Retrospective: The Films Of Michael Mann

In 33 years of filmmaking, director Michael Mann has only made 10 theatrically-released feature-length films. Averaging one every three years (with two long gaps of about six years—we’re reaching the end of the second now), his un-prolific nature is perhaps due to meticulous and exhausting research processes and character explorations which often lead to completed screenplays … only for him to abandon them when he finds something amiss. “I only do films I truly believe in,” Michael Mann said in a 1990s interview expressing frustration with his somewhat unproductive pace and yet simultaneously articulating the vital quality that makes him the filmmaker we know today. It’s the sort of thing many directors might say, but Mann, more than many others, has the courage of his convictions and the resulting short but blazing filmography to back up his sincerity.

“I don’t work 40 hours a week and come home, take [weekends] off and leave my work at the office. I don’t know how to live like that,” one of the lead detectives says in “L.A. Takedown,” Mann’s 1989 TV movie that he remade faithfully years later as “Heat.” These fixations are as much Mann’s words to live by as they are axioms that could conceivably apply to practically every lead character the filmmaker has ever created. In fact, the central male in the films of Michael Mann (and it’s always a man) is almost always defined by his code of life. His central preoccupation is often professional obsession, even fanaticism, often at the price of ordinary existence, which is perhaps why so many of his men are ascetic, Zen-like students of their own trade; detached to the point where they are able drop everything if things go south and walk away with only the skills they have worked on. Somehow we never doubt those skills will be enough.

Perhaps this ongoing interest in professional zeal is what attracts Mann so often to stories pitting criminals against those who seek to put them behind bars (“Heat,” “Public Enemies,” Thief,” “Collateral,” “Miami Vice” both the TV show—which Mann produced—and the movie). His films frequently suggest that in fact, at the top of their respective games, crooks and cops are not so dissimilar as men: they each live and die by their own codes and they each recognize themselves in the other. There is even a loose honor among between these seeming adversaries, almost a mutual understanding.

But if Mann returns repeatedly to drink from the same thematic well, rarely are the results repetitive or uninspired. His favorite reoccurring motifs—sacrifice, commitment to craft above all things, pre-planned exit strategies, the failure of domestic bliss and what author Nick James calls the “uneasy truce between women and men”—are almost always present, but often he combines these elements with trademark focus and precision in different permutations to yield subtly but undeniably different results. The titular pugilist of “Ali” sacrifices wife after wife for the higher calling of boxing; the detectives of “Miami Vice” live to work; the career criminal of “Collateral” could be a modern day “Le Samouraï”; “The Insider” chronicles the compulsive behavior of two men in search of the truth; while “Manhunter” follows a meticulous cat-and-mouse game in which cat and mouse are evenly matched. These are all focused, professional, tunnel-visioned men but their spheres, and the films they inhabit as as similar but as unique as fingerprints.

With his later-era phase of digital filmmaking, early adopter Mann has somewhat polarized his following in recent years, but even as he’s divided audiences, he’s still often enraptured us with his laser-focused portraits of men following a professional code of honor with such dedication that it renders them exceptional. Not at all unlike the filmmaker himself.

