By James Hancock January 26th, 2016
Around this time last year the latest film by Michael Mann, Blackhat (2015), came and went with alarming speed. Critics and general audiences alike seemed to reject the film outright and for whatever reason I simply accepted this consensus view and ignored the film altogether. I didn’t think about the movie again until I listened to an interview recently where Quentin Tarantino discussed his shock that a film by one of his favorite directors had been released without his knowing it. Tarantino gets a pass in that he was busy filming The Hateful Eight at the time but I have no excuse whatsoever. Michael Mann is one of the most dynamic and exciting American directors of my lifetime and it is ridiculous that I would let other people make up my mind for me about one of his movies. So while I was trapped inside during a blizzard over this past weekend, I gave myself a proper slap across the face and sat down to see Blackhat. Was it as good as his best work? Sadly no. That said, it was far better than the films that I consider to be his worst and it led to my sitting down over the next few days to enjoy a movie marathon through every film Michael Mann has ever made. So as a way of apologizing to Mann for not supporting his latest movie while it was playing in theaters, I felt I owed it to his legacy to put together a list ranking his films from my least favorite to favorite. I had an absolute blast the last time I compiled a similar list (see my post on the Coen Bros) and it is my plan to continue making these lists on a regular basis.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mann’s work, he is a director who over the least few decades has played a crucial role in redefining the look and feel of crime stories in film and television. He does not exclusively work within the crime genre, but his unique sense of style and atmosphere within these types of stories is where he has had the most lasting impact on his fellow filmmakers. Born in Chicago, Michael Mann studied film in the UK and got his start working in commercials alongside his peers from that era, directors like Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne. Mann returned to the US in 1971 where made a variety of short films and documentaries in addition to his early work in television writing for shows like Starsky and Hutch. Sadly I have been unable to find Mann’s early shorts. In 1979, Mann got his chance to direct his first feature length film on television with The Jericho Mile and then quickly made the jump to film with Thief in 1981. If I were to try and pin down a theme that connects all of his work it would be that his films feature strong male protagonists with an almost maniacal sense of focus and purpose either in upholding the law or making a living by breaking it. From what I have been reading online, Mann freely admits that he attacks his films with the same determination and attention to detail which is one of the reasons that his output has not been as steady as he would like it to be. Whatever he might think about his output the fact remains that over the last few decades Mann has enjoyed a remarkable career in film and television, having directed several films that have already proven will very easily withstand the test of time. So enough jabbering on my part, here is my countdown of my favorite films by Michael Mann.
14. L.A. Takedown (TV Movie, 1989)
With a script by Michael Mann, L.A. Takedown is basically the exact same story as Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat (1995) but on a much smaller scale. Made for television in 1989 with a 97-minute running time, I had no idea this movie even existed until I started preparing for this post. The movie is available online, but if you’re already a fan of Heat prepare yourself for a little bit of a shock. Watching it today, L.A. Takedown feels as if a handful of precocious young film students decided to shoot a low-budget remake of their favorite movie. Many scenes and the majority of the dialogue play out identically to the later film but without the benefit of great production value and huge stars. To put it in perspective, Heat had 6 months of pre-production and a 107 day shooting schedule while L.A. Takedown had 10 days of pre-production and a 19 day shooting schedule. Mann himself has made the comparison that one film is the equivalent of freeze dried coffee while the other is Jamaican Blue Mountain. Essentially this TV movie is a really solid first draft for the masterful film to come six years later but not one of the most memorable efforts in Mann’s filmography unless you can’t live without indulging in 1980s cop shows.
13. Miami Vice (2006)
Contrary to popular opinion, Michael Mann did not create the original television series Miami Vice but he did serve as a showrunner and executive producer. In theory, he should have been a perfect fit for the feature film based on the concept, but the final product is my least favorite feature film Michael Mann has ever made. The movie opens with all the familiar Michael Mann tropes we know and love: gorgeous cinematography, atmospheric nightclubs, pulse-pounding music and horrific violence. But then the movie mysteriously falls asleep for about an hour before it thankfully revs back up again for the finale. I should say that I have only seen the unrated director’s cut so perhaps some of my criticisms stem from the increased running time, but Michael Mann’s screenplay for this movie in my opinion is easily the weakest of his career. Chalk this one up as a well-intentioned failure with a few brief flashes of the brilliance we expect from Mann’s style of storytelling.
