Director Retrospective: Michael Mann
Continuing a look at a few filmmakers who I associate with a particular decade (e.g. John Carpenter and the 1980s, Kevin Smith and the 1990s, etc.), I thought it might be fun to look at a director whose work feels very 1980s-ish (at least to me) but who experienced his greatest successes in the decades that followed, a director who seems most at home in neon lights and stylized violence. I’m talking about a director who, for whatever reason, I seem guilty of perpetually underrating: Michael Mann.
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 11 feature-length films by Michael Mann.
Here’s the list: Thief (1981); The Keep (1983); Manhunter (1986); The Last of the Mohicans (1992); Heat (1995); The Insider (1999); Ali (2001); Collateral (2004); Miami Vice (2006); Public Enemies (2009); Blackhat (2015).
The Top Five
Here are my selections for the Top-Five films by Michael Mann (ranked #1-#5 with some comments on each one)…
Heat (1995) – If you’re at all familiar with Mann’s oeuvre, you probably guessed the #1 spot: Heat. This film had a ridiculous amount of hype surrounding its release — advertised as the first film starring the acting powerhouses Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. [Of course, this is some selective marketing; after all, the two men had already starred in The Godfather II, though they share no screen-time in that great film.] Anyway…this is one of those rare movies that actually lives up to (and maybe exceeds?) its substantial hype — that is, if there’s a better “cops-&-robbers” film out there, I don’t think that I’ve seen it. The plot is relatively straightforward: Career criminal Neil McCauley (De Niro) leads a very successful crew of heist-artists (Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, Danny Trejo, and eventually Dennis Haysbert), while volatile L.A. detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and his police compatriots track the successful crew. Both cop and criminal are given equal time here, and, as we learn more about their lives away from their professions, the two men start to develop a sort of mutual admiration (or cautious respect) for one another. They see in the other a worthy opponent — and, as the audience, we can easily imagine another reality where these two men (both seeming out-of-time, both with a moral code) might’ve actually been friends. The cast here is stupid talented — not just those performers already mentioned but also folks like Jon Voight, Natalie Portman, William Fichtner, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson, Diane Venora, Wes Studi, Tom Noonan, Kevin Gage, Hank Azaria, etc. Furthermore, aside from the fantastically tense confrontation scene between Pacino and De Niro, Heat features the best bank robbery scene of all time and, arguably, the most realistic one too (e.g. the actors cased a real-life bank as if they might rob it, took months of firearms and tactical training, and fired hundreds and hundreds of rounds in their retreat formation — resulting in a scene that since has, allegedly, been studied by both actual criminals and military personnel). It’s a truly, truly memorable and enjoyable balance of style and substance.
Manhunter (1986) – While I don’t think that Manhunter is Mann’s best film (clearly…see the previous film above), it is, personally, my favorite Michael Mann film. Based on Thomas Harris’s popular books, Manhunter was released a handful of years before Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs — another superb film that may have had the unfortunate effect of erasing Mann’s excellent film from audiences’ memories. For those that have seen Red Dragon (released in the early 2000s by Brett Ratner), Manhunter is essentially the same story: A gifted former FBI agent — Will Graham, who once captured the famed cannibal Hannibal Lecter — is convinced to un-retire following a spate of grisly home-invasion murders committed by serial-killer Francis Dollarhyde (nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy”); during this investigation, Graham must confront his old foe (Lecter) while pursuing his new one (Dollarhyde). The cast here is very strong with good performances from William Petersen, Kim Geist, Joan Allen, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, and the always fantastic Tom Noonan. Also…Brian Cox, a stupendous actor, portrays Hannibal Lecter; and while his Hannibal isn’t as immediately captivating as Anthony Hopkins’s or Mads Mikkelsen’s later portrayals of the cannibal, Cox’s Lecter is sufficiently creepy and manipulative. And Petersen’s version of Graham is my favorite one that I have seen — he seems more emotionally traumatized than Edward Norton’s version but is not reduced to the sluggish sad-sack of Hugh Dancy’s version. Oh, and Manhunter also features one of my favorite slow-mo shots — with a fun use of music during the scene to boot! If you like the Thomas Harris stories or the detective-thriller genre, don’t deprive yourself of this underrated film.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – The first Michael Mann film that I ever viewed, The Last of the Mohicans is an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s seminal historical novel. In some ways, the film is an anomaly within the larger Mann oeuvre. Though he has shown a willingness to do period films — e.g. The Keep, Public Enemies, etc. — Mann is a director mostly interested in modern life (i.e. even his other “historical” films stick to the 20th century). The film is anchored by strong starring performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. (Of course, to prepare for his character, DDL lived in the woods for months leading up to shooting because *acting!*.) But to my mind, the real strength here is in the supporting turns from Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, and Steven Waddington — all of whom are excellent in their depictions of very different characters. The film has a few of the larger “set pieces” that one might expect from this type of historical drama, and the score (which was sort of a mish-mash of music, some done by Trevor Jones and some done by Randy Edelman but not in collaboration) is effectively one of the most memorable aspects of the final product. To some degree, The Last of the Mohicans feels like a “light” historical-literary film, in the sense that it hits some familiar narrative beats that one might expect from a movie with mass-appeal aspirations; however, despite that, it remains undeniably engaging to my mind. It’s one of those movies — like The Shawshank Redmption, like The Return of the King, etc. — that, if I think about it too much, I can almost certainly find plenty of flaws, but if I come across it on TV and turn my brain off, I’ll always watch it to the end — a highly, highly re-watchable film.
