Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Quick Overview of the Career of Michael Mann

As part of the LAMB Director of the Month, which focuses this month on contemporary American master of the crime genre, Michael Mann, I figured I would follow the inspiration of my buddy Alex at And So It Begins and work through the career of the director. Now, I haven’t seen all of his films, but I have to confess that the films I consider to be his best are amongst my all-time favourites. But one can’t deny that he always offers up an exhilarating experience, if Mann's latter films haven’t captured the magic of his work in the 90’s.

Missing: Thief (1981), The Keep (1983), Ali (2001) and Miami Vice (2006)

Manhunter (1986) 

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a wonderful suspense thriller, picking up a bunch of ‘91 Oscars and resulting in Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecktor being catapulted into the realm of all-time great villains.

But the first adaptation of Thomas Harris’ serial killer novel series was Michael Mann’s often-forgotten work, Manhunter. Now, it’s been a while since I saw this film, but there are several images that stick out to me – Brian Cox’s white-walled cell, William Petersen visiting the terrifying crime scene near the beginning, and fearing for Joan Allen, a blind co-worker who starts a romantic affair with Tom Noonan, playing Francis Dollarhyde (A.K.A The Tooth Fairy), the psycho Petersen is hunting.

When asked to investigate The Tooth Fairy, FBI profiler Will Graham (Petersen) comes out of retirement to offer his services. Along the way he has to confront fears from his past and seek the assistance of Lecktor, who once almost made him one of his victims. Here, Cox plays Lecktor equally spectacularly, and the great cast, which also includes Joan Allen and Dennis Farina, give fine performances. The film is tense, atmospheric, and far superior to Brett Ratner’s re-envisioning of Harris' novel in Red Dragon. ★★★★

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Here is a film I consistently find to be a rousing, exciting and moving experience. Set amidst a rich, turbulent and authentically recreated era of United States colonization and warfare, Mann has endowed the film with a number of thrilling and intense combat sequences, an inspiring and believable romance and a grand sense of adventure. It is also a great story. Featuring stunning cinematography and an Academy Award winning score from Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, The Last of the Mohicans stands as one of the finest adventure epics of the decade.

There is an epic quality to this film that is all impressively squeezed into a concise running time (108 minutes) that rewards multiple viewings. The battle sequences are expertly staged, complex and not shy on the brutality. Mixing staged gunfire, with tomahawk melee attacks, the violence is sporadic, thrilling and genuinely exciting. Mann simultaneously builds a compelling lead character (assisted by another fantastic performance from Daniel Day-Lewis), creates a believable and passionate romance - with an excellent Madeleine Stowe - that never overwhelms the story (though is essential to the narrative) and expertly recreates this turbulent historical period.

The conflicts and rivalries are genuine, the motives of the villains acceptable, and the heroics earned. While the battle sequences prove to be the most appealing feature, it has equal concerns for the adventure, and the scope of the film is what makes it memorable. Throughout the journey we are taken to a number of different locations around Northern America and Lake George, including Albany, Fort William Henry, Huron land and the beautiful surrounding wilderness. With Nathaniel at the centre, his comrades in tow, their story takes them across the rugged, war-torn and politically divided American landscape. 

The heart-wrenching conclusion always leaves me with shivers. This is primarily due to the wonderful score, which is one of my favourites in film. Near-flawless. ★★★★★

Heat (1995)

Now this is a crime film. Who else could pit two of the world’s greatest actors against one another in such stylish fashion, and manage to effectively develop this many characters - working on both sides of the law - and make us care for them all? Michael Mann of course. I’m not sure where to start when talking about this film.

Do I mention the infamous diner sequence where Robert De Niro (playing Neil McCauley, a professional thief whose squad is preparing a complex bank heist in order for McCauley to get out of the business) and Al Pacino (playing Lt. Vincent Hanna, married to his job and obsessed with bringing down McCauley’s gang) sit down for a coffee? The men, throughout the film, share a mutual respect for one another – and in this scene share the stresses of their opposing professions – but declare they would not hesitate to take each other down if opportunity called for it.

Do I mention the shootout scene in Downtown Los Angeles, which comes about following McCauley’s heist of the bank, which is one of the greatest you will ever see? Having been revealed to the lives of both men, and their families, colleagues and close friends, we can’t help but be torn between them. We want McCauley to escape, because he is seeking a way out and has built a relationship (Amy Brenneman) we care about, and we want Hanna to take down this notorious gang so he can start to repair his fractured relationship with his wife (Diane Venora) and depressed stepdaughter (Natalie Portman). While the running time (170 minutes) might seem long, it is amazing how well structured Heat is how quickly this absorbing tale flies by.

The supporting cast; which also includes Val Kilmer (fantastic), John Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Danny Trejo and Jeremy Piven all embody real characters, and even the smallest role is given significance here. I don’t think Mann could have executed this any better. ★★★★★

The Insider (1999)

Just look at Mann’s 90’s - The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and The Insider. Wow. The Insider is a powerful drama about the lengths two men are willing to go to expose the sinister truths about the illegal marketing practices of a major tobacco company, ultimately risking their lives, their reputation and career and the future of the CBS network to air the story on Sixty Minutes.

Recently fired as a scientific consultant for major tobacco company, Brown and Williamson, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), is referred to Sixty Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and asked to interpret scientific documents about Phillip Morris, another tobacco company. But, aware of perjury by the seven CEO's of 'Big Tobacco' to the U.S Congress about their false testimony of the addictiveness of nicotine, Wigand decides to blow the whistle on his former company. Battling confidentiality agreements and potential prosecution for testifying, death threats, and billion dollar lawsuits, Wigand and Bergman risk all they have to run the story. It is a gripping and emotionally draining tale. Also featuring a fantastic score and beautifully haunting cinematography by Dante Spinotti, this is one of Michael Mann's best and most important films.

