Rating: The Good – 83.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.
Rating: The Good – 71.5 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 130 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang
Michael Mann has been a long time between films and while his latest cyber thriller is marked by his trademark style and dramatic distance, a vague meandering plot ultimately precludes it from ranking amongst his best work. Chris Hemsworth stars as a prodigious hacker released from prison on the condition that he helps a joint FBI-Chinese task force trace the source of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant. The resulting investigation sprawls across the Pacific from LA to Malaysia sporadically interrupted by some lively gun battles the type Mann has, at this point, mastered to perfection.
Blackhat isn’t as bad as some critics and fans have made out and there’s much to be admired along the way. Despite flimsy character construction across the board, Hemsworth makes for a sturdy lead and Viola Davis cuts a confident figure of authority as the FBI agent in charge of his team. Leehom Wang is competent as the lead Chinese agent even if Wei Tang proves too slight to overcome her character’s writing as Wang’s sister and Hemsworth’s inevitable love interest. Mann’s visual and auditory style is at its impeccable best as the technically astute director seems to have finally come to grips with all aspects of Digital Video. Complementing this aesthetic is Atticus Ross’ grainy score which, while not quite matching that of Heat, is certainly on the same track.
Rather frustratingly, though, it’s the basic stuff that Blackhat fails to get right. The meticulously distanced relationship between Mann’s lens and his protagonists has traditionally helped to engender a documentary-like sense of realism to his stories but, during his prime, that was balanced out with well developed characters whose arcs were functionally relevant to the story as much as the plot. Here, like his previous movies Public Enemies and Miami Vice, the connection ends with the plot as the characters’ depths are kept hidden or at best implicit. If the main players are kept at arms length, then the bad guys are barely acknowledged. Missing is the traction of Neil McCauley’s motivations in Heat or even just the remorseless entitlement of Robert Prosky’s Leo in Thief. Instead, a straight line of inexplicable badness replaces any sense of personality and we struggle to care. Then there’s the equally inexplicable tactical training of Hemsworth’s computer jock. In place of a techno-intellectual showdown, things come to a head in a rather bizarre action face-off that smacks of rushed rewrites and/or studio interference.
Instead of a properly laid narrative, whatever successes Blackhat achieves are episodic in nature such as the visceral action sequences or those informed moments when Hemsworth and co. are hacking into the enemy’s servers or even their bank accounts. Not surprisingly, it’s here where Morgan Davis Foehl’s script comes into its own (forgetting the one or two moments of philosophical gibberish ala Miami Vice). Nothing is dumbed down but neither are the uninitiated left lost at sea. And of course, as is the case in most of Mann’s procedurals, its technocratic lilt adds abundantly to the movie’s overall sense of street smarts. With so much good and so much bad, Blackhat will, like most of Mann’s work since 1999’s The Insider, tantalise his fan’s but ultimately go down as an opportunity missed.
Corporate whistle-blower dramas are generally done quite well in Hollywood but this powerful adaptation of the Vanity Fair article is top of the heap. Russell Crowe is excellent as the former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand who breaks his confidentiality agreement by doing an interview with 60 minutes. Al Pacino is just as good as the news show’s producer Lowell Bergman who initially recruits Wigand but inevitably becomes his devoted protector. Mann’s dialogue has always had the ability to strip away any superfluous emotion from his central characters to reveal their underlying obsession (usually with their profession). Though the characters in The Insider are just as driven, Mann’s screenplay and particularly his ability as a director to catch the actors’ more idiosyncratic glances or twitches (as if by accident) gives the characters in this film a real depth of emotion that combined with the superb acting (from all parties) imbues the proceedings with a pervasive sense of authenticity. What more could you want from a true story?
