In 33 years of filmmaking, director Michael Mann has only made 10 theatrically-released feature-length films. Averaging one every three years (with two long gaps of about six years—we're reaching the end of the second now), his un-prolific nature is perhaps due to meticulous and exhausting research processes and character explorations which often lead to completed screenplays ... only for him to abandon them when he finds something amiss. “I only do films I truly believe in,” Michael Mann said in a 1990s interview expressing frustration with his somewhat unproductive pace and yet simultaneously articulating the vital quality that makes him the filmmaker we know today. It's the sort of thing many directors might say, but Mann, more than many others, has the courage of his convictions and the resulting short but blazing filmography to back up his sincerity.
"I don't work 40 hours a week and come home, take [weekends] off and leave my work at the office. I don't know how to live like that,” one of the lead detectives says in “L.A. Takedown,” Mann’s 1989 TV movie that he remade faithfully years later as “Heat.” These fixations are as much Mann's words to live by as they are axioms that could conceivably apply to practically every lead character the filmmaker has ever created. In fact, the central male in the films of Michael Mann (and it's always a man) is almost always defined by his code of life. His central preoccupation is often professional obsession, even fanaticism, often at the price of ordinary existence, which is perhaps why so many of his men are ascetic, Zen-like students of their own trade; detached to the point where they are able drop everything if things go south and walk away with only the skills they have worked on. Somehow we never doubt those skills will be enough.
Perhaps this ongoing interest in professional zeal is what attracts Mann so often to stories pitting criminals against those who seek to put them behind bars ("Heat," "Public Enemies," Thief," “Collateral,” "Miami Vice” both the TV show—which Mann produced—and the movie). His films frequently suggest that in fact, at the top of their respective games, crooks and cops are not so dissimilar as men: they each live and die by their own codes and they each recognize themselves in the other. There is even a loose honor among between these seeming adversaries, almost a mutual understanding.
But if Mann returns repeatedly to drink from the same thematic well, rarely are the results repetitive or uninspired. His favorite reoccurring motifs—sacrifice, commitment to craft above all things, pre-planned exit strategies, the failure of domestic bliss and what author Nick James calls the “uneasy truce between women and men”—are almost always present, but often he combines these elements with trademark focus and precision in different permutations to yield subtly but undeniably different results. The titular pugilist of "Ali" sacrifices wife after wife for the higher calling of boxing; the detectives of "Miami Vice" live to work; the career criminal of “Collateral” could be a modern day “Le Samouraï”; "The Insider" chronicles the compulsive behavior of two men in search of the truth; while "Manhunter" follows a meticulous cat-and-mouse game in which cat and mouse are evenly matched. These are all focused, professional, tunnel-visioned men but their spheres, and the films they inhabit as as similar but as unique as fingerprints.
With his later-era phase of digital filmmaking, early adopter Mann has somewhat polarized his following in recent years, but even as he’s divided audiences, he’s still often enraptured us with his laser-focused portraits of men following a professional code of honor with such dedication that it renders them exceptional. Not at all unlike the filmmaker himself.
"The Jericho Mile" (1979, TV movie)
It can be unfair to lump a director’s television work in with his theatrical features, especially when it dates from the very start of his career. And at first glance, Michael Mann’s full-length fiction debut (his previous credits comprise a documentary, a short, a documentary short and a single episode of the Angie Dickinson-starring “Police Woman” show), “The Jericho Mile,” which was produced by ABC, fits this mold. With its boxy aspect ratio, low production values and lack of established stars, it’s the kind of film that could now be an embarrassment to a prestige filmmaker of such consummate sophistication as Mann. Except it’s really good. Sure, the trappings are creaky, especially as even the DVD transfer (PAL only, we believe) isn’t the highest quality (and on YouTube the image is occasionally pixelated to the point of incomprehensibility), and a rather insistent instrumental version of “Sympathy for the Devil” is overused as a leitmotif, but the story is brilliantly resonant and compelling even now, and the casting of actual inmates and the use of the actual Folsom Prison as a location gives it a very Mann-esque feeling of authenticity throughout. It’s the surprisingly moving tale of Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss, doing a fine job with a role that in a bigger budget version would have probably gone to Clint Eastwood), a lifer serving out his sentence for murder the only way he knows how—by keeping to himself bar a single interracial friendship, remaining resolutely removed from the ethnic gangs and factions that jostle for power on the inside, and indulging his one hobby and talent: running. In fact, it comes to the attention of the prison authorities that he may be one of the fastest runners in America and could qualify for the Olympic team. What then unfolds builds quietly into something unassumingly epic, a grand yet pessimistic drama (the anti-‘Shawshank’) about the danger of hope in this hopeless place, and the cruelty of dreams that circumstances will always thwart. Oh and the cautionary tale of ever trusting Brian Dennehy. What could easily turn into an inspirational movie-of-the-week-style drama about overcoming insurmountable odds or some such guff instead becomes a bruisingly melancholic parable about the inherent contradictions of a prison system supposedly dedicated to the ideal of rehabilitation in a wider society that doesn’t know or care what that word means. Mann and co-writer Patrick J. Nolan play it as a kind of unfunny cosmic joke: even as Murphy, despite himself, unites the racially divided prison population in support of something noble and decent, the uncaring world outside will always cheat him of his newfound aspirations. To the point that perhaps Murphy was right before, and he never should have hoped in the first place. It’s a sad, intelligent, occasionally angry film that highlights issues that, if you minus the jive talk and the hairstyles, remain to this day, and it’s an early example of Mann’s unsentimental humanism, a trait that is often overlooked in his glossier big-screen outings. [B+]
