interesting cultural context, reminding us that television, to a large degree, made the Ali legend -- or at least made it universally familiar.

TV comic Jamie Foxx gives a strong performance as Ali's sidekick and author of the trademark phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." His kinship with the champ is palpable and warmly depicted. But Will Smith is the undisputed star of this largely successful film bio. His performance is one for the books and won't be soon forgotten. You can hate, love or feel indifference for Muhammad Ali, but you won't likely ever feel the same about the former fresh prince of Belair. Will Smith proves here that he is an acting force to be reckoned with -- capable of huge dramatic leaps, physical transformation, emotional depth and some fancy footwork to boot.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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