Set in the 1930′s, Michael Mann’s crime thriller focuses on John Dillinger’s rise to notoriety and the newly formed FBI’s attempt to catch him. Mann’s film looks great and he captures the era wonderfully thanks to some superb production design. His stylistic hallmarks are all over the film from the first scene to the last. There are also the seeds of good ideas sprinkled throughout the story it tells, some better developed than others. The birth of the FBI and the political and ideological motivations driving it make for a fascinating story and those scenes that show us the early forensic investigations hark back to his previous film Manhunter. Christian Bale scores quite well as Melvin Purvis, the agent in charge of Dillinger’s pursuit and we empathise with him more than anyone else in the movie. On the other hand, Mann’s long time collaborator Stephen Lang’s few appearances as the hard boiled older law man are the best thing in the film. The Dillinger story is less exciting partly because it has been done before but more so because of Dillinger’s awful dialogue and Johnny Depp’s wooden portrayal of the anti-villain (so bad in fact, you might wonder if he needs to play quirky characters to cover his complete lack of natural charisma). Given that Dillinger was supposed to be a charismatic larger than life personality it’s difficult to imagine a more unsuitable portrayal. Depp and his character’s writing are so poor that the token romantic relationship that Mann (typically) shoehorns in with Marion Cotillard becomes all the more tedious. To make things worse, because this part of the story is the primary focus of the film, the more interesting side is stunted by its lesser screen time. Ultimately, Public Enemies goes down as an opportunity missed but there’s enough there to make it worth the watch.
Rating: The Good – 74.6 Genre: Adventure, Action Duration: 112 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means
Michael Mann’s screen adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel might have been a new departure for the master of gritty crime thrillers but it’s no less emphatic a statement of his skills as a movie-maker. In fact, it is arguably his most spectacularly shot film. Hawkeye and his adopted father and brother of the Mohawk nation come to the rescue of a British company as they are attacked by a Huron war party and consequently are drawn into the Seven Years War between the British and the French. Things get even more complicated when Hawkeye and the daughter of a British general become embroiled in a dangerous romance.
The Last of the Mohicans is a sweeping film that follows the three heroes up and down the frontier as they attempt to keep the general’s daughters out of harm’s way. Along the way, we encounter every kind of battle you can imagine from the French heavy artillery bombardment of the British fort, the mid-range battles between rifle companies, to the close combat of the Native Americans. And all of it is captured immaculately by Mann and his usual director of photography Dante Spinotti. Mann’s ability to use music as a spiritual backdrop to the action is as effective here as it was in Thief or his later film Heat as Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones’ beautiful score becomes an ever-present feature of the film’s drama. On the acting front, Daniel Day Lewis is immense as Hawkeye and whether his scenes called for action or romance, he played them with charisma and integrity to the role. Madeline Stowe is more than decent also as the initially icy love interest while Eric Schweig and Russell Means are scintillating as the two Mohawks that complete our hero’s trio.
As you’d expect, Mann’s typical forensic touch is all over the battle scenes, making them some of the most well choreographed and sensationally conceived set-pieces you’ll see anywhere. The final showdown alone will quite simply blow you away as Mann combines gunplay and close combat in as viscerally slick a manner imaginable. If you want to see how good an action movie can get, then look no further than this film.
Rating: The Good – 68.3 Genre: Drama, Biography Duration: 157 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight
It seemed like a big departure from most of his traditional work but Michael Mann delivers the goods with this partial biopic of the great fighter. Focusing more on the personal events in Ali’s life from the time he broke onto the scene to the end of his relationship with Malcolm X, Mann successfully brings his slick visual style to the film and crafts a compelling drama. The fight sequences are few but also very memorable thanks to Mann’s trademark use of short zooms and alternating focus throughout – this is seen particularly in that key first fight with Sonny Liston. The acting on all fronts is tremendous with Will Smith doing surprisingly well in both his imitation of the pugilist and his more dramatic acting. Overall, Ali is a triumph which Mann fans and Ali fans alike should respond positively to.
