Tuesday, September 27, 2011

the Directors: Michael Mann

Best to get things clear right away: Michael Mann is the premiere filmmaker of contemporary American crime stories.  It’s simply inarguable.  In accepting that, I can safely assert that I am a Mann fanatic, which means I stand alone concerning several of his films.  

Although he doesn’t make many films, Michael Mann does something that many mainstream American filmmakers shy away from: he challenges us with every passing picture.  Never one to spell it all out or offer up tireless expository dialogue, Mann trusts his audience in ways few filmmakers do.  He assumes we have a brain, and also that catching up (and paying attention) are not lost commodities in the cinematic art form.

Thief (1981)
Stuck snuggly between the veracity of the ‘70s and the cocaine-fueled, techno luster of the ’80s, lies Michael Mann’s extraordinary debut film Thief.  There’s a common maxim among thieves, that getting away with a crime is far more difficult than committing it.  That’s the focus of career crook, Frank (James Cann) and his merry gang of bandits.  They plot (curiously), they steal (fascinatingly), and then they fight for their lives (devastatingly). 

Caan, in a career-best role equal to his Sonny Corleone, is wholly convincing as the titular character.  He moves slow, stands in the corner, and talks purposefully, void of any contractions.  He’s clear, imposing, and, at a moment’s notice, brutal. 

The music by Tangerine Dream, is offputtingly synthesized, until you realize how well it not only fits the setting, but helps motivate the action as well.  Thief is a startling debut, a perfect promise a near-flawless career.  A-

The Keep (1983)
Here’s what I remember from The Keep, Mann’s second, utterly incomprehensible feature:  Foreboding Nazis, a dark cave, Ian McKellen screaming, an indecipherable Scott Glenn, a hidden spirit that kills people, angry Nazis, extreme close ups, awful music, fog, a lost Gabriel Byrne, dead Nazis.

If this review seems hazy, it isn’t for lack of trying.  When I watched The Keep, I paid attention.  When the movie quickly began to make no sense, I paid even closer attention.  I figured Mann was playing some lucid dream trick and would tie it up sufficiently with an epic resolution.  Nope.  The Keep is simply a bloody disaster. 

There’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of this movie.  It’d be best if we all just pretended like this never happened. D-

Manhunter (1986)
Before Jonathan Demme nabbed the Big Five Oscars, before Ridley Scott ripped guts out and ate brains, and before Brett Ratner made his only really worthy film, Michael Mann introduced us to the mind of Hannibal Lector. 

Manhunter is often forgotten as the inaugural adaptation of Thomas Harris’ infamous serial killer.  And, in comparison to The Silence of the Lambs, which followed five years later, this line of thinking is mostly fair.  Brian Cox isn’t as notable a Lector as Anthony Hopkins, William Peterson isn’t as innocent a cop as Jodie Foster, and Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde isn’t as deranged a killer as Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill.

But it’s fruitless to compare.  If you simply focus on what Manhunter is, without taking Demme’s film into context, then Manhunter succeeds thrillingly. Its pacing is smooth, its editing is gripping, its acting is flawless; all amounting to a great psycho thriller.  Diehard fans of Harris’ Lector novels often say that Manhunter is the best, most honest, depiction of his book.  Me?  I’m on the fence.  You be the judge.  A-

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Of all of Michael Mann’s films (again, excluding The Keep), The Last of the Mohicans feels the least like his.  The dialogue pops, and there are equally strong male and female leads, but other than that, this French and Indian War flick doesn’t have that signature Mann stamp.

But this, mind you, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Daniel Day-Lewis, as he so often does, completely embodies his character, making his Hawkeye a sensual, intelligent, ferocious beast of a man.  This film is filled with a slew of solid scenes – both in action and dialogue – but ultimately, those sequences are more memorable than the movie as a whole.

