Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

SCREEN PRESENTS Three New Films Opening Today Come Wrapped in Oscar Hopes, but Will Smith's Performance in 'Ali' Is the Greatest Gift of All Slice of Life Look into Boxing Champ's World

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

SCREEN PRESENTS Three New Films Opening Today Come Wrapped in Oscar Hopes, but Will Smith's Performance in 'Ali' Is the Greatest Gift of All Slice of Life Look into Boxing Champ's World

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel, Times-Union movie writer

Will Smith gives the performance of the year in Ali, a role for which he gained 35 pounds and spent a year learning to speak like Ali, act like Ali and box like Ali -- or at least box well enough to convince us that's Muhammad Ali out there, the butterfly and the bee.

Compare him to Jim Carrey, who slipped into the skin of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. It was a brilliant impersonation. But it remained just an impersonation. We were always aware that it was Jim Carrey, pretending to be Kaufman.

But Smith? There are moments in Ali where his transformation is utterly believable, utterly uncanny. It happens in the ring, sure, and it happens in his verbal bouts with Howard Cosell (an amusing Jon Voight, buried under makeup). But it also happens during moments when he's just sitting there, saying not a word.

It's a powerful, powerful performance, one that doesn't slip for even a second. Not bad for the old Fresh Prince.

Smith makes Ali memorable, but the film's likely to frustrate as many people as it impresses.

Michael Mann (The Insider) isn't out to make a standard bio-pic.

For one thing, it doesn't even cover most of Ali's life: It starts in 1964, mixing images of Sam Cooke singing, with that voice from heaven; Malcolm X (an effective Mario Van Peebles) preaching; and Cassius Clay jogging, ignoring the taunts of white police officers.

And it ends in 1974, after Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman.

Ali doesn't over-explain things: We don't get neat little explanations of who the characters are, what their connections are to Ali. We get one graphic in the opening scene -- it tells us it's 1964 -- and then we're on our own.

There's no foreshadowing, just as there's no foreshadowing in real life. There are no big speeches that conveniently sum up a life. Big moments -- deaths, momentous court decisions, marital breakdowns -- are slipped in casually.

With a constantly moving camera -- the cinematography, grainy and often underlit, is gorgeously raw -- it's almost documentary in style. …

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