Rating: The Good – 76.1 Genre: Drama Duration: 97mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Peter Strauss, Richard Lawson, Brian Dennehy
This made-for-TV movie is an early outing for Michael Mann but it nonetheless has many of the hallmarks of his later features. Gritty realism, a fresh prison-based story, and clever dialogue elevates this film well above the fold. Peter Strauss plays a lifer who spends his days running around the prison yard as fast as he can in an attempt to exorcise his demons. Jeffrey Lewis plays the prison counsellor who after noting that he’s running close to Olympic qualification times on a dirt track and in basketball shoes attempts to help him in his rehabilitation by bringing his running to the attention of the athletics commission. The Jericho Mile isn’t as much about the running as it is about the internal strife that his high-profile running generates. Strauss is fantastic but he is helped ably by Lewis and the always impressive Brian Dennehy. This is an original and fascinating film that is not marred by any of the numerous prison cliches such as nasty wardens and guards. For that reason alone it’s worth watching.
Rating: The Good – 71.4 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 120 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith
An L.A. cab driver (Jamie Foxx) unwittingly picks up hired killer (Tom Cruise) who forces him to drive him from one hit to another through the course of the night. Perhaps Michael Mann’s most mainstream film, many were quick to praise Collateral as one of his best on its release for its remarkable photography, outstanding action, and a top cast. However, unlike much, if not all of his previous work, there are some glaring weaknesses. This was his first directorial project that he didn’t write himself and it shows as his typical ultra-real dialogue is mostly replaced by a lot of undisciplined melodrama. The story gets downright ludicrous towards the end and some of the action requires a major suspension of disbelief. Mann himself is particularly indulgent in his use of music in both his build-up to an excellently staged nightclub shootout and a particularly awful Audioslave intermission (that latter obsession unfortunately carried over into his next feature Miami Vice). That said, Collateral remains as slick-looking a film as you’ll see and was a great advertisement for digital video. Shot entirely on DV, Mann makes startlingly use of that medium’s ability to capture lowly lit exteriors both up close and especially from distance. The result: a night-time L.A. like we’ve never seen it. The actors are all on top form. Cruise has rarely been more interesting, Foxx is highly relatable as the every-man cabby, and Mark Ruffalo scores well as the undercover cop on their trail. If you can suspend your disbelief during the last 15 minutes, you’ve got a solid thriller.
Heat is Michael Mann’s epic tale of obsession and discipline that focuses on the adversarial relationship between a perfectionist cop (Al Pacino) and a master thief (Robert De Niro). This was the first film to bring the two greatest actors of their generation together on screen and it’s to Mann’s credit that he keeps their meetings brief and few, choosing instead to use the charisma of the two leads to drive their own sides to the story until the inevitable showdown. Heat is an expansive film involving a number of dramatic subplots that are skillfully interwoven into the wider story. It is also Mann’s most stylistic film. His trademark grading and wide-sweeping night-time cityscape shots provide the perfect backdrop to the methodical and exacting behaviour of the police and criminals alike. The immaculate editing and that quietly brilliant Elliot Goldenthal score are as good as you’ll get in any film. The action has rarely been equalled let alone bettered and the now famous street battle remains the most powerfully realistic yet elegantly co-ordinated action sequence ever committed to celluloid (rumour has it that it’s shown in military academies as a text-book example of how to execute an ordered retreat while taking fire).
And then, of course, there’s the cast. Replete with most of Mann’s regulars and led by two of cinema’s icons, they are invariably excellent ensuring that this compelling tale is populated with the most fascinating yet believable of characters. It has become increasingly popular in recent times to criticise Pacino’s highly charged turn as the obsessed cop but those critics would do well to spot the telltale signs of a cocaine addict in that role, a job admittedly made more difficult by the fact that Mann elected to remove any explicit reference to that fact in post production. When taken into consideration, it becomes a performance of serious consequence and alongside De Niro’s equally impressive turn in the more low-key role and under the direction of the great Mann, it helps Heat become the slickest and coolest crime thriller ever made and one that you’ll never get tired of watching.
