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Retrospective: The Films Of Michael Mann

by The Playlist Staff
January 14, 2014 1:12 PM
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Manhunter” (1986)
While Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece “Silence of the Lambs” popularized serial killer icon Hannibal Lecter, it was Mann who first brought the character to the screen (here spelled Lecktor) for 1986’s deeply underrated but recently rehabilitated “Manhunter.” William Peterson, fresh from his role in “To Live and Die In L.A.,” plays unhinged FBI profiler Will Graham who is brought back into the fold when a serial killer, playfully dubbed The Tooth Fairy (played, in the movie’s last hour, by a ghostly Tom Noonan), proves too elusive for the investigators who are actually working the case. Brian Cox essays the famed serial killer in this incarnation, giving the character an air of European sophistication and maintaining his British accent. All adaptations involving the character that have been released in the years since “Manhunter” (including Brett Ratner’s clumsy remake “Red Dragon,” which airlifts whole sequences from Mann’s original) owe a debt to Cox’s characterization, whether they want to admit it or not, but the real star of “Manhunter” is Mann himself, who both wrote the screenplay (from Thomas Harris’ novel) and directed the film, with a cool, detached, super-stylized aesthetic that is just as striking today as it was nearly 30 years ago. “Manhunter” is a treat for the eyes, full of sharp neon colors, lengthy static shots and frames largely taken up with empty space, so pristine and meticulously planned that it feels like the perfectly symmetrical locations are going to swallow up the characters. However with a running time of over two hours, it does occasionally drag and is often undermined by both its fidelity to Harris’ original novel (certainly his least zippy) and its oddball structure, in which, about halfway through the movie, The Tooth Fairy becomes the main character and Peterson and his family are unceremoniously sidelined. Still, aside from these issues, it's interesting to watch "Manhunter" in context of the Lecter canon, with Dennis Farina playing a character that was later dramatized by Scott Glenn, Harvey Keitel and, on NBC’s cracking series “Hannibal,” Laurence Fishburne, and comparing the different embodiments of Lecter—Cox's, Anthony Hopkins' and Mads Mikkelsen's is a diverting masterclass in how three brilliant actors can take the same character, and in the context of three different productions, make him their own. In retrospect, too, Peterson’s characterization works for the most part, although his somewhat wooden performance was widely lampooned when the movie was originally released. But for Mann, at least, "Manhunter," which was his first time back in the saddle after the critical and commercial disappointment of "The Keep," saw him regain his sure-footedness and confidence and set him back on track to becoming the filmmaker we know him to be today.[B+]

The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
Despite recovering his balance with "Manhunter," Mann wasn't done with changing up his genre just yet—"The Last of the Mohicans" is an odd one: aside from the Pluto-like outlier of "The Keep," it's probably the least, uh, Mannly film on this list, being about as far from the slick, hyper-urban thriller as a blockbuster can be. Adapting James Fenimore Cooper's classic but barely-read novel of the 1757 French and Indian War was a strange choice in the first place, with its elaborate story of a largely forgotten historical episode: grafting on vague patriotic American resonances to a story about fairly horrible warfare between Brits, Frenchmen and various Native American groups doesn't really work. But Mann says his first cinematic memory is of watching George B Seitz's 1936 version, which had stayed with him ever since. Personal inclinations aside, though he eventually had reason to regret signing on for the production, with his meticulous directing style angering executives at Fox, who hurried along production and insisted he slim down his original cut (the version on most DVD releases today is a compromise: neither Mann's original version nor the first theatrical release, it falls somewhere between the two). But who cares? The final product is still magnificent, with the backdrop of North Carolina standing in for unspoiled New York, beautifully shot by Mann's regular DP, Dante Spinotti, and the score soaring above it all: though really, it's multiple scores, by Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman and Dougie MacLean, who composed “The Gael,” the signature tune. The overall blend of Gaelic folk, orchestral and electronica is the unexpectedly happy result of creative meddling from a studio that didn't know what direction it wanted to go in. And then there are the performances. “The Last of the Mohicans” is, to date, the film that has best made use of Daniel Day-Lewis as part of a wider cast, rather than allowing him to dominate the whole movie (not that we mind when he does that, though), and the woodcraft that he learned for the film has become part of his legend. Madeleine Stowe does excellent work as Cora Munro as well, but most impressive is the film's serious commitment to (excellent) Native American actors in Native American roles: take note, “The Lone Ranger” (and recall that Day-Lewis' Hawkeye is a European who has been raised by Mohicans). Long-time Lakota activist-actor-revolutionary Russell Means is suitably mighty as Chingachgook, Eric Schweig is touching as Uncas, and Wes Studi's completely chilling performance as Magua comes close to upstaging Day-Lewis himself. With all this, the plot remains a little chaotic—it would be fascinating to see the three-hour cut someday, but the set pieces keep coming, most movingly the farewell beneath the waterfall and the bloody, bone-crunching final battle on the cliff-top. 'Mohicans' remains an oddity for Mann, and Day-Lewis aside none of its cast are big names now, but it's still one of the director's finest films, and shows, if nothing else, that his decision to concentrate on the crime thriller genre was a matter of inclination and hardly because he couldn't turn his hand to other genres. [A-]

