MIAMI — Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell are warily circling each other, like fighters in the ring, a young giant with rippling muscles and a lightning-quick jab versus an aging sports commentator with wobbly legs and a bad toupee, two men equal only in their blustery braggadocio and gift for gab. They're doing the dozens, teasing each other with a tornado of street-corner taunts.
"Honestly, champ, I fear for your survival," Cosell says with his uniquely stentorian diction. "It is well known that George Foreman can knock a man out with either hand."
"Howard, I can lift your wig up with either hand. Does that make me special?" says Ali, throwing a jab in his stinging Kentucky drawl. "They got you fooled, Cosell."
"I'm only trying to be objective," Cosell replies.
"Howard," Ali retorts, "your career's so directly related to me being great I oughta declare you on my tax returns as a dependent."
Since we're on a movie set everyone knows this is really Will Smith and Jon Voight (under about 10 pounds of prosthetic makeup), not a sparring match between the real Ali and the late great ABC sportscaster. But the fun of it isn't just how eerily close the two actors come to capturing the real thing, but that their insults are all improvised: Smith and Voight are entertaining the crew the way club comics would perform after-hours sets for the band, keeping the juices flowing until "Ali" impresario Michael Mann is ready to start shooting the night's final scenes.
The setting is a parking lot outside Miami's Orange Bowl stadium, which Mann is using as backdrop for a scene in "Ali" in which the former champ cajoles Cosell into putting him on TV to hype a comeback that will lead to the epic Rumble in the Jungle showdown in Zaire with George Foreman.
It's hard to take your eyes off Smith. He walks and talks like someone who was a champion of the world. When he rehearses his scenes with Voight, he bobs up and down, gliding across the set like someone free from the force of gravity. Ali's longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee, said he was sold the first time Smith stepped into the ring. "Forget it," Dundee says. "He bounces, he moves. If he ain't Ali, he's a close second."
Watching Smith wrapped up in Ali character is instructive, especially if you've questioned the wisdom of making a $105-million biopic about a long-retired boxer whose most ardent admirers are middle-aged, not exactly the prime moviegoing audience these days.
Sony Pictures' "Ali" project, which debuts nationwide Christmas Day, is something of a crapshoot. Smith, 31, is an immensely popular movie star, but his younger fans won't have an easy time seeing an R-rated movie (the film has several offending expletives, which Mann has refused to cut, despite intense studio lobbying).
There are other hurdles: Ali's life is a daunting story to tell, especially now, during a time of renewed patriotism; Ali refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War and gave up his heavyweight boxing title because of it. Biopics rarely make money, and Mann is a filmmaker who's never had a blockbuster hit, despite his impressive artistic credentials ("The Insider," "Thief," "The Last of the Mohicans") and enormous appetite as a director. This night, for example, he's lighted up the entire Orange Bowl just to use as a backdrop to a scene set outside a mobile TV truck.
It was Mann who finally got Smith to commit to making the movie, something such top-drawer talent as Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Barry Sonnenfeld couldn't do. In fact, it took nearly a decade for the film to get made, going through a string of directors and writers who had been involved with the project.
"I'd turned down the part over and over," Smith explained during a break in filming. "And for one reason: I was petrified! I honestly didn't think I was smart enough to understand how to play Ali. Everyone would come in excited about the movie till they talked to me, and then they'd go away, thinking, 'This guy is an idiot.'
"I was too embarrassed to say I didn't feel intellectually prepared to tackle the work. And the script by Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson was so good and had such depth that it scared me even more." Mann's reputation is as a ferocious taskmaster, but after one meeting with the director, Smith was in. Mann, 58, established a "curriculum" of studies to help Smith prepare for the part. "Michael had me develop a fighter's point of view of the world, taking my body to the limit physically in ways that would help develop my mental and spiritual state," Smith recalls.