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Muhammad Ali documentary 'I Am Ali' has its charms

Muhammad Ali documentary 'I Am Ali' has its charms
Muhammad Ali (Focus Features)

If anybody's story benefits from the occasional spirited retelling, it's that of boxer Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most sublimely fascinating and stirring athlete America has ever produced, already lionized in a number of movies.

Brit Clare Lewins' documentary "I Am Ali" is one more yep-he-was-the-Greatest rundown, in which confidantes and loved ones, opponents and supporters, tell their favorite stories about his mesmerizing bouts, poetic taunts, high-wattage personality and principled fight not to go to Vietnam.

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Ali himself is absent, however, and the Parkinson's he's lived with for decades is barely explored. Lewins seems convinced, though, that as an alluring placeholder, fans will be satisfied with never-before-heard tape recordings — made by Ali himself — of hilariously philosophical phone conversations with his then-grade-school-age daughters. They're cute, all right, and help flesh out somewhat the family-man part of the story, but in repeatedly going back to them, Lewins undercuts the rhythm of weaving archival footage, interviews and biography. (It's much more illuminating hearing his daughters talk as reflective grown-ups than as daddy-pleasing children.)

"I Am Ali" may never truly wow as the umpteenth portrait of a living legend, but it has its charms in reminding us of one fighter's singular ability to knock us all out with his talent, personality and convictions.

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"I Am Ali"

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, mild language.

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

Playing: At Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles.

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