Heat” (1995)
"Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat coming around the corner,” Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley says, reciting his personal criminal mantra. In Mann’s world, men like McCauley put down scores like they have to breathe air to exist. Choosing to live life by their own rules, in doing so, outsiders like these recognize what they must forfeit in order to survive. On a slow-burning but inevitable collision course with McCauley is Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, the yin to his yang; an unwavering detective on the down slope of his third marriage thanks to his own obsessive nature in squeezing criminals. Possibly no better example of Michael Mann’s own brand of unyielding resolve can be found than in “Heat,” a high-fidelity remake of his TV movie “L.A. Takedown” which possesses much of the same story, dialogue and even shot design. Perhaps the filmmaker knew he hadn’t quite nailed the test of wills and magnetic determinism in his story of a career criminal looking to get out and the relentless detective who chases his shadow (though 'Takedown' is admittedly the sparer, nuts-and-bolts version of what would become a much more complex, thematically layered story). And thank God Mann attempted take two, as “Heat” is unquestionably a modern-day crime classic, an absorbing thriller and a drama that pits engaging and yet mysterious characters from either end of the spectrum in a battle that we simply believe only one can ever walk away from, and that will change them both forever. But what makes “Heat” such a masterful portrait of the criminal mind and its polar opposite/symbiotic twin is its elaborate tapestry of rich character textures. Peering into the thought processes of those who fight crime for a living and those who don’t know how to live any other way than outside the law, we get a trenchant glimpse of the opposing codes they abide by, and why they’re driven to pursue their respective aims in the first place. “Heat” is technically awe-inspiring—the brooding mood of after-dark Los Angeles as mysterious and cold as ever—but it’s also moving, incisive and captivating; a first-rate sprawling crime epic of the highest order. Michael Mann is clearly fascinated with these men, their conventions, what makes them tick and that immersion, in turn, is absolutely enthralling. [A]

The Insider” (1999)
A thriller in which the plot hinges on the airing of a “60 Minutes” special and a drama with no shortage of scientific terms, contracts and legal wrangling, tallied onto a runtime that spans over 2 1/2 hours … there is another version of this movie that is dry and procedural. Luckily, Michael Mann didn’t make that movie. Breathlessly paced, the excitements of “The Insider” aren’t found in the machinations of the plot, but rather in the inner struggles of the characters, in a film about the courage of allowing yourself to be made vulnerable and burden of carrying the truth. For Jeffery Wigand, the knowledge he carries on his shoulders manifests itself in paranoia and fear, but also a deep conviction that he must do the right thing. A portly, hangdog Russell Crowe plays the man as someone desperate to be heard and understood, and listening and understanding is hot-shot producer Lowell Bergman who will go into the depths of hell for a story, but soon finds he too has to pull strings to get the truth out when the tobacco industry machine begins to threaten his scoop by attacking Wigand. The camera of Mann’s longtime collaborator Dante Spinotti moves in tightly on Jeffrey and Lowell, almost as if it’s their conscience continually dogging their thoughts and actions, as they struggle with moral and ethical decisions that will have very real, and mostly negative, consequences on their personal lives. It’s during these moments of intimacy that “The Insider” transcends its reductive description as a “whistleblower drama” and reveals itself to be more about the kind of fortitude it takes to put oneself out in the open for the greater good, even at great personal and professional cost. Thus, it’s no surprise that “The Insider” wobbles occasionally—certain sequences teeter toward a self-awareness of their importance or are laid down too thickly with the score by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard. But those moments are few, and more often than not, “The Insider” is pure, gripping human drama about the ethical compromises we make each day to live and provide for those close to us, and what happens when the burden of those compromises becomes unbearable. [A-]

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  • Shell | April 21, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    As an aspiring screenwriter who has just completed her first serial crime courtroom series cable and/or full feature length screen treatment, the overall influence on my cinematic and novelesque orientations arise in large part to the works of Michael Mann. Mann has a gritty, take no prisoners plausible view of law enforcement and the judiciary and the ease with which corruption, special influence peddling, politics and alliances rule the end games in courtrooms nationwide. He also has a limitless eye on the importance of whistleblowers and muckrakers in shining lights on malfeasant governance and dangerous corporate intentions and actions that initiates non-stop drama, anxiety, audience paranoia and makes the viewer want more and more. It would be an honor for Director Mann to direct anything I have ever penned.

