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Retrospective: The Films Of Michael Mann

by The Playlist Staff
January 14, 2014 1:12 PM
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Ali” (2001)
Perhaps Mann's most traditionally prestige-y type fare, "Ali" sees the great American documenter of professional life turn his eye to the ultimate self-styled American professional, boxer Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, as played, in a role that's still his finest hour, by megastar Will Smith. Documenting the tumultuous decade between 1964 and 1974 that goes from Clay's heavyweight championship bout against Sonny Liston, through his awakening in the Nation of Islam and the changing of his name, to his refusal of the draft, to the Rumble In the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire, it's an ambitious affair, even for a near-3-hour runtime. But at least to begin with, it feels like Mann might have pulled it off: the opening, scored to Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," is astonishing, and there's a vivid energy to the following scenes that gives the impression that the filmmakers have hit on something very special, not least when anchored by a performance from Smith that uses every wattage of his charisma but lets him be Ali, not the Fresh Prince. But after the first act, things derail a little: the script, credited to four writers including Mann and "The Insider" 's Eric Roth, is unwieldy and overstuffed, ultimately falling prey to the biopic trap of trying to take on too large a chunk of its subject's life. And Mann never quite feels as simpatico with the socio-political upheaval stuff as with the boxing scenes (which are as well shot as anything in the genre since "Raging Bull"—indeed, as Mann's sole collaboration with the great Emmanuel Lubezki, it's a reminder that while his digital experimentation has been welcome, his work has never looked as beautiful since he left 35mm behind). The film's closest cousin is probably "Malcolm X," and it's hard to not wonder what Spike Lee could have done with the material. But still, there's an awful lot to love here, from the killer soundtrack and rousing recreations of the Rumble In the Jungle, to the way Smith genuinely exposes a little of his subject's soul, to fine supporting performances from Jamie Foxx, Jeffrey Wright and the Oscar-nominated Jon Voight, who pulls off a remarkable, prosthetics-aided facsimile of legendary commentator Howard Cosell. [B-]

"Collateral" (2004)
While Mann employed high-definition video cameras for select portions of "Ali" (yes really), he more extensively utilized the format for "Collateral," a movie that served as his halfway point between the classical, shot-on-celluloid films of the early part of his career and the more experimental, extremely stylized movies (films seems to be the wrong word) of this current creative period. Here, while the digital photography seems fresh and oftentimes comes across as electrically alive, it still looks pretty crummy, and the digital stuff sitting side-by-side the traditionally photographed material (like the great sequence where Jamie Foxx goes into the Mexican dancehall to meet Javier Bardem's terrifying drug kingpin and the stuff in the jazz club) certainly doesn't do it any favors. Still, Mann seems creatively reinvigorated by the use of the new format, with his sociological observations on Los Angeles resting comfortably inside a nifty genre contraption about a hitman (Tom Cruise, whose silver hair and equally silver suit suggest The Terminator more than anything else, and whose against-type performance here is among the very best of his career) who charters a taxi (driven by Foxx) as he goes on a nightlong killing spree. As impressive as the film's technical aspects are, the performances and particularly the chemistry between Foxx and Cruise, in one of his only outwardly villainous roles, are where the movie's heart truly lies. (There are a number of great blink-and-you'll-miss-them supporting performances, including speaking roles essayed by Mann's protégé Peter Berg, Mark Ruffalo, Jason Statham and Jada Pinkett-Smith.) "Collateral" isn't perfect, with Mann having seemingly lost his grasp on his ability to choose appropriate music to go along with his impeccable images (what is that Audioslave song all about?) and it twists and turns satisfyingly only until it finally snaps our belief, but as a work of streamlined genre storytelling, it's pretty unstoppable. Before the movie came out Cruise was fond of telling people that the script was so finely calibrated that you could tune a guitar to it. He's not wrong. At the end of Mann's occasionally brilliant, blood-splattered nighttime odyssey, it's the characters that really matter, not the number of pixels. [B+]

Miami Vice” (2006)
Michael Man’s most audacious experiment in recent memory, turning the beloved, colorful, highly stylized eighties cop drama “Miami Vice,” on which he originally served as an executive producer, into a vibrant, grainy, you-are-there contemporary thriller, ended up wildly divisive. But on our side of the fence, it's a crackerjack piece of filmmaking that is maybe the sine qua non of late-period Mann aesthetics, tethered to a recognisably Mann's-man's-man plot (sorry). Colin Farrell plays Crockett, the character originally played by Don Johnson, and Jamie Foxx is his partner Tubbs (originally Philip Michael Thomas), two undercover cops who get in over their heads with an international drug ring. And while all the good stuff is there in the theatrical version of “Miami Vice,” which Mann wrote, directed, and produced, the expanded director’s cut, later released on home video, is a revelation. The expanded runtime allows both the labyrinthine mechanics of Mann’s crime narrative to take on the appropriate sprawl, and lets us spend more time with the characters, giving us more investment in the pair of doomed relationships that the detectives develop (with, in a move that still, sadly, seems way ahead of its time, a pair of non-white actresses—Gong Li and Naomi Harris). While very little of the original television show remains in the movie, aside from some of the fashions and an emphasis on those cigarette-like “go boats” that race off the coast, it’s still fun to play spot-the-reference, like the twinkly flourishes of John Murphy’s neato score or the inclusion of a cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” which was memorably used in the series’ pilot. (Though, on the minus side, Mann’s baffling love of Chris Cornell continues; he uses two horrible Audioslave songs here.) The movie also features Mann’s deftest use of high-def digital photography, with everything taking on an added level of immediacy that borders on the splashily electric and gives the action sequences, many of which are amongst the best of Mann’s career, additional sizzle. It’s unclear whether or not Universal saw “Miami Vice” as the beginning of an adults-only franchise; as it stands it’s a one-off treat, and if perhaps it doesn't exert the deeper thematic pull that the filmmaker at his very best can summon. It's still, naysayers be damned (and seriously, revisit!), a smooth, jazzy late career triumph for one of Hollywood’s headiest action filmmakers. [B+]

