How far Will Smith has come since he was a scrawny rapper trying in vain to hold his own in the boxing ring in 1989's "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson." ("My body's like a punching bag and Mike is gonna ... hit it!") Twelve years, some intensive workouts and several pounds of muscle later, Smith takes on the role of The Greatest in director Michael Mann's "Ali," and the impersonation works better than anyone had a right to expect.
So what if Smith has little in common with Muhammad Ali as far as facial features go? The champ's self-professed good looks were never the linchpin of his appeal. It was The Look that sold the former Cassius Clay's every boast and bon mot -- that clear-eyed, captivating expression that qualified as a taunt, a challenge, a demand and even a plea, all at the same time.
The actor has that look down from his first scene, in which the driven Clay silently trains for his 1964 championship fight against Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt). The stare occasionally mellows but never evaporates in the ensuing two-and-a-half hours of screen time, as we watch Clay triumph over Liston, lose his title due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam, then strive to win it back from George Foreman (Charles Shufford) in 1974's "Rumble in the Jungle." A TKO of face-acting his from the outset, Smith adds spot-on re-creations of Ali's perpetual head-bobbing and the semi-hoarse vocal cadences with which he delivered his infamous rhyming provocations. The boxer's hilarious exchanges with sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, wearing so many prosthetics that he resembles a ventriloquist's dummy) ring as funny and fresh as they did on the first go-'round.
Mann and his four co-scripters show comedic skills of their own. In one sly scene, future d-Con pitchman Ali is enthralled by a TV documentary about the dangers of termites. Though Mann's in-ring cinematography can't compete with the likes of "Raging Bull," there's no denying the effectiveness of a training sequence in which Foreman pummels the heavy bag with blows that connect like canons on the audio track.
The movie's central theme is Ali's struggle to be his own person amid the expectations of others, including his wives, his handlers and his brethren in the Nation of Islam. Most of these kibitzing parties are just along for the ride in "Ali"'s sprawling script: Though Mario Van Peebles' Malcolm X receives considerable attention, he's sadly toothless. The only supporting performance that exists in more than one dimension is Jamie Foxx's pathos-rich turn as Ali's conflicted corner man, Drew "Bundini" Brown. On occasion, even Ali's motivations seem cloudy.
While its subtextual gaps keep "Ali" out of the realm of great filmmaking, in an odd way, they also reinforce the lesson its iconoclastic title hero taught a generation: that understanding a human being's reasons for doing anything is less important than respecting his freedom to do it. "I'm going to be the champ the way I want to be," Ali announces shortly after he earns the heavyweight belt for the first time. Though the film doesn't tell us much about Muhammad Ali we didn't already know, on an emotional level it reminds us what a firm example he set for every one of us.