It is at best naïve, at worst wholly disingenuous, to evaluate the work of a commercial artist without weighing the commerce in equal proportion to the art. Thanks to the formalist bent in film criticism, the exemplary visual dexterity of certain mainstream-schooled American filmmakers has been oft highlighted, but frequently at the expense of acknowledging their films’ pecuniary provenance. Ironically, it is the nakedly cash-driven nature of so many of these enterprises that allows that divorce to be made, almost as if these directors have burrowed so deeply into their marketplace mentality that they have emerged, purified, on the other side. It’s thus that the flash-cut tilty-cam cinema nausée of late-period Tony Scott can rate a laudatory feature article in Cinema Scope, the gape-inducing hideousness of any-period Michael Bay can provoke a kind of stunned reverse admiration (or, in the always curious case of Armond White, comparisons to Fernand Léger), while Michael Mann, blue-tinted poet of beachfront property and immaculate tailoring, can be celebrated as some kind of multiplex Baudrillard for the deeply silly Miami Vice.
Mann, of course, was a pioneer of this brand of commercial canonization, praised for the value-added artistry he brought to his various genre concoctions. And an earned reputation it is: at his best, Mann has not only elevated his perennial (and perennially saleable) obsession with masculine romanticism into grand entertainment (Heat) and epically proportioned moral drama (The Insider) but also has worked towards a visual language that paradoxically exceeds the generic boundaries on which he, as a determinedly commercial artist, so crucially depends. The deep strangeness and inextricable essence of Mann is that he evidently continues to think that he is making films for an enthusiastic wide audience even as his progressively abstruse visual and narrative strategies decisively diverge from the comforting familiarity that mass entertainment relies upon.
This disconnect, unfortunately, is not Mann’s artistic salvation, but a damning problem. Stripping away mainstream content while still doggedly sticking to its familiar forms, working against genre expectations without any clear idea of what to replace them with, Mann’s three films after the fascinatingly difficult object that was Ali—Collateral, Miami Vice, and now Public Enemies—signify an undoubtedly talented filmmaker stuck between stations and perpetually unsure of which way to turn. Click here to read all of Andrew Tracy’s review of Public Enemies.