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Given Michael Mann’s careerlong predilection for testosterone-loopy relationships—Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider; hell, even some Starsky & Hutch and Miami Vice episodes—it’s a wonder the director waited so long to make a boxing flick. All that swagger, all that sweat, all that manly Mannliness: Indeed, the sweet science is definitely this filmmaker’s kind of sport.

And in the new Ali—a near-three-hour journey that tracks the life of the Greatest, the Champ, the Louisville Lip through the years spanning 1964 to 1974 (or from Cassius Clay’s 22nd year to Muhammad Ali’s 32nd)—Mann, besotted with the braggadocio of his subject, depicts the action between the ropes as much more than two men’s pounding the life out of each other for a chance to wear a gaudy, golden belt. Whether it’s Clay vs. Liston (the movie’s opening) or “the Rumble in the Jungle” (the Ali-Foreman finale), those brutal, bloody fight nights are handled with an ominous, highly stylized religiosity; these are not just athletic contests but universal struggles for survival jacked up via myriad camera angles, and film stocks, and heavenly choral cues. When Mann—whose streetside gun battle in Heat set the standard for classic shoot-’em-up centerpieces—enters the ring with his vast array of showboat tricks, he forgoes the rope-a-dope approach for some of the most breathtaking (and loudest) pugilistic action ever put onscreen.

That said, the canvas is just about the only place where Mann doesn’t pull his punches in Ali. The movie mainly plays like a glorious, free-form fever dream, idol worship in its most beautiful, poetic sense. The director often forgoes the necessities of exposition—as if we already knew everything about the boxer’s Muslim name change and his defiance of Vietnam and his bitter relationship with Don King—in favor of trying to show through glossy, choreographed moments what those 10 tumultuous years truly felt like for a garrulous, cocky fighter who claimed he was “a bad man”—but comes across here as nothing less than a world-conquering superhero.

For Ali’s first half-hour, there’s hardly any dialogue at all. With the pillow-cool music of Sam Cooke drowning out any and all other sounds, we see Cassius Marcellus Clay (played with a puckish naivete by a buffed Will Smith, who successfully avoids parodying of one of history’s most impersonated celebrities) simultaneously training for his first heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston and interacting with the men who would shape the boxer’s life: Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall), Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), Cassius Clay Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito), trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and, alas, Howard Cosell (Jon Voight as, well, the most impersonated man in history). In this technically savvy prologue, there are also a handful of quick-cut shots of requisite racial injustice, but segregation is a chilling foe that Mann, with his obtuse approach, inexcusably allows to get off the hook. Ali—the “people’s champion,” as he enjoyed calling himself—is shown getting along with everyone, no matter the skin color, no matter the motive. If there was more rage to the man, we never see it.

For the past year or so, Smith and the real Ali have been showing up together at what seemed like just about every Hollywood social function, including the Sept. 11-related fundraiser A Tribute to Heroes, in which the actor and the fighter tried to explain that not all Muslims are evil. And although seeing such charismatic wonders interact was certainly charming, Smith and Ali’s chummy post-production relationship did not exactly bode well for the biopic. After all, friends don’t let friends spill dirty laundry on the silver screen. Throughout his life, Ali certainly stood up for what he believed in—when drafted for Vietnam, he told the press and the U.S. government, “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me a nigger,” resulting in the revocation of his boxing license and the threat of five years in prison. But other times, what Ali believed in most was often simply his own gargantuan ego; when faced with the winds of waning celebrity, Ali—currently stricken with Parkinson’s, a disease that has left him a relative vegetable compared with his former lightning-in-a-bottle self—continued to fight long after doctors warned him not to. But Mann never mentions this; the director is interested only in the gauzy glory of the good old days.

If Smith isn’t allowed to reveal all of Ali’s inner demons—the fighter was also a champion at womanizing, a vice apparently considered cute by Mann, especially during scenes with first wife Sonji, played with a wink by Smith’s real-life wife, Jada Pinkett Smith—the young actor is a captivating screen presence nonetheless, especially in Clay mode, when the boxer, a handsome, playful innocent from a good family, deals with the trappings of burgeoning fame. A world-class talker himself, the former Fresh Prince excels at the melodious flow of Ali’s rhyming, jiving patter. And although Smith is decidedly more cut than the bigger, beefier Ali ever was, the actor looks damn convincing in the ring, getting the fighter’s blend of razzle-dazzle footwork and rib-cracking hooks just right. In one of the movie’s powerhouse scenes, a tomato-can boxer refuses to use Ali’s Muslim moniker and continues to refer to him as Clay; the resultant bout is a jaw-dropping marvel, with a ferocious Smith dancing around his helpless foe, unleashing blood-spurting jabs and hollering, “What’s my name, motherfucker!”

Along with featuring Smith’s most impressive chops to date, the movie is loaded with actors performing at the top of their talents. Esposito is all parts frustrated and enlightened as Cassius Clay Sr., the proud father who stands by his son even during that family-rattling name change. Van Peebles’ Malcolm X, who, by the mid-’60s, had been excommunicated from the politically fickle Nation of Islam, plays the civil-rights radical with greater tenderness and understanding than a far-more-hardened Denzel Washington ever managed. Mykelti Williamson (that would be Bubba from Forrest Gump) is appropriately smarmy and bewigged as Don King, who promotes the big-finish fight between Ali and Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire—and encourages the violent chants of “Bumaye, Ali!” (“Kill him, Ali!”) from the African audience. Jamie Foxx is the comic relief as gum-flapping cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown. And the movie’s true, tender heart is found in the unlikely father-son relationship between Voight’s infamously coiffed Cosell and Ali, men who managed to rip each other when the cameras were on (“You want some food for that thing?” Ali says about the boastful broadcaster’s terrible toupee. “That thing almost bit my finger off!”) but who sought each other’s sweet solace behind closed doors.

Weighing in at 2 hours and 38 minutes, the visually stunning Ali—there is rarely a dull moment to be found although certainly not enough honest ones, either—ultimately feels unfinished. The chronology is not so much tinkered with as stretched and abbreviated where the go-go-go Mann sees fit. But the biggest problem in this entertaining but decidedly flawed film is the way Mann handles his beloved legend: Ali is portrayed as nothing more than a two-dimensional action figure, a godlike man whose sole faults were apparently being irresistible to women and absolutely smitten with the sound of his own voice. The people deserve more of their champion. CP