It’s rare that with a filmmaker’s first theatrical feature we get to stare straight at a near-perfect iteration of what he will become, but that’s the case with Michael Mann and the terrific “Thief.” It’s a film that, while wearing its influences on its sleeve (touchstones “Rififi” and “Le Cercle Rouge” are called to mind by the wordless opening heist scene), is its own animal, and went on itself to become so influential that its induction into the Criterion Collection, while certainly welcome, feels long overdue (for a while this elegant, spare, character-driven crime drama was relatively undervalued). This is doubly incomprehensible when you consider that it contains the self-judged best performance from James Caan (what, do you really need us to remind you he was in “The Godfather”?), as well as one of the greatest undersung debut performances ever from 51-year-old Robert Prosky, and a very strong candidate for the single greatest scene that Mann has ever directed: a diner scene that is mirrored by its more famous counterpart in “Heat.” In “Thief,” however, rather than Pacino and De Niro, the scene features Caan and Tuesday Weld, and delivers, through dialogue that is at the same time transparently performed and heightened beyond strictest realism, everything you need to know about these two complex characters, especially Frank (Caan). And even this early in his career, Mann shows his uncanny knack for creating something epic and tragic and sweepingly dramatic out of details that in other hands could be hammy cliches: witness Frank’s pathetic collage, culled from magazines cuttings, that depicts the dream life for which he strives. In anyone else’s hands that’s the picture of the sailboat the doomed guy’s gonna buy when he retires, but Mann and Caan make it something else, something compelling and desperate and lonely and sad. Slickly lit night driving scenes as neon reflections bounce across windscreens (prefiguring "Blade Runner" 's aesthetic by a year; the comparison is especially noticeable in the new Criterion version), an authenticity borne of deep research and a spartan, uncondescending attitude to the audience’s intelligence are also precursor Mann trademarks in evidence here, but this is much more than simply a film for completists. With its gory, slo-mo shotgun blasts, late-stage pyrotechnics and a Tangerine Dream score that’s either iconic or irritatingly dated, depending on your viewpoint, at the very beginning of the decade “Thief” embodied many of the earmarks of what we now recognize as '80s cinema, even debuting such subsequently familiar faces as Prosky, Dennis Farina and James Belushi. But with its unwavering focus on character, lived-in performances and almost Bressonian interest in the minutiae of procedure—the tools, the craft, the effort—it also entirely transcends its time period to become something very close to a classic. [A]
“The Keep” (1983)
Not so much a skeleton in Mann’s closet as a gigantic hulking glowy-eyed smoke monster in his remote Romanian fortress, “The Keep” is inarguably a total shambles, but it is a kind of fascinating shambles. That Mann essayed it at all is seems in retrospect tremendously unlikely, but it’s proof that whatever the rest of his filmography suggests, Mann wasn’t always laser-focused on being the master of the low-key, pulsating, urban crime drama, and indeed, after the modest success of his theatrical debut “Thief” appears to have looked at this story of Nazis, priests, immortal demon thingies, Romanian peasants and wheelchair-bound Jewish professors of arcana and thought “Hey! Maybe that’s my wheelhouse!” The novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson is reportedly a sweeping epic of real-world historical evil coming into contact with otherworldly evil and perhaps, in its original, reportedly 3 1/2-hour cut, the film would have been that too, but the truncated 96-minute version that got released seems to have been assembled quite arbitrarily with no thought for story coherence or character consistency. And so things happen in a bewildering, unprompted fashion: from one scene to the next people show up in places where decades of film language development suggest they can’t already be; characters change from crazy to sane and back again without apparent cause; Eva (the blankly doe-eyed Alberta Watson), the daughter of Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), falls into bed with the mysterious glowy-eyed avenging angel Glaeken (Scott Glenn) having known him for about 30 seconds and engages in one of those long writhy sex scenes on which the '80s expended most of its celluloid. (But if the love story did it for you, there's even an alternate ending where they reunite.) It’s batshit bonkers and about as far as imaginable from the cool, slick-but-gritty restraint that became Mann’s signature, though the set design and some bravura camera moves certainly hint that there’s more going on in terms of visual style, than a mere journeyman would bring. And there are flashes of something better—some of the speeches given to the ‘good German’ (Jurgen Prochnow) or to the evil SS officer played by Gabriel Byrne, actually bring up unusual philosophical questions before we abruptly cut away to something daft. With a Tangerine Dream score on hand to remind us that though the film may be set in 1941, it was made in 1983, and that occasionally feels like an extended Kim Carnes intro, “The Keep” amounts to the one thing that Mann movies can never otherwise be accused of: camp. The director's filmography is short enough that almost every entry has some superlative with which we can sum it up, and this one is no different: it is, by a very, very wide margin Mann’s silliest film, though not without its passing, largely wtf?, pleasures. [C]