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Despite his proclivity for helming epic-length movies, director Michael Mann's greatest gift may be his knack for intimacy. Above all, Mann finds his characters to be the most interesting, and often he prefers the interaction of opposed pairs — Will Graham and Hannibal Leckter in Manhunter (1986), Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley in Heat (1995), and Lowell Bergman and Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (1999). Which perhaps is why 2001's Ali seems to be a departure for the talented filmmaker — and also why it never really sustains any dramatic tension. Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali in the big-budget biopic, which does not concern itself with Ali's life as a whole, but rather his peak decade between 1964 and 1975, when he first became boxing's heavyweight champion of the world by beating Sonny Liston, was stripped of his title for refusing induction to the U.S. Army, and then famously regained the belt by defeating George Foreman in Zaire. There are numerous books and documentaries that chronicle Ali's life and accomplishments, but despite the man's popularity (and undeniable charisma), such does not mean a feature film will have the same impact as the actual events. In this case, Ali plays more like a pageant than a drama, with all of the major episodes included: Ali (then Cassius Clay) defeats Liston in 1964 ("I shocked the world! I'm a bad man!!"); Ali joins the Nation of Islam and changes his name; Ali refuses to fight in Vietnam, and is effectively stripped of his title; the Supreme Court overturns Ali's conviction; Ali loses his 1971 title bout with Joe Frazier; and (of course) "The Rumble in the Jungle," wherein Ali and George Foreman battle for the belt in the heart of Africa. Each moment contains something of interest, but the film does not aggregate any thematic gravitas from them, simply moving from one milestone to the next as if ticking items off a checklist. If movies about boxers are a fair analogy, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) is a superior experience — the highlights of Jake La Motta's career in that picture are covered as well, but in a contrapuntal structure that illustrates why Jake fights — why the events in his personal life make him want to beat the bloody hell out of his opponents, or suffer a beating as a form of spiritual penance. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky (1976) is better as well, getting at the heart of a pugilist's humble character rather than just his raw ambition. Compare either to Ali, which dedicates much of its first hour to the boxer's friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), and then traverses his first two marriages, his legal battles, and his unusual camaraderie with broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). The fights are wonderfully recreated, but it's hard to know if they have any relationship to exterior events (and director Mann publicly stated after Ali that he would prefer not to do any more biographical movies, since they effectively tie his hands as a storyteller). Will Smith was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his starring turn, and while his formidable physique and sharp delivery are impressive, it's also the sort of role that gains a lot of attention due to the requisite mimicry — regrettably, for Smith, he's tasked with recreating the most recognizable person on the planet in the 20th century, and far too often one gets the impression they are seeing and hearing Will Smith (a notable celebrity in his own right) and not The Champ. Jon Voight does a much better job of losing his persona in the guise of Howard Cosell, which — oddly enough — recalls Christopher Plummer's turn as Mike Wallace in Mann's The Insider (another great performance by an actor of a well-known broadcaster). To Mann's credit, Ali is not a complete whitewash of his subject's personal life — his submission to the Nation of Islam, rejection of Malcom X, and philandering ways are all addressed. But despite the strong performance by Smith at the film's core, the essential character of Muhammad Ali remains an enigma when the credits roll. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Ali is generally bare-bones, with a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and trailers. Keep-case.

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