The Jericho Mile” (1979, TV movie)
It can be unfair to lump a director’s television work in with his theatrical features, especially when it dates from the very start of his career. And at first glance, Michael Mann’s full-length fiction debut (his previous credits comprise a documentary, a short, a documentary short and a single episode of the Angie Dickinson-starring “Police Woman” show), “The Jericho Mile,” which was produced by ABC, fits this mold. With its boxy aspect ratio, low production values and lack of established stars, it’s the kind of film that could now be an embarrassment to a prestige filmmaker of such consummate sophistication as Mann. Except it’s really good. Sure, the trappings are creaky, especially as even the DVD transfer (PAL only, we believe) isn’t the highest quality (and on YouTube the image is occasionally pixelated to the point of incomprehensibility), and a rather insistent instrumental version of “Sympathy for the Devil” is overused as a leitmotif, but the story is brilliantly resonant and compelling even now, and the casting of actual inmates and the use of the actual Folsom Prison as a location gives it a very Mann-esque feeling of authenticity throughout. It’s the surprisingly moving tale of Rain Murphy (Peter Strauss, doing a fine job with a role that in a bigger budget version would have probably gone to Clint Eastwood), a lifer serving out his sentence for murder the only way he knows how—by keeping to himself bar a single interracial friendship, remaining resolutely removed from the ethnic gangs and factions that jostle for power on the inside, and indulging his one hobby and talent: running. In fact, it comes to the attention of the prison authorities that he may be one of the fastest runners in America and could qualify for the Olympic team. What then unfolds builds quietly into something unassumingly epic, a grand yet pessimistic drama (the anti-‘Shawshank’) about the danger of hope in this hopeless place, and the cruelty of dreams that circumstances will always thwart. Oh and the cautionary tale of ever trusting Brian Dennehy. What could easily turn into an inspirational movie-of-the-week-style drama about overcoming insurmountable odds or some such guff instead becomes a bruisingly melancholic parable about the inherent contradictions of a prison system supposedly dedicated to the ideal of rehabilitation in a wider society that doesn’t know or care what that word means. Mann and co-writer Patrick J. Nolan play it as a kind of unfunny cosmic joke: even as Murphy, despite himself, unites the racially divided prison population in support of something noble and decent, the uncaring world outside will always cheat him of his newfound aspirations. To the point that perhaps Murphy was right before, and he never should have hoped in the first place. It’s a sad, intelligent, occasionally angry film that highlights issues that, if you minus the jive talk and the hairstyles, remain to this day, and it’s an early example of Mann’s unsentimental humanism, a trait that is often overlooked in his glossier big-screen outings. [B+]

Thief” (1981)
It’s rare that with a filmmaker’s first theatrical feature we get to stare straight at a near-perfect iteration of what he will become, but that’s the case with Michael Mann and the terrific “Thief.” It’s a film that, while wearing its influences on its sleeve (touchstones “Rififi” and “Le Cercle Rouge” are called to mind by the wordless opening heist scene), is its own animal, and went on itself to become so influential that its induction into the Criterion Collection, while certainly welcome, feels long overdue (for a while this elegant, spare, character-driven crime drama was relatively undervalued). This is doubly incomprehensible when you consider that it contains the self-judged best performance from James Caan (what, do you really need us to remind you he was in “The Godfather”?), as well as one of the greatest undersung debut performances ever from 51-year-old Robert Prosky, and a very strong candidate for the single greatest scene that Mann has ever directed: a diner scene that is mirrored by its more famous counterpart in “Heat.” In “Thief,” however, rather than Pacino and De Niro, the scene features Caan and Tuesday Weld, and delivers, through dialogue that is at the same time transparently performed and heightened beyond strictest realism, everything you need to know about these two complex characters, especially Frank (Caan). And even this early in his career, Mann shows his uncanny knack for creating something epic and tragic and sweepingly dramatic out of details that in other hands could be hammy cliches: witness Frank’s pathetic collage, culled from magazines cuttings, that depicts the dream life for which he strives. In anyone else’s hands that’s the picture of the sailboat the doomed guy’s gonna buy when he retires, but Mann and Caan make it something else, something compelling and desperate and lonely and sad. Slickly lit night driving scenes as neon reflections bounce across windscreens (prefiguring “Blade Runner” ‘s aesthetic by a year; the comparison is especially noticeable in the new Criterion version), an authenticity borne of deep research and a spartan, uncondescending attitude to the audience’s intelligence are also precursor Mann trademarks in evidence here, but this is much more than simply a film for completists. With its gory, slo-mo shotgun blasts, late-stage pyrotechnics and a Tangerine Dream score that’s either iconic or irritatingly dated, depending on your viewpoint, at the very beginning of the decade “Thief” embodied many of the earmarks of what we now recognize as ’80s cinema, even debuting such subsequently familiar faces as Prosky, Dennis Farina and James Belushi. But with its unwavering focus on character, lived-in performances and almost Bressonian interest in the minutiae of procedure—the tools, the craft, the effort—it also entirely transcends its time period to become something very close to a classic. [A]