Rating: The Good – 66.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 97 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Scott Plank, Alex McArthur, Michael Rooker
Michael Mann’s TV-movie dry run for Heat is in its own right a thrilling and edgy crime thriller that is sufficiently different to warrant an independent viewing and appreciation. The story is identical in that we have a crack cop and a master thief attempting to outfox each other on the streets of LA while developing a mutual appreciation for each other’s expertise. However, though far leaner and with fewer subplots, the script is burning with Mann’s trademark über-slick dialogue much of which never made it into the remake even though it further elucidates several key sequences. It’s clear Mann axed this surplus dialogue to make room for Heat’s meaty subplots concerning Pacino’s private life and Kilmer’s gambling problems because most of it is just too damn cool to cut for aesthetic purposes. Yes, some of it is slightly overcooked but the same criticism can been levelled at Heat. Heat of course had better actors to compensate and reign it in when needed.
The acting in L.A. Takedown drags the movie down for a number of reasons. Firstly because some of the actors just weren’t up to it, secondly because some characters, important though they were to the story, hadn’t enough screen time to develop (such as Daniel Baldwin and Michael Rooker’s detectives), and thirdly because Mann didn’t seem to know what to do with certain characters just yet (Xander Berkeley’s “Waingro” being the best example of that). That goes for everyone except the two main players who, while never as good as Pacino and De Niro, were great bang for their buck and gave their characters a unique charisma. Alex McArthur is intense (in a role De Niro seemed to define with his ice cold interpretation) and he carries Mann’s words with a compelling conviction. If anything Scott Plank is even more comfortable with Mann’s crime dialect and he adds a modest but effective presence to the film.
From a technical point of view, the film suffers from the types of shoestring budgets typical to TV movies but even still, Mann’s style shines through its production limitations with some striking visuals sprinkled throughout and that commanding holism which the director has always brought to his projects. The action sequences are naturally smaller in scale than the kinetic masterpieces served up in Heat, but their substantially different choreography gives us yet another reason to see this movie in addition to Heat.
The reputation of L.A. Takedown has always suffered under the heavy weight of its comparisons with Heat and it’s very likely that if Heat didn’t exist, L.A. Takedown would have been a sure fire cult hit. But the later film does not negate the relevance of this curious little project. Fans of Mann in particular and film-making in general will get to see how Mann honed many of the techniques and styles he used in Heat and indeed in his later films while fans of terrifically original crime dramas will get a slightly different take on one of the greatest crime thrillers of them all.
Rating: The Ugly – 67.7 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 134 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Li Gong
It may have a god-awful clunky script, the chemistry between Crockett and Tubbs (referred to here only by their first names Sonny and Ricardo) might be flat as a pancake, and Colin Farrell may talk like Christian Bale’s Batman but this big screen adaptation of the seminal 80′s television show by its legendary creator Michael Mann still counts as a very good action film in its own right. The story focuses on the vice team led by Sonny (Farrell) and Ricardo (Jamie Foxx) who typically pose as high-end drug smugglers (you must understand this to know why they drive the cars they do – and can fly planes) and who go undercover to infiltrate a Colombian drug cartel selling to among others some nasty white supremacists who killed some federal agents.
Miami Vice the movie seems to overtly avoid showing the two leads relating to each other as friends and only ever really gets into their personal lives to indulge Mann’s only weakness as a film maker – his insistence on pointless sex scenes. The result is a dispassionate and sometimes cold look at the impressive and skilled manner in which the vice team operate. If this is a statement on how undercover cops never stop being undercover then it’s quite clever but the only real evidence supporting that conclusion comes in the final shot making one wonder if Mann simply tacked it on to explain the lack of depth to the proceedings.
What is certain though is that, as a look at the technicalities of undercover work, this film is a tour de force in slick actioneering. It looks and sounds spectacular and John Murphy’s soundtrack works a treat playing behind all the sublime sound effects. Like Mann’s earlier Manhunter, the film moves relatively slowly choosing instead to focus on the meticulous craft of the professional vice cops. This peaks in the third act with some of the most sublime action sequences since, well, Heat. For those technical reasons, Miami Vice is worth the watch but treat it as a standalone film because fans of the show will not like the coldness between the two main protagonists.
