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The 10 Best Performances In The Films Of Michael Mann

The 10 Best Performances In The Films Of Michael Mann

The month of January is normally a cinematic wasteland, worth making the trip to theaters only if you’re still catching up on movies bound for major awards, or if you really, really want to see the new movies the studios are tossing out half-heartedly. But this January is different, because it sees the release of a new movie by one of the most important directors of the late 20th and early 21st century, Michael Mann.

Across the past three-and-a-bit-decades, Mann hasn’t made many films: “Blackhat,” out this week, is only his eleventh theatrical feature (and his first in nearly six years). But his career is one of the most fascinating in cinema, made up of uncommonly muscular and disarmingly beautiful thrillers and dramas.

In the last decade or so, beginning with “Collateral,” Mann has embraced the digital revolution, and his work has become more experimental, more mood and visuals-driven than in his early days (though that side of his oeuvre has always been present). But while “Blackhat” works better as an arty thriller than a performance piece (as our positive review from this morning revealed), Mann’s generally been a great director of actors.

So to mark the release of “Blackhat,” we’ve delved into Mann’s canon and picked out ten of our favorite performances from his movies, from debut “Thief” to 2009’s “Public Enemies.” Take a look below, and let us know your thoughts (ideally in the form of an extreme close-up filmed with a Go-Pro) in the comments. And for more Mann-talk, check out our complete retrospective of his films.

James Caan as Frank in “Thief” (1981)
Few filmmakers arrived as fully formed as Mann, whose feature debut “Thief” more or less set the tone for everything coming after. Coming across as a blend of “Rififi” and Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” it’s a typically methodical, spartan and gripping thriller with a host of tremendous performances, from Tuesday Weld’s weary love interest, as excited as she is worried by her new beau, to Willie Nelson’s deeply sad jailbird mentor, to a cracking debut performance from character actor Robert Prosky. But there’s never any doubt who the film belongs to: James Caan. “The Godfather” star says on the film’s commentary that he considers his performance here to be his finest, and despite competition like “Misery” and “The Gambler,” he’s got a point, with the film seeing him create what would essentially be the Mann leading man archetype: the hyper-professional. The film’s such a familiar story that it could so easily have come off as rote, but Caan gives the part so much texture: from the character’s proto-’80s materialism, to the way that he sinks back into familiar depression when things aren’t going his way, to a sort of brutal, unsurprised disappointment when he’s betrayed. There’s so much to love about “Thief,” but Caan is the glue that holds the film together.

Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde in “Manhunter” (1986)
Only yesterday, it was announced that “The Hobbit” actor Richard Armitage would be be playing William Blake-obsessed serial killer Francis Dollarhyde (aka The Tooth Fairy) on NBC’s terrific “Hannibal.” Bryan Fuller’s show has done a good job on finding new spins on Thomas Harris’ characters, but Armitage has an uphill battle on his hands matching the first and best take on the character, Tom Noonan’s depiction in Mann’s 1986 film “Manhunter.” Noonan is a stage veteran who’s never quite been a prominent screen presence, but who can be smartly deployed by the right filmmakers (Charlie Kaufman and Ti West both used him to great effect in recent years, in “Synecdoche, New York” and “The House Of The Devil” respectively), but he’s never been as effective as he is here, as Will Graham (William Petersen)’s terrifying yet tragic antagonist. Bulking up his 6’7″ frame and on Mann’s instruction, keeping separate from the rest of the cast and crew, Noonan immediately feels like an deliberately uncomfortable, alien presence, and there are fewer unsettling images in any Hannibal Lecter movie than Noonan’s stocking-masked face. He brings real pathos to Dollarhyde, painting him as someone who could be a good man (as he is in the mind of Joan Allen’s blind Reba), but has to feed his terrible compulsion. The result is so much more than the simple villain it could have been, amounting to a surprisingly rigorous investigation into the mind of a killer.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Nathaniel Hawkeye in “The Last Of The Mohicans” (1992)
Even in a career that saw him make a bonkers Nazis vs. Golem horror picture in the shape of “The Keep,” “The Last Of The Mohicans” is an underrated outlier in Mann’s career —a rip-roaring, old-school romantic adventure based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. But it’s also something of an outlier in the career of Daniel Day-Lewis, marking the only time that the picky star, at least in the last couple of decades, has played a full-on romantic lead and action hero. But would it surprise you that the three time Oscar-winner is really, really good at it? The always-be-prepared actor and the meticulous, process-happy Mann are a match made in heaven, and the performer spent months bulking up and learning the various survival skills and woodcraft that the adopted, white Mohican Nathaniel deploys during the film. As a result, he’s positively badass in the action sequences, but also swoonsome in his romance with Madeleine Stowe’s Cora (“I will find you” was “The Notebook” of its generation for many). It’s like a glimpse of an alternate matinee idol career that Day-Lewis could have had if he’d ever wanted it, and one that suggests he could have somehow been an even bigger star.