The Keep” (1983)
Not so much a skeleton in Mann’s closet as a gigantic hulking glowy-eyed smoke monster in his remote Romanian fortress, “The Keep” is inarguably a total shambles, but it is a kind of fascinating shambles. That Mann essayed it at all is seems in retrospect tremendously unlikely, but it’s proof that whatever the rest of his filmography suggests, Mann wasn’t always laser-focused on being the master of the low-key, pulsating, urban crime drama, and indeed, after the modest success of his theatrical debut “Thief” appears to have looked at this story of Nazis, priests, immortal demon thingies, Romanian peasants and wheelchair-bound Jewish professors of arcana and thought “Hey! Maybe that’s my wheelhouse!” The novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson is reportedly a sweeping epic of real-world historical evil coming into contact with otherworldly evil and perhaps, in its original, reportedly 3 1/2-hour cut, the film would have been that too, but the truncated 96-minute version that got released seems to have been assembled quite arbitrarily with no thought for story coherence or character consistency. And so things happen in a bewildering, unprompted fashion: from one scene to the next people show up in places where decades of film language development suggest they can’t already be; characters change from crazy to sane and back again without apparent cause; Eva (the blankly doe-eyed Alberta Watson), the daughter of Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), falls into bed with the mysterious glowy-eyed avenging angel Glaeken (Scott Glenn) having known him for about 30 seconds and engages in one of those long writhy sex scenes on which the ’80s expended most of its celluloid. (But if the love story did it for you, there’s even an alternate ending where they reunite.) It’s batshit bonkers and about as far as imaginable from the cool, slick-but-gritty restraint that became Mann’s signature, though the set design and some bravura camera moves certainly hint that there’s more going on in terms of visual style, than a mere journeyman would bring. And there are flashes of something better—some of the speeches given to the ‘good German’ (Jurgen Prochnow) or to the evil SS officer played by Gabriel Byrne, actually bring up unusual philosophical questions before we abruptly cut away to something daft. With a Tangerine Dream score on hand to remind us that though the film may be set in 1941, it was made in 1983, and that occasionally feels like an extended Kim Carnes intro, “The Keep” amounts to the one thing that Mann movies can never otherwise be accused of: camp. The director’s filmography is short enough that almost every entry has some superlative with which we can sum it up, and this one is no different: it is, by a very, very wide margin Mann’s silliest film, though not without its passing, largely wtf?, pleasures. [C]

Manhunter” (1986)
While Jonathan Demme’s 1991 masterpiece “Silence of the Lambs” popularized serial killer icon Hannibal Lecter, it was Mann who first brought the character to the screen (here spelled Lecktor) for 1986’s deeply underrated but recently rehabilitated “Manhunter.” William Peterson, fresh from his role in “To Live and Die In L.A.,” plays unhinged FBI profiler Will Graham who is brought back into the fold when a serial killer, playfully dubbed The Tooth Fairy (played, in the movie’s last hour, by a ghostly Tom Noonan), proves too elusive for the investigators who are actually working the case. Brian Cox essays the famed serial killer in this incarnation, giving the character an air of European sophistication and maintaining his British accent. All adaptations involving the character that have been released in the years since “Manhunter” (including Brett Ratner’s clumsy remake “Red Dragon,” which airlifts whole sequences from Mann’s original) owe a debt to Cox’s characterization, whether they want to admit it or not, but the real star of “Manhunter” is Mann himself, who both wrote the screenplay (from Thomas Harris’ novel) and directed the film, with a cool, detached, super-stylized aesthetic that is just as striking today as it was nearly 30 years ago. “Manhunter” is a treat for the eyes, full of sharp neon colors, lengthy static shots and frames largely taken up with empty space, so pristine and meticulously planned that it feels like the perfectly symmetrical locations are going to swallow up the characters. However with a running time of over two hours, it does occasionally drag and is often undermined by both its fidelity to Harris’ original novel (certainly his least zippy) and its oddball structure, in which, about halfway through the movie, The Tooth Fairy becomes the main character and Peterson and his family are unceremoniously sidelined. Still, aside from these issues, it’s interesting to watch “Manhunter” in context of the Lecter canon, with Dennis Farina playing a character that was later dramatized by Scott Glenn, Harvey Keitel and, on NBC’s cracking series “Hannibal,” Laurence Fishburne, and comparing the different embodiments of Lecter—Cox’s, Anthony Hopkins‘ and Mads Mikkelsen‘s is a diverting masterclass in how three brilliant actors can take the same character, and in the context of three different productions, make him their own. In retrospect, too, Peterson’s characterization works for the most part, although his somewhat wooden performance was widely lampooned when the movie was originally released. But for Mann, at least, “Manhunter,” which was his first time back in the saddle after the critical and commercial disappointment of “The Keep,” saw him regain his sure-footedness and confidence and set him back on track to becoming the filmmaker we know him to be today.[B+]

