The first 10 minutes of Ali are a history lesson, a character study, and a compact soul-symphony, all at once. Opening with a sweat-stirring medley by Sam Cooke, the film quickly introduces us to Will Smith as Cassius Clay, Jr., who’s taking an evening run in the winter of 1964, his hoodie pulled up, his eyes cast down. From there, we cut back and forth between past and near-present: One moment, Clay’s a young boxing star, coolly but steadily pounding away at a bag; the next, he’s a small boy, walking toward the “coloreds only” section of a bus, where he sees a photo of the murdered Emmett Till in a newspaper. Then, just as we’re getting settled into Clay’s early years, we’re back to the present, watching as the fighter gets hassled by a pair of passing cops, and as he stands in the back of a room, listening intently as Malcolm X (played by Mario Van Peebles) tells the assembled crowd “your times will never get better unless you make them better.”
It all keeps building—these brief, crucial pieces of Ali’s life, accruing like a torrent—as Cooke’s horn section surges and simmers in the background. Finally, we see a bathrobe-clad boxer half-strutting, half-rampaging into a a weigh-in with Sonny Liston, where he delivers his infamous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” taunt, taking over the room so completely it’s as though he’d been granted eminent domain.
It’s probably the best opening sequence of any movie of the last 15 years (for proof, check HBO Now, where Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic is playing through the end of July). And it’s also proof that the life of Ali (who died Friday, at the age of 74) could not be captured by the typical cradle-to-grave formula that’s become pro forma for Oscar-aspirant producers. Instead, director Mann and his co-screenwriters (the final script credits include Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson) wisely chose to focus on the period between 1964 and 1974, a stretch that begins with the boxer taking the world-championship title from Sonny Liston, and ends with him reclaiming it during the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman.
More crucially, though, these are also the years in which the champ deepened his commitment to Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay, Jr. to Cassius X to, finally, Muhammad Ali. Throughout the movie, Ali demands that respect be paid to his name: When his normally bloviating buddy Howard Cosell—played by Jon Voight, who, like Smith, earned an Oscar nomination for his work—uses the wrong moniker on-air, he’s quick to apologize. And, in one of the movie’s most visceral scenes, an opponent who insists on calling the fighter “Clay” gets pummeled in the ring, as Ali yells “What’s my name? What’s my name?”
Much of Ali is about the title character slowly changing his understanding of who he is. His dedication to Islam is unshakeable, but he grows increasingly uncomfortable with the organized aspect of organized religion—first splitting from Malcolm X, and, later, tussling with the Muslim advisers and handlers who are guiding his career. And his relationship with his successive wives, as well as his father, are perpetually malleable, as Ali tries to balance the calling of his faith with the realities of his desires.
Ali was the first in a near-perfect trifecta of Mann movies in the early ’00s, a group that included 2004’s hitman-hunting Collateral and 2006’s undercover-agent epic Miami Vice. All three films, as disparate as they might seem, focus on the concept of identity—how fluid and negotiable it can be, and how your own transformations can alter (or reveal) the identities of the people around you. It’s one of the crucial ways in which Ali avoids the sort of somber manifest-destiny that informs so many biopics: There’s no clear heroic arc here, nor are there any easily distilled life lessons to be found. Instead, Ali is a document of an impassioned, conflicted young man acting on a combination of instinct, faith, and anger—and following those motivations to get to wherever (or whomever) he needs to be.
The film’s biggest asset, though, is Smith, who by the early ’00s had top-lined a series of summer hits—only one, 1999’s Wild Wild West, had gone south—that played up his molecular-level charisma but often felt butterfly-light. In Mann, he found a director who could finally help him bulk up, as the filmmaker excels at outsmarting his biggest stars’ tendencies to people-please; think of Tom Cruise in Collateral, Robert de Niro in Heat, or Al Pacino in The Insider. The director achieved similar success with Smith, whose Ali role remains the most even-keeled, dialed-in performance of his decades-long career.
The then-33-year-old actor no doubt felt some affinity with his subject: Like Ali, Smith had been famous from an early age, rocket-launched to the kind of worldwide recognizability that had earned him fans of all races. But the real reason Ali could only have been inhabited by Smith was the way the role demanded and streamlined so many of the actor’s strengths. Smith’s comic timing, honed in sitcom television, has never been better used than in the Ali scenes in which the boxer playfully spars with Cosell, whose toupee the champ treats like a separate foil. And his physical flexibility (he’d gotten ripped for Bad Boys, and never looked back) was essential for the boxing sequences, which consist of wide-angle, unbroken shots of Smith and his opponent tangling and tangoing, often brutally; there’s no way to fake some of the beatings Smith endured and doled out.
Still, the biggest surprises are Smith’s (relatively) quieter moments, like the scene in which Ali—having been conscripted to the military—refuses to step forward and accept his assignment, instead quietly shifting his head and cocking his stance, secure in his own righteousness. Or the sequence before his fight with Foreman in Zaire, when Ali goes jogging with a bunch of children, stumbles upon a mural of himself standing in victory over an opponent and simply … stares, internalizing the magnitude of something that Ali, for once, can’t explain with a poem or a few quips. There’s no way the Smith who made Independence Day or Enemy of the State would have let these kind of potentially big-reveal moments slip away with such ambiguity, nor would he have been able to resist throwing in some sort of scene-buttoning send-off. Smith’s smoothness with a one-liner helped made him famous, but in Ali, he’s at his finest when he’s quiet.
That lack of grand-standing feel-goodery may be part of the reason why Ali felt so overlooked and undervalued at the time (despite Smith’s star power, the movie didn’t hit the $100 million mark at the box office, and its Rotten Tomatoes ranking is a so-so 67 percent). Certainly, the film’s Zaire-set final fight—which feels triumphant for Ali, but a bit pat for Ali—pales in comparison to its kinetic first two-thirds, and the long stretches between bouts may have turned off boxing fans. As a biopic, Ali often refuses to indulge in easy, history-lesson exposition, and as a sports film, it’s clearly more interested in the moments before and after the big bout. But for those simply looking for a Muhammad Ali movie—and a way to revisit his extraordinary, hard-fought life—it’s often thrillingly, appropriately great.