The waterfall scene deserves particular attention.  If handled in lesser hands, it could come off as horribly laughable.  But because of Day-Lewis and a career-best Madeleine Stowe, the scene works flawlessly.  Hawkeye’s speech is one of the finest, most convincing proclamations of love seen in recent American cinema.  It’s a masterful scene, one of the most moving of Mann’s career.  I can’t say the same for the movie itself.  B

Heat (1995)
How does one summarize Heat, the best non-mafia crime film of the past 20 years, maybe ever, in a few short paragraphs?   Heat is 170 minutes long and not one spoken word or frame of film is wasted.  Every shot, every musical queue, every subtle twitch is fully necessary.  This is a complicated film with a very simple plot, executed to utter greatness.

Veteran police detective, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino, flamboyant, confident, a little bit insane) makes it his duty to take down career criminal, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro, reserved, confident, a little bit insane).  McCauley is planning an epic bank heist that will catapult him into immediate retirement, while Hanna is trying to keep his two consecutive marriages – to his wife and his job – afloat.

What Heat does – slowly, methodically and viciously – is make the audience root for both sides evenly.  We want the thieves to succeed, but at the same time, we would like to witness their demise.  This quality is achieved no better than in the film’s bombastic centerpiece, in which a successful bank robbery erupts into a hellacious battle of bullets in downtown LA.  During the scene, inarguably the very best shootout in film history, the action cuts back between the two crews.  When we’re on De Niro, we pray that he gets away with it.  When the camera focuses on Pacino, we pray that he gets his man.  This same mentality (wanting both men to win) can be said for the classic diner sequence, which pits to acting legends in the same frame, to wondrous results.

I could talk at length, ad nauseam in fact, about this film, but like all great movies, Heat is better experienced on screen than on paper.  I do want pay mention to a character that gets very little attention in reviews.  About 40 minutes into the film, we meet an ex con (played with reserved regret by Dennis Haysbert) who is starting a new job at a diner.  Occasionally, the film cuts back to his story, keeping us informed about his steadfast wife, and his legitimate desire to improve himself.  This subplot has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the film… until it does.  That’s Michael Mann for you, slowly narrowing in on the broad scope he lays out. 

Heat is Mann’s masterpiece.  Essential viewing for the remotest fans of the cinematic medium.  A+

The Insider (1999)
The best part about prepping for this post was refreshing myself on The Insider.  I’ve seen it several times, but it’s one of those movies that you take more away from everytime you watch it.  I don’t just mean story wise (which we’ll discuss later), but experience wise as well. 

For example, I haven’t watched The Insider since receiving my degree in journalism and spending a few years working at newspapers.  I now understand all the jargon, the back alley deals between the TV bigwigs and print media maestros, the difficulty in achieving a reliable source, and the importance of keeping that source comfortable.  Like all great films, The Insider gets better with age; it reveals itself to you while you impose what you’ve learned on it.

The Insider tells the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, never better), a Big Tobacco whistle blower who entrusted 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino, who hasn’t been better since) to handle his story with care.  Although they were eventually successful, their success was not without obstacles.  Lawsuits were imposed, (alleged) death threats were issued, people were fired, guns were shed, and so on.

Basically, The Insider is a compilation of scenes in which middle aged white guys sit around and talk, and occasionally scream, about the problems surrounding Wigand’s case.  It shouldn’t work, but it does, masterfully, which is why I have no problem labeling The Insider as Mann’s most technically proficient film.

Rarely is sitting in a hotel lobby, or driving golf balls, made to be so enthralling.  Credit the great Dante Spinotti, whose cinematography here is unparalleled, the seamless editing, the subtle, pulsating score, the sleek production design, and so much more. Mann is commonly known as a master of details, a characteristic exercised no better than in this film.

Now, I believe I’ve seen The Insider seven times, and upon watching it last weekend, I noticed something I never picked up on before.  There’s a scene that takes place at a payphone in the hallway of a high school.  Russell Crowe talks into the phone in close up, arguing with Al Pacino on the other end.  Crowe’s voice becomes so loud, that passing students start to take notice.  Watch the faces that temporarily lock on to Crowe.  Blink and you’ll miss it.  Exactly. A

Ali (2001)
The most polarizing film of Mann’s career is also, for my money, one of his very best.  Ali was released to favorable critical reaction, little commercial attention, and a pair of Oscar nominations.  Google the movie now and you’ll find that people either love it or absolutely despise it.