The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
Despite recovering his balance with “Manhunter,” Mann wasn’t done with changing up his genre just yet—”The Last of the Mohicans” is an odd one: aside from the Pluto-like outlier of “The Keep,” it’s probably the least, uh, Mannly film on this list, being about as far from the slick, hyper-urban thriller as a blockbuster can be. Adapting James Fenimore Cooper‘s classic but barely-read novel of the 1757 French and Indian War was a strange choice in the first place, with its elaborate story of a largely forgotten historical episode: grafting on vague patriotic American resonances to a story about fairly horrible warfare between Brits, Frenchmen and various Native American groups doesn’t really work. But Mann says his first cinematic memory is of watching George B Seitz‘s 1936 version, which had stayed with him ever since. Personal inclinations aside, though he eventually had reason to regret signing on for the production, with his meticulous directing style angering executives at Fox, who hurried along production and insisted he slim down his original cut (the version on most DVD releases today is a compromise: neither Mann’s original version nor the first theatrical release, it falls somewhere between the two). But who cares? The final product is still magnificent, with the backdrop of North Carolina standing in for unspoiled New York, beautifully shot by Mann’s regular DP, Dante Spinotti, and the score soaring above it all: though really, it’s multiple scores, by Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman and Dougie MacLean, who composed “The Gael,” the signature tune. The overall blend of Gaelic folk, orchestral and electronica is the unexpectedly happy result of creative meddling from a studio that didn’t know what direction it wanted to go in. And then there are the performances. “The Last of the Mohicans” is, to date, the film that has best made use of Daniel Day-Lewis as part of a wider cast, rather than allowing him to dominate the whole movie (not that we mind when he does that, though), and the woodcraft that he learned for the film has become part of his legend. Madeleine Stowe does excellent work as Cora Munro as well, but most impressive is the film’s serious commitment to (excellent) Native American actors in Native American roles: take note, “The Lone Ranger” (and recall that Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye is a European who has been raised by Mohicans). Long-time Lakota activist-actor-revolutionary Russell Means is suitably mighty as Chingachgook, Eric Schweig is touching as Uncas, and Wes Studi‘s completely chilling performance as Magua comes close to upstaging Day-Lewis himself. With all this, the plot remains a little chaotic—it would be fascinating to see the three-hour cut someday, but the set pieces keep coming, most movingly the farewell beneath the waterfall and the bloody, bone-crunching final battle on the cliff-top. ‘Mohicans’ remains an oddity for Mann, and Day-Lewis aside none of its cast are big names now, but it’s still one of the director’s finest films, and shows, if nothing else, that his decision to concentrate on the crime thriller genre was a matter of inclination and hardly because he couldn’t turn his hand to other genres. [A-]