12. Luck (Pilot, 2011)
I have not seen the first season of Luck in its entirety but because Mann directed the pilot I felt duty bound to check out the first episode in preparation for this post. In spite of my growing up in an environment where my grandparents bred horses for racing, I’ve never fully understood the allure of this world. That said, Mann and show creator David Milch do a damn good job with the pilot by immersing the audience in a high stakes world that stinks of desperation and greed. From the degenerate gamblers pitifully trying to scrape together enough funds to make a bet to the unrepentant gangsters looking for fronts through which they can remain involved with the scene, Luck paints a lurid picture of this setting. In spite of this element, however, there remain a few noble idealists like the character played by Nick Nolte who genuinely loves and cares for the horses he trains. The scene where he instructs one of his riders to let his horse stretch out a bit results in some of the most stimulating footage of a horse in action that I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately this show was not renewed after several deadly accidents involving the horses on the show but it was great to see Mann bring his stylistic sensibility to HBO’s signature brand of storytelling.
11. Public Enemies (2009)
On paper, this movie looks like it was tailor made for Mann. Based on the true story of FBI agent Mevlin Purvis’s efforts to take down the outlaw John Dillinger, I’m sure everyone involved felt as if this would be the Depression era version of Heat. The movie has its moments and there is no shortage of star power with Christian Bale and Johnny Depp playing the leads, but as anyone who has seen it can tell you, Public Enemies is no Heat, not by a long shot. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing but I’ve seen the movie twice now, once in the theater and once on demand, and from my perspective too much of the movie just rings hollow and feels inauthentic. There are too many scenes where the movie feels likes the actors are just playing a game of cops and robbers making the movie almost feel like a parody of the topic it covers. Perhaps that is a failure of the screenplay. But when compared to a movie like Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), a movie set in the same period with a very similar tone, Public Enemies comes up very short. The only part of the film that works for me is the chemistry between Depp and Marion Cotillard, but then again if two of the sexiest people on the planet can’t sell the idea of having the hots for one another then something is dreadfully wrong. Perhaps I’m overstating the case against it, but when the director of Heat tackles a story about John Dillinger, anything less than a complete home run is bound to be a disappointment.
10. Blackhat (2015)
It is a total mystery to me as to why the entire world seemed to gang up on this film and chase it out of the cinemas like an angry mob. Nobody is going to argue that this is Mann’s best film, but there are plenty of elements that work quite well. I’d argue at the very least that if you like Michael Mann movies, then Blackhat is totally worth seeing. The story follows a genius coder played by Hemsworth who is let out of prison to help hunt down an international terrorist who is wreaking havoc by hacking into financial markets and nuclear power plants. The film has some extraordinarily brutal shoot-outs and Hemsworth performs fine in a role intended for him to break away from being known only as the guy who hits people with a hammer named Mjolnir. When it comes to hacker culture I don’t know anything that I haven’t learned solely from films and television so it will take someone smarter than myself to tell you if they got these details right. For me the one gaping flaw in this film is the lack of a compelling villain. We don’t meet the character until the movie is practically over and he fails to live up to the expectations that have been building since the opening of the movie. Overall Blackhat is a solid effort and by no means the catastrophe it has been reported to be.
9. The Jericho Mile (TV Movie, 1979)
Prior to starting my research for this post, I was blissfully unaware of The Jericho Mile’s existence. Made for television in 1979, this Emmy-award winning movie was Michael Mann’s first shot at a feature-length narrative and it remains an incredibly effective and unexpectedly moving story. Shot in Folsom Prison using many inmates as part of the cast, the story follows a lifer played by Peter Strauss who uses running as an escape from his environment. “I am doing my own time,” he says, a line that would be repeated by Mann decades later by the character played by Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat. When a sports writer discovers just how fast he is, he suggests that Strauss compete in the Olympic trials. But before that can happen the prison needs the cooperation of the prison population to build a track at a time when that population is in a state of civil war over racial tensions and the lucrative drug trade within the prison walls. Shot in 21 days for only $1.1 million, the movie features a dynamite performance by Brian Dennehy, fantastic tunes by the Rolling Stones and thankfully is readily available to watch on YouTube. I highly recommend you see it.