I’m proud to be in the former for a multitude of reasons.  Putting aside my unabashed love for the sport of boxing, Ali has everything fans of Mann have come to appreciate.  A layered story, dynamic acting, an eye for detail, miraculously staged action sequences, a sharp look, and so on. 

The boxing scenes (namely the recreation of The Rumble in the Jungle) are, bar none, the most accurate ever put on film. I love Raging Bull and I love Million Dollar Baby, but Ali puts you in the ring better than any film ever has, thanks much in part to Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork and Will Smith’s impressive physical transformation.

I’ve heard criticism that Will Smith brought no humor to one of the most wildly charismatic figures in sports history.  I’ll agree with that to a point. Ali isn’t about the best of times, it’s about the major hardships The Champ faced during the most influential decade of his life. I simply don’t understand why humor has to factor into it. 

My favorite moment of this film occurs as the ref calls the count after Ali knocks George Foreman down.  The camera shifts between real time and slow motion, tracking crowd shots, focusing on Ali’s face, capturing the ref issuing the count, and so on.  But suddenly the camera jerks sharply to Ali’s corner.  It pulls focus and frames Angelo Dundee, Ali’s lifelong trainer.  Ron Silver, playing Dundee, has his eyes open wide, slowly moving his head up and down, counting along with the ref.  He wants it just as bad as Ali does.  It’s the briefest of moments, but one that I find inexplicably moving.  A

Collateral (2004)
I once got into a productive argument with a friend about his hatred for Tom Cruise.  Like many of us, this friend of mine finds Tom Cruise annoying and talentless.  For reasons I can’t fully explain, I began defending Mr. Cruise, listing roles that I thought were more than worthy. 

Me: Born on the Fourth of July.
Friend: Too whiny.
Me: Risky Business.
Friend: Who gives a shit.
Me: Jerry Maguire.
Friend: Pussy.
Me: Magnolia.
Friend: (pause)
Me: That’s one. Eyes Wide Shut.
Friend: Be better without him.
Me: Collateral.
Friend: He isn’t in Collateral.
Me: He’s the star of Collateral.
Friend: (pause)

And this is precisely what I’m talking about.  This is the brilliance of Michael Mann. He can turn Russell Crowe into an overweight shlub, or the Fresh Prince into The Champ.  He can give Val Kilmer a blonde ponytail without it being ridiculous.  And he can turn one of the biggest, most loathed superstars into a cool, calculating, badass psycho killer.

Cruise isn’t all to thank for Collateral’s success.  Jamie Foxx is right there with him, chewing on every word of Stuart Beattie’s fabulous screenplay.  The HD camerawork, a staple among Mann’s films, serves the material perfectly, as does most every technical aspect. Like Heat, Collateral is a simple concept, amped up supremely in its delivery.  A-

Miami Vice (2006)
If you cut me a break on Ali, you’ll probably rip me to shreds here.  Miami Vice, by most all accounts, is a pretty poor action film.  Its few sequences of action are remarkable, but they are too quick and too far apart.  Solution is, I simply don’t view it as an action film. 

Like most of Mann’s movies, Miami Vice is a series of sequences in which experts talk at great lengths about things that the common audience member may not necessarily understand.  Those conversations culminate to an action sequence, but that isn’t what drives the movie.

There’s really not much more I can say; this film simply works for me.  I love how it opens right in the middle of a scene, and we have to scramble to catch up.  I love how a majority of the scenes are played out with little to no context.  I love Jamie Foxx’s layered performance and Colin Farrell’s domineering bravado. And I especially love how the film takes a dark, solemn turn after one of the main cops is seriously injured. 