Examining, in almost encroaching detail, the insider struggles of both Wigand's household and Bergman's beloved network, as they crumble beyond their control at the hands of a billion dollar corporation desperate to keep its name clear. Amongst an all-star cast, Russell Crowe and Al Pacino deliver outstanding performances. ★★★★ 1/2

Collateral (2004)

If there are any of Mann’s films I want to revisit (well, along with Manhunter), it is this one. I have seen it once, and I remember being thoroughly entertained. Mann, through visionary style, transformed the city of Los Angeles into a character of its own, and threw in several exciting action sequences. The nightclub sequence, to the sounds of Paul Oakenfold's Ready Steady Go stands out. I was quite impressed by the performances of both Tom Cruise (who, despite sharing a common dislike for the guy, I do think possesses a lot of talent) and Jamie Foxx. Oh, and Mark Ruffalo is in this too. I love that guy.

So, immediately after posting this I re-watched Collateral and thought it was uber cool. It's a cracker of a screenplay by Australian writer/director Stuart Beattie, and a taut, well-structured thriller, with a genuinely compelling story, interesting characters and a heart-pounding final act. Cruise is a revelation, with Vincent amongst his best performances. Mann's assured direction, technical proficiency - the use of the HD camera and the stunning shots of the L.A cityscape - and a pumping soundtrack make this an awesome accompaniment to Drive. ★★★★1/2

Public Enemies (2008)

I think I like Public Enemies more than most people, but unlike most of Mann's film I have no desire to watch this again. It follows the rise and fall of notorious bank robber, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he is pursued by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), and his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The hunt for Dillinger was the first national declaration of the "War on Crime" as established by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). 

There is some beautiful photography, expertly documenting the look of the period of the Great Depression. At other times, Mann resorts to hand-held to represent a raw close-up of the characters, and portray the drama and confusion of a spectacular tommy-gun shootout. This is certainly an interesting technique, considering Mann uses a HD camera. There are some superb sequences - the shootout at the cabin hideout and the ensuing chase through the woods is notable.

Johnny Depp seemed completely at ease in the role of Dillinger, delivering another likeable and charismatic performance. Marion Cotillard (who looks absolutely stunning) is also excellent, but I can't say the same for Bale, who was quite mediocre I thought. Mann is in fine form once again, and while the film is slightly overlong, it does squeeze in a lot of content and is fairly successful in painting a portrait of this notorious bank robber. I was impressed, but I can't help but feel that there was something missing from this film to make it memorable. ★★★1/2

So, to summarise these thoughts:

Masterful - The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and The Insider

Great - Manhunter and Collateral

Good - Public Enemies


  1. Nice overview of his career. My post for the director will be up tomorrow as well.

    Good stuff Andy.

  2. Cheers dude. What film are you reviewing?

  3. Great post, Andy! Collateral is great and I remember seeing the Last of the Mohicans when I was little, and loving it!

  4. I could read career overviews of Michael Mann all day. So much good stuff here and so happy to see you like him as much as I do.

    If you like both "Collateral" and "Drive" you should totally check out "Thief." It's very 80's but it's also very much in the same style. And despite its kind of lukewarm reception, if you're a Mann-Head I also highly recommend "Miami Vice." It's not as deep as "Heat" but, oh, does it have style.

  5. Okay so I need to watch Last of the Mohicans again.

    Watch Ali and Miami Vice if you get a chance. Most people either love them (me) or hate them.

    Thanks for the shot out! Great post.

  6. Nice look at Mann's career. He's one of my top 5 favorite directors and rarely misses. Even Public Enemies is solid and only suffers in comparison to his other work.

    I love Ali and think it's one of the most underrated movies out there. Miami Vice is also a surprise. It's plot isn't great, but the look and feel are stunning. Thief is also a nice '80s thriller.

  7. Great overview indeed though so far, Public Enemies and Miami Vice are my least favorites. The former because I felt the HD camera wasn't the right look for the film while I agree with you that Christian Bale was very uninteresting in that film.

    Miami Vice was a film I found to be very boring. I wasn't engaged by it and I tried to watch it again and I just couldn't get into it.

    I would do some Mann reviews but I'm pretty much doing other things right now.

  8. @ Aziza - Thank you! The Last of the Mohicans is such a grand adventure. I really want to read a novel version, but I doubt it will match Mann's magic. It's probably my favourite screen romance. It feels so genuine; the love earned. The conclusion is unforgettable too.

    @ Nick − I haven't seen Miami Vice, but I feel compelled to give it a go. I have heard very mixed things about it. As you suggested, I'll give 'Thief' a go too. While I enjoy all of the films of his I have seen...The Last of the Mohicans (and I know you agree on both selections here) and Heat are two of my all-time favourites.

    @ Alex - Yeah, you do! It's one of his best in my opinion :-p I doubt I'll hate them, but before this DOTM I had no intention of seeing them. Now, I feel compelled!

    @ Dan - Thanks for the recommendations. Mann's career is certainly one of the strongest amongst directors still working today. I thought Public Enemies was solid too. I actually quite enjoyed it at the cinema; contrary to the opinions of a bunch of my friends.

    @ Steven - Totally agree with your thoughts on the use of the camera. While there are some stunning shots, it was often ineffective. Hmm, I'm not sure what to think about Miami Vice now. I'll go in with neutral expectations haha!

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

  9. Nice post, Andy. I tackled The Keep for my post on Mann. My brain hurts.

  10. I have never heard of The Keep! I understand it's not that great haha.

  11. A lot of aspects are a mess but it's got some redeeming qualities.