Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee...

Michael Mann made me a fan when he introduced me to Brian Cox as a cunning Hannibal Lecter in "Manhunter." I was further impressed by Mann’s ability to coax an Oscar nomination out of Russell Crowe’s "Insider" performance. Now Mann may have done it again with Will Smith as "Ali." No, Smith isn’t quite up to the Academy Award because he underplays just slightly one of the great mouths of sports, Mohammed Ali. Mann does make him look and talk like Ali, without the peculiar energy and attitude owned exclusively by the greatest athlete of the 20th century.

Jon Voight, however, is flawless playing the sportscaster, Howard Cosell, who was a close friend of Ali. The film would have benefited from more of their relationship and less of the actual boxing and the love affairs, which add little to understanding the great boxer except that he was a gentle womanizer.

The film is made too long by too many lingering close ups and too many bouts with Liston, Frasier, and Foreman. More even of Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X would have served Mann well. But what we have is what we have -- a very good biography of a charismatic boxer, whose life could have had a greater intensity if Martin Scorcese had directed Will Smith the way he did Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull."