The opening shot of Michael Mann's masterfully crafted boxer biography "Ali" is an image from behind a punching bag being pounded by the champ in rapid musical rhythm. As the bag flashes by with a strobe-like effect, that intensely focused gaze Muhammad Ali is famous for -- that laser beam look that means he's tuned out the world, that stare as steely as a freight train bearing down on you -- beams out of Will Smith's eyes.

It is the one and only time in the film you'll even remember the star's name, because for the next two and a half hours Smith inhabits Ali -- his power, grace, ego, humor and body language, inside and outside the ring -- as well as any actor could.

Choosing to focus on ten momentous years in Ali's life, Mann's round by round, bobbing and weaving narrative style assumes at least a passing knowledge of the fighter's life, merely dropping in on pivotal events without spending much time catching the audience up on the particulars of who, when and where.

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