The Insider (1999) – I very distinctly remember the first time that I watched Michael Mann’s The Insider. It was one of those days in high school where, for whatever reason, the teacher decided to show us a film instead of having us do work in class. (If I’m remembering correctly, the content of the film was only very loosely connected to what we were talking about in this particular class.) As the teacher gave a brief set-up to the film, I was fully expecting to zone-out for the next couple hours — after all, the story of a “whistle-blower” going against a big corporation doesn’t exactly sound exciting for a 16-17 year old. But…once the movie started, I was absolutely riveted. If you’ve haven’t seen The Insider before, the plot is based on a true story regarding a former tobacco-company executive who reveals to CBS’s 60 Minutes that the tobacco industry had long known that cigarettes were addictive / harmful and had been concealing that information from the public. The cast here is very strong — with Al Pacino (as CBS Producer Lowell Bergman), Russell Crowe (as whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand), and Christopher Plummer (as well-known 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace), as well as a number of smaller supporting turns by a veritable “Who’s Who” of great, underrated character actors (e.g. Philip Baker Hall, Stephen Tobolowsky, Bruce McGill, Colm Feore, Diane Venora, Cliff Curtis, and so on and so on). Notably, the chemistry between Pacino and Crowe is excellent, as these two men who are working together to expose a gigantic corporation also have a strained and volatile relationship. [It’s fun to go back and watch this early-ish American performance from Crowe, which is quite against type for him compared to the roles that would follow.] Oh, and Christopher Plummer “Plummers-out” and eviscerates his opposition, which is what you pay to see from an actor of his quality. A very good film, and an important one, about the struggle / power of individuals against quarter-crazed, profit-driven Big Business.
Collateral (2004) – For the final spot in this list, it was basically a coin-flip for me between Mann’s Collateral and its predecessor, the boxing biopic Ali. Both are, in my estimation, above-average films and entirely worthy of seeing if you’ve not already done so. Ultimately, I went with Collateral here because I believe it’s a truer example of Mann’s recognizable stylization. In this instance, Mann famously chose to shoot the film — which occurs during the course of one night — almost entirely with a new HD digital camera technology, resulting in some really interesting low-light photography and, at the time, a very distinct depiction of nighttime L.A. (To me, the digital look of this film is most reminiscent of a very different film from a few years earlier: Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.) The basic plot involves an unlucky cabbie (played by Jamie Foxx, who received an Oscar nod for this role), who, against cab company policy, accepts a fare’s offer to drive him around all night for a hefty sum — only to discover that said fare (played by Tom Cruise, who goes very against type here) is a cold, mercilessly efficient hitman. And…action ensues. As mentioned, Foxx and Cruise are excellent in their respective roles and demonstrate a nice chemistry — necessary since a good deal of the film involves them simply driving around in the cab and talking. The supporting cast of Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Bruce McGill, and Javier Bardem are also very solid — although they aren’t given much to do, as this really is a two-man vehicle of a film. One of the underrated aspects of Collateral is Mann’s ability to create tension that builds and builds and builds and then erupts in very sudden violence. (Cruise’s villainous Vincent is nothing if not ruthlessly efficient in dispatching of his targets.) This is definitely an example of a film in which the tight script, interesting direction, and effective acting combine to elevate what could have been, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, a mediocre product.
