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

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

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-]