Boldly ignoring the clichés of tens of biopics and hundreds of sports movies, Michael Mann's grandiose examination of Cassius Clay, AKA Muhammad Ali, perplexed critics. Some wanted the whole life story, from crib to Parkinson's Disease, and had their noses whacked out of joint by Mann's decision to focus on 1964 to 1974. Others bemoaned a lack of psychological insight (read: clunky exposition), apparently unable to take meaning from pauses, looks and gestures, or Mann's trademark use of landscape to represent his characters' state of mind.
Well, let's look at what is here rather than what isn't. Mann, working with The Insider co-scribbler Eric Roth, has made an elliptical, lyrical biopic, bringing meaning to his subject through spectacle and music. But, crucially, this is a film that's as much about America as Ali. Perhaps even more so. Encompassing the Civil Rights Act and the Vietnam War, Mann captures every squirm and twist of a country turning itself inside out.
Of course, that's an awful lot to fit into two-and-a-half-hours, and some meaty details inevitably get a little squeezed. This is especially true of the first half of the movie, which takes in Clay's ascendancy to the Heavyweight crown, his conversion to the Nation Of Islam and the name Muhammad Ali, his refusal to fight in Vietnam ("no Viet Cong ever called me nigger"), the stripping of his title and a host of personal relationships, be they with friends, trainers, women, sports journalist Howard Cosell (brilliantly played by Jon Voight and a bucketload of make-up) or Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles).
The second half, however, narrows its focus and concentrates on the famous Rumble In The Jungle in Zaire. It's here that Will Smith's loud, brash, hilarious, conceited, lonely and troubled Ali really comes into his own. And it's here that Mann again proves he's one of America's finest helmers, his factional account proving so riveting - the politics so involving and the fight sequence so poetically brutal - that it goes toe-to-toe with Leon Gast's brilliant documentary, When We Were Kings.