  • alex | March 18, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    one of the greatest directors ever so distinctive from everyone else that rare thing style substance moods and colors that put you in the frame of mind of his central characters and a visual style unmatched when a Michael Mann movie comes out it is an event.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    "The Keep" is his best film simply because its weird and imaginitive and has special effects in it, all his other movies are boring drama's, its a shame that disgusting and loathsome British faggot Ian McKellen was in it though, that spoils it.

  • George | February 17, 2014 9:07 PMReply

    I wonder why the Robbery Homicide Division pilot isn't even metioned.

  • fulci | February 15, 2014 2:04 PMReply

    lol this is satire right

  • sylvain | February 11, 2014 11:42 AMReply

    So let's resume: Collateral = B+ ???
    Miami Vice = B+ ???
    Manhunter = B+ ???
    The Insider (Mann's masterpiece) = A- ???
    Heat = A and not A+ ??
    Public Enemies = B- ????

    Ok, that's a true fact == >> Indiewire understand NOTHING in the work of the best contemporary filmmaker of our time.
    Ridiculous ratings.

  • Tomas | February 6, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    One of the best directors ever! A cinematic genius. I just hope we will see more films more Michael Mann.

  • Elcoolguy | January 19, 2014 1:08 PMReply

    Couldn't have disagreed more on your problems with Collateral, but that's just, like, your opinion, man!!!

  • David | January 16, 2014 9:06 AMReply

    William Petersen's performance "wooden", wtf!?

  • droop | January 15, 2014 8:46 PMReply

    what does a man need to do to get a a+ around here. like Heat isn't an a+?!

  • Luminous Carcass | January 14, 2014 6:34 PMReply

    Thief is an amazing movie with an equally amazing soundtrack, by far my favorite Mann flick. William Friedkin (with Sorcerer) and Mann really knew how to utilize Tangerine Dream to create memorable and yet haunting moments in their films. The scene in Thief where Caan is cracking the safe with fire sparks flying to the madness of Tangerine Dream's "Diamond Diary" is one of my favorite scenes in cinema.

  • Civilcinema | January 14, 2014 4:32 PMReply

    A correction: Ali's opening is timed to Sam Cooke's live version of Bring it on home to me, not A change is gonna come.

    Thanks for your continuing filmmaker retrospective series!

  • Tobi | February 13, 2014 7:16 AM

    Thank you, that's what I thought and I was thinking it over in my mind because I damn well know 'A Change is Gonna Come'.

  • recently reaped | January 14, 2014 3:13 PMReply

    My issue with Miami Vice was that it had very few similarities to the TV show. It just didn't have the same feel or look as the 80's version. I think I would have enjoyed it more had it not been named Miami Vice because other than being in Miami and having the same characters names I don't know how they were alike.

  • tristan eldritch | January 14, 2014 2:36 PMReply

    Great feature. I've been a Mann fanatic for ages. I know the content of his films may not interest everybody, but when it comes to the language of cinema, the mood and tonal elements of it, the composition of the shots, choice of lenses, editing, and so forth, few filmmakers in the world as as distinct and gifted as Mann. Personally, I think Public Enemies rather than Miami Vice is the really great late period Mann picture. It shows a director who had outgrown his earlier need (in Heat, for example) to verbalize all his ideas and themes in the script, conveying his ideas instead largely through images, and the characters through body language and nuances of facial expression rather than words - he has become over time something of a minimalist like John Pierre Melville did. I think history will judge Mann's digital experimentation more kindly than contemporary audiences - already its influence is starting to crop up quite a lot, in things like Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and Claire Denis' Bastards. I

  • Rodrigo | January 15, 2014 8:45 AM

    Great thoughtful reply Tristan. While I agree with your assessment for Public Enemies, what he *tries* to do via non-verbalization, but for me (who wrote up that capsule), it just doesn't quite work. Especially when compared to the rest of his work. Rewatching all these films was a total treat though.

  • goingorange | January 14, 2014 2:21 PMReply

    Cyber will have a limited release in Dec. 2014 and expand in Jan. 2015.

  • Jason | January 14, 2014 10:46 PM

    It's no longer called "Cyber." Mann confirmed this himself during a Q&A after a recent screening of the new version of Thief. It does not currently have a title.

    Also, there has been zero indication that the movie will be a limited release in December of this year. In the same Q&A, he said it was coming out in 2015.

  • tristan eldritch | January 14, 2014 3:40 PM

    Where's that intel from? Any idea when we might see a trailer?

  • ASFan | January 14, 2014 1:57 PMReply

    Interesting note: Jason Statham had one scene at the beginning of Collateral conspicuously trading briefcases with Cruise.

  • ASFan | January 14, 2014 1:58 PM

    Whoops. Didn't read Statham's name there.

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