8. The Keep (1983)
The Keep is a total anomaly in Mann’s filmography. A supernatural horror story set during WWII, The Keep is the only film by Mann that I would categorize as a cult classic. The film also famously suffered from a variety of problems including the death of the visual effects supervisor and the final film being truncated against Mann’s will by roughly 30 minutes. There is a documentary being made right now about the troubled production which was funded through Indiegogo. The film that is available has a lot of continuity problems but over the years has accumulated many hardcore fans who absolutely adore the film. With a lineup that includes Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen, the cast has no shortage of acting chops. The bonkers tale also offers an abundance of gore and supernatural mayhem. My only experience with the movie is sadly a poor transfer in pan & scan, far from the ideal scenario, but enough of the movie works that I found myself being won over by this unusual choice in the otherwise very grounded career of Michael Mann.
7. Ali (2001)
I’m a sucker for any boxing movie so I couldn’t more of a natural audience member for a film about the career of Muhammad Ali. Mann picks the perfect entrance and exit to this tale following Ali’s career from the time he first became the heavyweight champ to the infamous Rumble in the Jungle when he earned the belt for a second time after having had it stripped from him for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Ali does an excellent job of navigating the political and social pressures Ali was subjected to during a time of enormous change and upheaval. My one grievance against the movie is the portrayal of Ali by Will Smith. In so many scenes it feels as if Smith is doing a good job of imitating famous interviews with Ali but not finding a way to inhabit the character fully. Smith clearly got in phenomenal shape for this movie and spent an enormous amount of time trying to learn Ali’s style of fighting but I find his interpretation of the character too often to be distracting, breaking my concentration on the movie. The film is an excellent tribute to a true icon of sports but I would still prefer to watch the brilliant documentary about Ali, When We Were Kings (1996).
6. The Insider (1999)
The outrage on the specific topic featured in The Insider may have subsided, but the film has lost none of its power. When a chemist working for a big tobacco company decides to become a whistle blower through an interview on 60 Minutes, all hell breaks loose as his former employers use all the resources at their disposal to discredit him and anyone else they view to be a threat to their bottom line. It is a pattern that we continue to see to this day anytime an individual tries to take on a large corporation whose products are discovered to be a massive risk to the general welfare of the public. Al Pacino and Russell Crowe are both in fine form making The Insider the most effective pure drama (and I think the only drama) of Mann’s career.
5. Manhunter (1986)
Long before director Jonathan Demme and Anthony Hopkins made the character of Hannibal Lecter famous around the world, Michael Mann was the first to tackle author Thomas Harris’s most famous creation. Based on the book Red Dragon, Manhunter is a ruthless movie about an FBI profiler played by William Peterson trying to track down an insane killer played by Tom Noonan. Noonan delivers a truly disturbing and unnerving performance, but what I love most about this movie is seeing how Peterson’s character gets so immersed in understanding the lunatics he is pursuing that he can’t help but be drawn into the darkness on a personal and emotional level. The real highlight is seeing Brian Cox’s approach to Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins has done so much to define how we perceive the character (I have not seen the show with Mads Mikkelsen), but Brian Cox more than holds his own as this iconic character. If you like the books of Thomas Harris or the movies and shows inspired by his work, you have no choice but to see Manhunter.
4. Collateral (2004)
I’m ashamed to admit I had not seen Collateral until I started doing my recent research on Mann. This is one intense film and in my opinion easily Mann’s best work from the 21st century. The premise is so simple but executed in such an effective way that I found myself riveted the entire movie. In Collateral, Tom Cruise plays a contract killer who forces a cab driver played by Jamie Foxx to drive him around Los Angeles in order to kill five targets before sunrise. It is the perfect concept for Mann’s filmmaking style. Furthermore, Tom Cruise needs to play more villains. I don’t give a damn about his character in the Mission Impossible franchise, but in Collateral he delivers the type of signsture performance that turned him into a megastar in the first place. Jamie Foxx does a great job as well particularly as his character gains more confidence toward the end of the story. For a director most famous for his Los Angeles crime sagas, Collateral is one of his best.