The Underrated One
Several films to choose from here. I’ve already mentioned Manhunter and The Insider — both of which are grossly underrated among casual viewers despite the fact that they’re both brilliant, highly engrossing films. While Mann’s biopic of Muhammad Ali (entitled Ali) falls into some of the common narrative traps of that genre, it’s still a mostly great film, anchored by Will Smith’s mesmerizing depiction of an American icon. And I came very close to picking Mann’s first feature-length film, Thief, for this spot — it’s a little too long but features an engaging performance by James Caan and, in the climactic scene, some of the style that would come to define Mann’s later films. (It really is impressive as a first film.) But I’m going with a somewhat controversial choice here: Mann’s supernatural WWII flick, The Keep (1983). An adaptation of a novel by F. Paul Wilson, the plot of The Keep details a detachment of Nazi soldiers who occupy a remote Romanian castle because of its location near a mountain pass. And unwittingly, they awake an ancient malevolent demon from his confinement within the castle — all of which results in the return of another, benevolent spirit tasked with destroying the demon once and for all. This film actually features a really strong cast (i.e. Ian McKellan, Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, Alberta Watson, and Robert Prosky), and I’m a sucker for WWII era films with supernatural elements (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark). But…but…there are also a lot of problems here. Many of the issues can be attributed to circumstance — e.g. the special-effects supervisor died unexpectedly during production and didn’t leave behind any notes on the design of the monster, the effects, etc. Other issues can be attributed to studio interference, as Mann’s original cut of the film was 3.5+ hours, which execs forced him to cut down to 2 hours and then again to 90 minutes. As a result, the characterizations feel rushed and there are definitely gaps in the narrative. (Apparently, Wilson hated the adaptation of his work, so much so that he subsequently wrote a horror story about a writer who enacts revenge against a director for making a bad film version of a story. Mann himself was so frustrated by the production that he retreated into television work for awhile and has said that it’s his least favorite film.) Despite all the problems, however, there’s something undeniable fascinating and weird about the film; and I think it’s better than its critical / commercial reputation — though it’s status has grown a bit in recent years.
The One to Avoid
As mentioned earlier, Michael Mann’s least favorite film (among his own work) is The Keep — which is definitely a flawed film but one that I think is weird enough to at least be interesting. For me, it comes down to Mann’s last few films, each of which has been disappointing in its own way. On paper, Public Enemies ought to be more interesting than its final product, considering both the focus (i.e. John Dillinger and the American robber heroes) and the good actors involved; overall, it’s a serviceable film that you feel like should be better. Mann’s most recent film, Blackhat, was critically panned and, to be fair, it’s not very good. That said, one can imagine the film being better if it were a 90-minute film instead of a 130(ish)-minute film — focusing more on the action and less on the technology. So my pick here is Miami Vice (2006). Like Public Enemies, the film is frustrating because this talented cast just can’t, for whatever reason, seem to embody the material — i.e. you never really buy into Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as the iconic Crockett and Tubbs. Like Blackhat, the film definitely overstays its welcome in terms of run-time with long (and recurring) stretches where I was checking my watch to see how much was left in the film. Since it seems like a melding of the worst qualities of its fellow “bad” Mann films, it wins the title of “One to Avoid.”
The Place to Start
Start with the best: Heat (1995). Its style is a little “toned-down” from some of Mann’s other works — though it’s still got style in spades — but it’s a very accessible film, one that can be enjoyed on the first viewing and subsequent viewings. If you like Heat and Mann’s ability to create tension followed by engaging action, then I’d follow this up with Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, or Collateral.
The Final Word
As mentioned earlier, for whatever reason, I just never think of Michael Mann as one of my “favorite directors,” even though, re-watching his filmography, I think his work is impressive and, more often than not, highly engaging and enjoyable. [In particular, his first eight films are all worth seeing at least once.] It’s a bit of a shame that his work in the last 10 years hasn’t quite lived up to the high-bar set by his earlier work. Still, his later and less successful films do still look great, even if they aren’t as compelling in terms of narrative or characterization. Mann has truly created a unique and recognizable visual style; and in a medium where imagery is at a premium, that shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated. I’ve certainly gained a more deliberate appreciation for his work as a result of this retrospective.