Wes Studi as Magua in “The Last Of The Mohicans” (1992)
As great as Day-Lewis is in the film (and also Stowe, given one of the stronger female roles in a Mann film), the show is virtually stolen by Native American actor Wes Studi. Then well into his ’40s, Studi had appeared in a small role in “Dances With Wolves” a few years beforehand, but truly broke out here as Magua, nominally the villain of the piece whose plot for revenge against the British commander who massacred his village and children kicks everything off. Though he’s a man of few words (virtually none in English) Studi is mesmeric throughout: still, fierce and utterly terrifying. All that said, it could have been worryingly easy to make him the savage bad guy that we’d seen in so many movies like this, but Mann’s film is much more even-handed and humanistic, and Studi makes Magua as much victim as villain. In Nathaniel’s words, he’s been “twisted” by his grief and desire for revenge, but he’s ultimately a leader and a man of honor. In places, most notably when he regretfully, even fearfully, watches Jodhi May’s Alice take her own life, we see the glimmer of the man that he once was. Studi would reteam again with Mann for “Heat,” but it’s his performance here that the actor will be remembered for.

Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley in “Heat” (1995)
Billed as the first on-screen meeting of two acting titans (they’d both appeared in “The Godfather Part II,” albeit in different timelines), “Heat” was the “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice” of a time when audiences still cared about movies where the characters didn’t wear capes. The film’s more of a dance than a duel betwen Al Pacino’s dedicated cop Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro’s ace thief Neil McCauley, but you were to name a winner, it’d likely be the latter. In his more muted moments, Pacino’s excellent, but it’s a role closer to the kind of thing he’s played many times before (and especially since): the Shouty Al archetype. Whereas De Niro is playing notes and finding textures that were entirely new for him. A close cousin to James Caan’s Frank in “Thief,” Neil is a total pro, a man who only loses his cool when someone throws a spanner in the works of his meticulously laid-out plans (he’s legitimately scary when laying into Kevin Gage’s Waingro after the opening robbery), but is otherwise cool, careful and cautious. So cautious that he’s left few ties in his life and would walk away from any of the ones he has left in a heartbeat, but there’s always a loneliness simmering under the surface of De Niro’s performance, one tempered both by his burgeoning relationship with Amy Brenneman’s Eady, and by recognizing the same loneliness in Vincent. The script and performance plays up the tragedy from “Thief” even further, and De Niro’s turn is one of his best as a result.

Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in “The Insider” (1999)
It might not reach the levels of gorgeous visual abstraction of his later projects, or have the sprawling crime-epic feel of “Heat,” but “The Insider” makes a very strong argument as Mann’s best film: a thrilling and rigorous look at the media and the tobacco industry that’s the filmmaker’s only serious brush with the Academy to date. At its heart are three great performances (or four if you count some brief but killer work from character actor great Bruce McGill) —Pacino’s fiery, principled producer Lowell Bergman, Christopher Plummer’s fatally compromised Mike Wallace, and best of all Russell Crowe’s whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Crowe was just 33 (and barely six months later became Hollywood’s next great action hope with “Gladiator”) when he was cast as the schlubby, fifty-something tobacco industry exec, and thus underwent a remarkable physical transformation, piling on the pounds and shaving back the hairline to play a character older than co-star Pacino. But Crowe’s turn is far more than just a weight-gain: he effortlessly conveys the man’s principles and sacrifice but also his flaws and difficult nature. Wigand’s a not-always-heroic hero, and yet Crowe is still raw and wrenching as his life collapses as a result of his actions. It’s still the actor’s finest hour.

Will Smith as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in “Ali” (2001)
Some biopics are going to be better served by casting an unknown in the central role, but that was never going to work for “Ali,” Mann’s imperfect, uneven and somewhat neglected 2001 picture. To capture Muhammad Ali, one of the most magnetic and iconic athletes of the 20th century, you needed real star-wattage. It wasn’t obvious casting, but the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith turned out to be the perfect pick. The film (scripted by four different writers, including Mann and Eric Roth which shows) covers the decade from Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston to his victory over George Foreman under his new name of Ali, taking in his conversion to Islam, his refusal of the draft and the break-up of his marriage. Bulked up and with an entirely different physicality to his usual lanky, almost goofy vibe, Smith doesn’t quite disappear into the role, although he does a good job capturing Ali’s intonation and tics (Big Willie’s own persona nestles just under the surface). But that’s somehow to the benefit of the performance and the film, truly demonstrating how Ali had the whole world at his beck and call. His failure to win the Oscar may have driven him back to blockbuster territory for a while, but we hope Smith can recapture the fire and the nuance that he showed here at some point down the line (we still mourn “Empire,” a movie about a Rupert Murdoch-style media mogul that Smith and Mann planned to make together).