3. Thief (1981)
Technically Michael Mann’s first feature length movie was the made-for-television The Jericho Mile (1979), but Mann’s first full length theatrical film Thief is one of the most impressive directorial debuts that I know of. Set in Chicago, James Caan delivers arguably the best performance of his career as a highly skilled thief who lives by a strict ethical code and a life of singleminded focus. But when he begins to dream of building a family with Tuesday Weld (and honestly who wouldn’t be) he takes on a job and partners that will ultimately make his life spiral out of his control. James Caan’s character might be an unrepentant dick but he and his allies draw a very clear distinction between their blue collar professionalism and the sickos who get their kicks from causing people harm. From the mentality of Caan’s character, you can already see the wheels turning in Michael Mann’s head about how he would approach Robert De Niro’s character in Heat many years later. An excellent crime film from start to finish, this is a movie that French master Jean-Pierre Melville would have been proud to have his name associated with.
2. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
It is impossible for me to look at The Last of the Mohicans objectively. This is one of those movies that my siblings and I have watched together repeatedly and to this day if any of us sees even one scene out of the corner of our eyes, we have no choice but to sit down and watch the rest of the movie. Part of our fascination with the film at the time of its release was due to the gorgeous North Carolina locations used in the film, mountains only a few a hours to the west from where we lived where many of my family members have hiked and camped repeatedly. But having just revisited the film yesterday, I still find it to be one of the most stirring and romantic historical epics ever made. Adapted from the novel written in 1826 by James Fenimore Cooper, the story takes place in 1757 during the French and Indian War (or The Seven Years Wars as it was known in Europe). Mann’s film is one of several movie adaptations but this is the only version I have seen. The story follows Nathaniel Poe aka Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis at his most epic, a white man who was raised by the chief of the Mohicans, a tribe that is nearly extinct except for the chief’s son. In spite of their desire to stay out of the war, they find themselves sucked into the fight, one where the stakes become even higher when Hawkeye falls in love with an English officer’s daughter, played by the astonishingly beautiful Madeleine Stowe.
There is so much that works about this movie it is difficult to know where to start, or stop. This film is Mann at his most exhilarating. The score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman makes the hairs on my arms and neck stand straight up. The action is always first rate whether it is a large scale battle between the Huron and the English or simply Hawkeye and his brother tossing rifles to one another while running at a dead sprint through the woods. Wes Studi deserves a special shout out as the villain Magua, a character that I find to be the most terrifying and interesting villain ever to appear in a Mann film. But the love story at the heart of the narrative is what drives this movie. If you are not moved by Hawkeye’s declaration, “I will find you!” as he prepares to leave the only love of his life in the hands of the bloodthirsty Magua, then you are either far more cynical than I or perhaps already dead and in the ground. Michael Mann might be most famous as a master of the Los Angeles crime story, but thankfully he left his usual comfort zone to make this extraordinary film that is one of my favorite of that decade.
1. Heat (1995)
Finally we come to Mann’s most popular movie, Heat, a film that completely took over my college when released. I saw this at the perfect age. My friends and I were just getting familiar with the essential films of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro from the 1970s and the chance to see both of them go head to head in an epic movie was impossible to resist. The coolest thing about this movie is the mutual respect between De Niro and Pacino’s characters, two characters that the audience is rooting for equally, where we know the only possible outcome of their relationship is the death of either one or possibly both of them. This film came out two years before my first summer working in Los Angeles and the way Mann chose to shoot this movie and the style he created played a large role in shaping my impressions of the city. Mann might the best filmmaker ever at exploring all the undiscovered corners of the sprawling City of the Angels. Some criticize the movie as the beginning of Pacino’s screaming phase and they might be right, but have Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd ever been better than they were in Heat? The cast in this film is amazing across the board and I love how the film takes it time to flesh out their personal lives giving the violence far more human stakes than we ever see in most action films of this nature. I have no idea if Mann will ever match the power of this film again but I sincerely hope he has one more movie in his gas tank to remind everyone why he is the king of crime.
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Time to wrap this up. Not only am I totally fried but I have run out of movies to talk about. Michael Mann is busy now on a passion project preparing a movie about Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari. Hopefully the commercial and critical disaster of Blackhat will not derail his plans. Michael Mann is nearly 73 years old but as George Miller proved last year, there are times where we need the old masters to remind us all about the power of cinema. As always, please give me a shout on Twitter with your own picks on what you find his best work to be. For my money, Michael Mann can still run circles around the majority of directors less than half his age and I’ll be rooting for him all the way as he tries to bring his next movie to the big screen.
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