It’s funny, the most common criticism against this film is its ending.  People thought the movie cut to black and left out any form of resolve.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Point in fact, the ending to this film, scored perfectly to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock,” is one of my all time favorite movie endings.  Life rarely offers firm resolutions.  You finish your shit and you go on with your day.  The final shot of Miami Vice is brilliant in its simplicity, and, much like Ron Silver’s eyes in Ali, moves me beyond words.  A-

Public Enemies (2009)
In telling the story of John Dillinger’s rise and ultimate demise, Michael Mann didn’t just recreate an infamous crime story, he recreated an era.  Technical proficiency, a keen eye for detail and virtuoso acting is something we’ve come to expect of Mann, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to see it implemented so harmoniously.

The acting in Public Enemies, by participants both big (Johnny Depp, Christian Bale) and minor (Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Stephen Lang) is effortlessly top notch. But the real scene stealer here is Marion Cotillard, who plays the criminal’s girlfriend bit in a way I’ve never seen.  She’s giving, determined, and loving to a fault.

And this brings me to my final point of Mann’s films.  Much attention is often paid to Mann’s male characters, which is obvious, given that Mann is a, well, man’s director. But in most every one of his movies, Mann proves the old proverb that behind every great man, there is a great woman.

Heat isn’t just about cops and robbers, it’s about how the women effect, and react to, the actions of their male lovers lead.  The Last of the Mohicans is empty without Madeleine Stowe’s resolute gaze.  Where’s the tension in Jeffrey Wigand’s story if not for his wife and little girls?  Say what you will about their relationship, but rarely has Mann delivered something as devastating as Colin Farrell starting into Gong Li’s eyes for the final time.

And now we get Marion Cotillard, an actress who can do more with the shifting of her eyes than most actors can do with every facility available to them.

Mann always knows when to cut out of his story.  He resolves what needs resolving and allows the viewer to fill in what needs filling.  Whether it’s Al Pacino staring off into an empty field, or Will Smith raising his arms triumphantly, or slowing down a shot of revolving doors, or tracking Colin Farrell walking into a hospital, or yes, watching Marion Cotillard cry in a prison visiting room, Michael Mann is a master of the denouement.  You may not always like his films, but make no mistake about it: you don’t just watch a Michael Mann film, you experience it. A-

In summation:
The Insider

Miami Vice
Public Enemies

The Last of the Mohicans

Just Plain Bad
The Keep

Listen to my podcast on HEAT!


  1. I haven't seen Thief or Manhunter, and I definitely need to watch the latter.

    Cut The Keep some slack! :) I reviewed that one for the LAMB's director's chair. It is completely f'ed up in terms of pacing and coherence, but the acting is solid. Someone else pointed out that Mann had a vastly longer cut of the film in mind and the studio got involved, which is probably why it's such a mess.

    I really need to watch The Last of the Mohicans all the way through. Not sure why I haven't already.

    I REALLY need to watch Heat again. That film is filled with great little bits. One piece of trivia that I recall is that some police organizations or a branch of the military or something screen the big bank robbery showdown to demonstrate how to retreat properly. Awesome.

    Great write-up!

  2. I dunno man, The Keep just didn’t do it for me at all. Granted, because it’s a Mann film, I did expected much more, but either way, a minor misstep in a great career. I’ve heard that his original cut was over three hours, which could definitely explain why it is the way it is.

    My buddy Andy Buckle gave a glowing review of Last of the Mohicans, which makes me think I need to watch it again too.

    You’re absolutely right about Heat being shown to the military. If I remember correctly, Val Kilmer says in one of the DVDs special features that military officers show the bank aftermath to soldiers. They particularly point out a brief scene when Kilmer’s gun runs out of bullets and he reloads and starts shooting, all in about 4 seconds. I believe Kilmer said an officer tells he troops that “if some Hollywood pussy can do it this fast, then you should be able to too.”

    Great stuff.

    Curious: what do you think about Ali and Miami Vice? Love? Hate?

    Thanks for your kind words!