Jamie Foxx as Drew Bundini Brown in “Ali” (2001)
Over the last decade or so, Jamie Foxx has become one of Mann’s most important collaborators: he was the strong moral center (and earned an Oscar nomination) in “Collateral” and proved to be the still, steely heart of “Miami Vice” opposite a slightly adrift Colin Farrell. But their relationship kicked off with a key supporting role in “Ali,” and it’s a hugely underrated performance that did wonders for Foxx’s dramatic bona-fides at a time when he was still best known as the goofy “In Living Color” guy and which put him on the path to an Oscar win for “Ray.” The actor plays Drew Bundini Brown, Ali’s corner man and best pal, and he and Smith share an instant, authentic chemistry that makes it baffling that the pair haven’t worked together since (though Foxx would take the role written for Smith in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”). Bundini is a hustler, an enabler, a straight man, comic relief and a spokesman, and even with relatively little screen time, Foxx manages to show the various different roles that Ali’s right-hand-man had to play. Perhaps more crucially, he livens up the movie every time he appears, channeling the comic energy that made his name but also finding an impressive well of pathos as Bundini’s drug problems drags him down just as his friend runs into his own difficulties.

Tom Cruise as Vincent in “Collateral” (2004)
Tom Cruise’s career has always been marked by smart and subtle shifts in his persona —playing a misogynistic womanizer in “Magnolia” or trying his hand at the comedy game with his Les Grossman character in “Tropic Thunder“— but none have been as satisfying as his turn as the assassin for hire in Mann’s minimalist, sleek “Collateral.” Cruise plays Vincent, a killer who hires a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around Los Angeles for the night, dragging the driver into his murderous schemes. Unlike other A-list actors who often overact and flail about in “bad guy” roles (i.e. Denzel Washington in “Training Day“), Cruise goes in the opposite direction with a minimalist, almost animal-like turn. Vincent is both compelling and creepy, and it’s hard not to see the coyote that he’s so mesmerized by as a twin of a kind. Cruise is particularly good when Vincent tries to rationalize his behavior, practically bringing the audience over to his point of view. Even if the film doesn’t stick the landing, turning into a disappointingly conventional shoot-’em-up by the end, this is a side we don’t see often enough from Cruise; a role that finds hims out on the ledge without relying on the fallback of the “Tom Cruise” persona.

Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette in “Public Enemies” (2009)
As you might have noticed, female characters tend to be overshadowed by men in Manns films. There are the occasional performers that break through —Joan Allen in “Manhunter,” Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May in “The Last Of The Mohicans,” Natalie Portman in “Heat”— but more often than not, Mann’s women are filed under “wives and girlfriends,” usually underwritten and a touch naggy. Marion Cotillard’s character in “Public Enemies” isn’t entirely an exception: her Billie Frechette is still defined almost entirely by her man, in this case Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger. That said, between more texture in the screenplay and the standout performance by the then-recent Oscar winner, Cotillard makes much more of an impression than most. There’s something unusually feisty and disarming about her particular riff on the gangster’s moll: laughing charmingly as Dillinger tells her what he does for a living, flattered and a little turned on as he confronts one of her coat-check customers. It’s as the net closes in on the couple in the film’s conclusion that Cotillard comes into her own, proving increasingly defiant in the face of the authorities, and quietly and devastatingly crumbling in the final scene as she comes face-to-face with the man who shot her beau (a rather lovely turn by Stephen Lang). More roles like this in future, please, Mr. Mann.

Honorable Mentions: Like we said, there were a surprising number of options we could have gone for, and a certain amount of debate when it came to compiling this list. Those we also considered included Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson and Robert Prosky in “Thief,” Ian McKellen in “The Keep,” William Petersen, Brian Cox and Joan Allen in “Manhunter,” and Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May and Russell Means in “The Last Of The Mohicans.”

“Heat” has a great line-up of character actors doing sterling work, including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Kevin Gage, Ashley Judd and Dennis Haysbert, though none make quite enough of an impression to unseat the bigger names. Pacino and Plummer stand out in “The Insider,” while Jon Voight’s strong as Howard Cosell in “Ali,” though we ultimately felt it was more of an impersonation than a performance (Jeffrey Wright is very good in the film too).

Jamie Foxx is also excellent in “Collateral,” and there’s some fine work from Barry Shabaka Henley in the film, but our favorite might be an electric one-scene cameo from Javier Bardem. Along similar lines, John Ortiz gives by some distance the most enjoyable performance in “Miami Vice” (along with a brief, nervy turn by John Hawkes), but we ultimately felt it was a little too two-dimensional for a list like this. We hope that “Public Enemies” isn’t the last time we see Johnny Depp play understated, but it’s good stuff nevertheless. There’s also good work from Ortiz, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Kerry Condon and Nick Nolte, among others, in short-lived HBO show “Luck,” but given that Mann only helmed the pilot, it felt unfair to consider them here. Anything else we’ve missed? Any performance you particularly liked in “Blackhat”? Let us know below.

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