Public Enemies” (2009)
“Digital makes things feel more real, like you could reach out and touch them,” Michael Mann said in cinematography magazines on the eve of the release of his Dante Spinotti-shot high-resolution 2009 feature. And while the director had dabbled with digital photography as far back as “Ali,” never had the stylistic choice been so polarizing and so jarring as with the 1930s, Depression-era period piece “Public Enemies.” Starring Johnny Depp as notorious bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale as famed, dogged FBI agent Melvin Purvis, one could have expected lots of heavyweight sparks between the two actors, but like in “Heat,” Mann lets these men-at-cross-purposes share just one scene. In fact, similarities with Mann's inarguable masterpiece are everywhere: Dillinger, like De Niro’s Neil McCauley has zero tolerance for unprofessional loose cannons and those associates who do not respect the craft. And while Dillinger is much more a would-be celebrity populist than McCauley’s austere, anti-social thief, his honor within criminal codes similarly defines him. And like the hard-luck crook in “Thief,” Dillinger subconsciously knows he’s living on borrowed time, hence the similar accelerator-to-the-pedal approach to romance. But while perhaps a confluence of many of Mann’s greatest themes, “Public Enemies” just doesn’t quite gel on the level of earlier masterpieces and actually says far less (revelatory or otherwise) about each of its characters. Bale’s Purvis for one is mostly a non-entity other than the determined and driven FBI agent, and for all of Depp’s charms, he rarely can make Dillinger into a wholly captivating individual. Chock-a-block with supporting actors and cameos (pre-fame Carey Mulligan, Emilie de Ravin and Jason Clarke, plus Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Billy Crudup and more to name a few), it doesn’t help that the central romance between Depp and Marion Cotillard is missing a lot of crucial, fundamental chemistry. The use of anachronistic modern music and digital photography isn’t so much of an issue (especially on repeat viewings), though it admittedly veers between looking astonishingly beautiful, and then as if it was shot on a cell phone. And digital does push the coldness factor. The dispassionate, but locked-in and masterfully detailed gaze of Michael Mann often creates deeply engrossing and humanizing portraits of criminals and their fetishes, but “Public Enemies” is perhaps his most detached work; it’s as if these men don’t mesmerize the filmmaker in the same way. Still, the stylish and brutal film and its technically accomplished pursuit has a grinding intensity that crackles in its last act, capping a film that might be hard to fully fall for, but still has many elements that are easy to admire. [B-]

"Luck" (2011, TV show)
Creator, executive producer and director of the pilot episode, Michael Mann’s return to television on HBO was certainly rich with promise, exploring the world and lives of those around a horse racing track. As the story goes, production on the show was contentious, with Mann and writer David Milch forced to strictly divide their duties: the director tackled the pilot, and closely oversaw the episodes shot by other filmmakers over the rest of the season, while the scribe gained total control of the scripts. The result? A show that was energetically and excitingly shot—the horse race sequences were always thrilling across all nine episodes—but narratively bogged down, with at least a half dozen subplots going at any one time, but none allowed to take central focus. Both initially confusing and molasses-paced, “Luck” somewhat rewarded the patient viewer who stuck around to see how the storylines eventually developed. But overall, it felt very much like a show created by two people who owned individual parts of the production but never truly collaborated. The verve Mann puts on display and instills in the guest directors makes it feel like the visuals are moving at a different pace than the actual storylines, creating a disconnect that the show never really managed to overcome. Still, for Mann completists, the pilot and show are worth tracking down if only to see the filmmaker bring his cinematic techniques to a smaller canvas, in the modern age of great TV, without missing a beat. [B-]

Michael Mann will return! His next film "Cyber" (a title it's working under but hasn't been officially confirmed) is slated to arrive in January 2015, but we kind of refuse to believe that for several reasons, and have included it in our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 (in fact, were that release date debate any clearer, it would probably have been higher than no. 16). Detailing a cyberterrorist attack which necessitates the involvement of a hacker criminal and spans several countries across South East Asia, it stars Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis and Tang Wei and we can't wait. -- Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Ben Brock & Gabe Toro

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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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