  3. I've only really seen Ali once, but I remember liking it. I like your point about the humor. A scene that I remember is when Ali is shit talking another boxer before a match or something and the other boxer snaps at him which sort of stuns Ali into silence. That's probably Ali's life at that time in a nutshell.

    Haven't seen Miami Vice! Probably need to see that as well.

  4. Sonny Liston: "Keep talkin'...imma fuck you up."

    GREAT point, I think that's a very accurate summation of Ali's general mood in that flick.

  5. Great post. Not a huge fan of Mann, but I do love HEAT so I will try and check out some others.

  6. Thanks man. Yeah I really recommend The Insider, Ali and Miami Vice. Pretty much alone on the latter two though.

  7. The Keep is a "cool but indecipherable" movie which is a shame because it has great actors and the book is so brilliant.

    I wish hollywood would stop with pointless remakes of films which actually did work and remake (reinterpret) something, like the keep, which could really benefit from the treatment.

  8. Gavin, I COULD NOT agree with you more. My sentiments about remakes exactly.

    Why remake something that was already good? Why not take a stab at something that failed and try to improve upon it?

    I wrote an essay in college comparing Hitchcock's Psycho to Van Sant's Psycho, and in my research I discovered that the only reason Van Sant remade Psycho was to turn younger audiences onto the original film. His justification makes for a really good director's commentary on his Psycho DVD.

    But the whole notion is still pretty lame. If they remake Point Break, I will revolt.

  9. Sweet site, man. Great look and great writing. I love Miami Vice. "I'm a fiend for mojitos" is ridiculous, and so is the drug lord, and so is the goon saying "we catch a sho, gedda bite to eeet..."

    1. Thanks! Yeah, parts of Miami Vice are like... ohhh, no, no. But for the most part, I love the hell out of it.

  10. I have to question your tastes, when you rank The Last of the Mohicans with the 2nd lowest rating on your scale. It should be ranked as one of his best if not his best.

    From the simply stunning cinematography, outstanding acting and infectious Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones score, The Last of the Mohicans is nothing short of cinematic greatness.

    The head-on view of a musket firing as the powder ejects out, to the realistic, adrenalin-pumping tomahawk fighting scenes, the muffled sounds of canon fire in the distance that only grow louder as they approach the battle to the epic romance (and love triangle), The Last of the Mohicans to me is the epitome of cinematic greatness.

    1. It's funny, when I wrote this, I hadn't seen Mohicans in years. So my grade B was basically built around time-infused indifference. I rewatched it two months ago and would easily give it an A now. I love how movies can change with time.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  11. Finally someone else who actually liked Public Enemies and Miami Vice. No one directs action like Michael Mann. He is the best when it comes to that. The big bank robbery scene in Heat is one of my favorite scenes of all time. But my favorite movie of his, and probably my favorite movie of the 00's, has to be Collateral. Never has L.A. looked cooler and more depressing at the same time than in that movie. Tom Cruise as Vincent and Jamie Foxx as Max are both at their best here. My favorite scene of the movie is just when those two are stuck together in the cab just talking. That and the scene at he jazz club. That scene was so intense and just when you thought Tom Cruise's character had a little bit of humanity left in him, he shoots the guy in the head. But it's the reaction Vincent gives right after he does it that get's me every time. It's like it's the first time in a long that a kill has actually effected him a little and Tom shows that perfectly with just the smallest reaction.