Rating: The Good – 84 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 119 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen
Michael Mann’s most artistic project is a tour de force in writing, directing, and acting. It’s also very likely the definitive ‘serial killer’ film as it covers the phenomenon from all possible angles: from the killings themselves; the motives of the killer; the manhunt; and the effects it has on the agents tracking the killer. Each of these four angles could themselves be the sole premise for such a film and it’s to Mann’s credit that he not only manages to deal with each of them in a substantive manner but also skilfully weaves them together into a coherent story. The film moves at a steady pace and, while always conveying the urgency of the characters’ actions, it never feels rushed. The process of tracking the killer is shown to us in meticulous detail right down to the unspoken rivalry and/or contempt that the different branches of the law enforcement system have for each other.
Unlike the 2002 remake and even the novel itself, everything important in Manhunter is subtly hinted at so it’s left up to the audience to infer: Graham’s ability to track serial killers (is he half-way there himself?); Graham’s motives for choosing Lounds to lure the killer (did he or didn’t he?); Dolarhyde’s disgust/insecurity at his own physical appearance (and the root of his desire to kill). This is the true brilliance of Manhunter. Rather than force-feeding the audience, Mann recognises the characters in this film are driven by their ability or inability to deal with their own psyches. The subject matter is therefore subjective and should never be clear-cut enough so that it can be explained in black and white. Giving substance to this psychological approach is a visual and auditory style of pure artistry. Each shot reflects a sublime synthesis of production design, art direction, score, and cinematography as Mann soothes or energises the audience with a variety of rich grading, sharp angles, hard and soft lighting, and an overall magnificent use of space.
Manhunter is not just a technical triumph in direction and writing but also in acting. Each character is fully drawn out by its actor and they each relate to the different characters in consistently different ways. Peterson has never been better as the introspective lead investigator who innately empathises with these killers and so understands how their profound insecurities can lead to murder. The progression of his character throughout the film is believable and quite expertly conveys to us his desperate attempt to separate himself from ‘his man’. Farina is, as always, brilliant and while Scott Glenn plays him very differently but equally interestingly in Silence of the Lambs, the former’s Jack Crawford is the grittier and more hard-edged. With every glance and eye-movement, Farina brings to bear his first-hand knowledge of what it is to be a cop doing his job under time pressure.
Standing out from this excellent ensemble is of course Brian Cox as Lecktor. Though there is some merit to Anthony Hopkin’s unfortunately more renowned portrayal of the same character, his is undeniably a caricature of a serial killer and, therefore, not realistic at all. By definition, a serial killer must appear to be a very normal person – that’s how he manages to kill a ‘series’ of people as opposed to just one and then being caught! The problem with Hopkin’s “Lecter” is that he is quite clearly not fully there in the head and so even the rawest recruit from the FBI down to the Cub Scouts would be able to pick him out as the killer. Cox gives us something entirely different to Hopkin’s more cartoon-like performance. His Lecktor is smart, charming, and beneath the surface empty, devoid of sentiment and compassion. It’s to the actor’s and Mann’s credit that by the time his three scenes are done with, we have an implicit feeling as to what may be driving this Lecktor as well as an uncomfortable liking for him.
Above everything else, however, Manhunter is a testament to the artistry of Michael Mann in his pomp. Three sequences in particular demonstrate this with striking clarity: 1) the ‘walk-through’ of the tooth-fairy’s letter through the forensic process: not a quick, flashy cut in sight. Instead we have a patient almost soothing series of scenes which convey exactly what the different forensic specialists do (and there is not one indication that Jimmy Price and co. carry a gun, let alone go tracking down the killers themselves!). 2) Graham’s visit with Lecktor: a dream-like sequence wherein, through Mann’s sublime framing, staging, contrast, and composition (as well as the two actors’ abundant craft), the two play the best game of mental chess we’ve seen on film. 3) Dollarhyde encountering and falling in love with Reba (played by Joan Allen): Michael Mann at his best shows how the fantasy-driven psychosis of a serial killer can be shattered to a point that the real person beneath is briefly exposed. File under “masterclass”.