    And i have heard a lot of people complain about the ending of the movie. That there is no way Max could have won over a professional hitman like Vincent in a shootout. But if you pay close enough attention to the scene it's actually pretty easy to understand. Vincent has been a calm and calculated killer throughout the movie that always knows where to shoot. Two in the chest and one in the head. That is how he takes out most of the people in the movie so of course that's what he is gonna do with Max as well. But due to first sitting in a cab that flipped over, shot in the neck and getting really angry and frustrated because he has to chase Max and Annie throughout the entire subway station he is no longer at the top of his game. He is getting impatient and just wants to finish the job as fast as possible. So when it finally comes to the showdown between the two Vincent sees Max standing in front of him with a gun and knows exactly where to shoot. But he does not notice now that just as when the light flicker off Max takes another step to the side. So while Vincent keeps shooting where he thinks Max is standing, Max is just shooting wildly around until he hits something. I have had to explain that scene a lot to people who don't get it. I remember listening to an episode of a film podcast (the slashfilmcast) where they talked about liking the movie, but hating the last scene because they didn't believe Max could win over Vincent in a shootout. I have never been more frustrated while listening to a podcast than that. four people who watch movie for a living could not catch that. But i have been rambling on forever now so i'll end it here. Now i just made myself want to watch Collateral again.

    1. I've never taken issue with the ending to Collateral either. This whole notion of "Oh, Max could never win over Vincent..." is just lazy criticism. I think anyone who's been in a major accident, been shot, and been put through the ringer over the course of a few hours can lose to anybody, you know?

      And shit man, I'm thrilled to find someone else who likes Miami Vice. I really love the hell out of that film.

  12. Okey, I saw Blackhat. A really big disappointment. Now I love Heat. It's great shot, well acted (even by De Niro), with many interesting subplots and a great direction. An A, from my because I love very very much just when DeNiro and Pacino are together in the same scene. I also really love Collateral but I can't recall very well the second half of it because I fall asleep.
    Now Blackhat isn't so good. It's very boring. It's acted well but the characters are underwritten (just Viola Davis was stood out). It shows how a computer work, but it isn't very much of it. The action scenes are perfect, shaky camera when it's needed, super sounding gunfires but nothing more. The plot its too complicated to follow. I don't like the film. C-.

    1. I liked Blackhat a little more than you, but I do think it is second tier Mann. I'b probably give it a B-. Had some good action scenes and really solid kills. Plus I liked that it showed its main protagonist as a man, as opposed to a super hero.

  13. Collateral was fantastic. I love it more than Heat (maybe I'll love it better on a second watch). What I love about this film is that is a simple story with just a few characters and lots of great action sequences. Tom Cruise give his best performance, and my second favorite. Jamie Foxx plays perfect in his role, but come on, is Vincent show. I love the way is shot L.A. So incredible is the direction and the score. I simply love the shit out of this film. A+. Couldn't be better.

    1. LOVE Collateral. It's such an L.A. film. That's a real nitty gritty L.A., and I love it. Interesting fact: I used to live one block from that Korean club (where the epic shoot-out happens). A really good movie.

  14. I'm heading off to a Micheal Mann-a-Thon this weekend in London. 5 (or six, I forget) of his movies through the night. Can't wait to see that heist from heat rage on the big screen!

    1. Man, that will be fucking awesome. I would LOVE to see Heat on the big screen. Love love love it.

    2. Have you seen the Friends of Eddie Coyle? Reminds me of the honest, endearing realism with which Mann watches his characters in Heat. Great film.

    3. Oh man, I love The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Mitchum is one of my all-time favorites. What a film. Very Mann-esque.

  15. Just revisiting this post because I'm on a big Mann kick at the moment, spurred on by finally getting around to seeing Miami Vice and being utterly, spectacularly floored. It might be one of the most beautiful examples of digital photography I've seen in the cinema, every shot absolutely fucking pops and the whole thing, stylistically, is so fucking cool and absorbing that every shot just about brings tears to my eyes. If I had the money and the motivation, this is the kind of film I would try to make (on a visual level, at the very least). And that final scene just left me totally broken. It's comfortably one of my favourite films now, and I'm very keen to make sure I see as much from Mann as I can (only other ones I've ticked off as of yet are Heat and Collateral - the latter of which is another example of a movie shot on digital that looks fucking incredible).

    1. Hell. Yes. Me and you both, my friend. I absolutely adore that film. It's some sort of avant-garde blockbuster that doesn't give a shit about convention. That ending is one of the best and most moving endings I've ever seen. So happy you enjoyed it. Shit, I'm about to watch this again right now.