Heat” (1995)
“Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat coming around the corner,” Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley says, reciting his personal criminal mantra. In Mann’s world, men like McCauley put down scores like they have to breathe air to exist. Choosing to live life by their own rules, in doing so, outsiders like these recognize what they must forfeit in order to survive. On a slow-burning but inevitable collision course with McCauley is Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, the yin to his yang; an unwavering detective on the down slope of his third marriage thanks to his own obsessive nature in squeezing criminals. Possibly no better example of Michael Mann’s own brand of unyielding resolve can be found than in “Heat,” a high-fidelity remake of his TV movie “L.A. Takedown” which possesses much of the same story, dialogue and even shot design. Perhaps the filmmaker knew he hadn’t quite nailed the test of wills and magnetic determinism in his story of a career criminal looking to get out and the relentless detective who chases his shadow (though ‘Takedown’ is admittedly the sparer, nuts-and-bolts version of what would become a much more complex, thematically layered story). And thank God Mann attempted take two, as “Heat” is unquestionably a modern-day crime classic, an absorbing thriller and a drama that pits engaging and yet mysterious characters from either end of the spectrum in a battle that we simply believe only one can ever walk away from, and that will change them both forever. But what makes “Heat” such a masterful portrait of the criminal mind and its polar opposite/symbiotic twin is its elaborate tapestry of rich character textures. Peering into the thought processes of those who fight crime for a living and those who don’t know how to live any other way than outside the law, we get a trenchant glimpse of the opposing codes they abide by, and why they’re driven to pursue their respective aims in the first place. “Heat” is technically awe-inspiring—the brooding mood of after-dark Los Angeles as mysterious and cold as ever—but it’s also moving, incisive and captivating; a first-rate sprawling crime epic of the highest order. Michael Mann is clearly fascinated with these men, their conventions, what makes them tick and that immersion, in turn, is absolutely enthralling. [A]

The Insider” (1999)
A thriller in which the plot hinges on the airing of a “60 Minutes” special and a drama with no shortage of scientific terms, contracts and legal wrangling, tallied onto a runtime that spans over 2 1/2 hours … there is another version of this movie that is dry and procedural. Luckily, Michael Mann didn’t make that movie. Breathlessly paced, the excitements of “The Insider” aren’t found in the machinations of the plot, but rather in the inner struggles of the characters, in a film about the courage of allowing yourself to be made vulnerable and burden of carrying the truth. For Jeffery Wigand, the knowledge he carries on his shoulders manifests itself in paranoia and fear, but also a deep conviction that he must do the right thing. A portly, hangdog Russell Crowe plays the man as someone desperate to be heard and understood, and listening and understanding is hot-shot producer Lowell Bergman who will go into the depths of hell for a story, but soon finds he too has to pull strings to get the truth out when the tobacco industry machine begins to threaten his scoop by attacking Wigand. The camera of Mann’s longtime collaborator Dante Spinotti moves in tightly on Jeffrey and Lowell, almost as if it’s their conscience continually dogging their thoughts and actions, as they struggle with moral and ethical decisions that will have very real, and mostly negative, consequences on their personal lives. It’s during these moments of intimacy that “The Insider” transcends its reductive description as a “whistleblower drama” and reveals itself to be more about the kind of fortitude it takes to put oneself out in the open for the greater good, even at great personal and professional cost. Thus, it’s no surprise that “The Insider” wobbles occasionally—certain sequences teeter toward a self-awareness of their importance or are laid down too thickly with the score by Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard. But those moments are few, and more often than not, “The Insider” is pure, gripping human drama about the ethical compromises we make each day to live and provide for those close to us, and what happens when the burden of those compromises becomes unbearable. [A-]

Ali” (2001)
Perhaps Mann’s most traditionally prestige-y type fare, “Ali” sees the great American documenter of professional life turn his eye to the ultimate self-styled American professional, boxer Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, as played, in a role that’s still his finest hour, by megastar Will Smith. Documenting the tumultuous decade between 1964 and 1974 that goes from Clay’s heavyweight championship bout against Sonny Liston, through his awakening in the Nation of Islam and the changing of his name, to his refusal of the draft, to the Rumble In the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire, it’s an ambitious affair, even for a near-3-hour runtime. But at least to begin with, it feels like Mann might have pulled it off: the opening, scored to Sam Cooke‘s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is astonishing, and there’s a vivid energy to the following scenes that gives the impression that the filmmakers have hit on something very special, not least when anchored by a performance from Smith that uses every wattage of his charisma but lets him be Ali, not the Fresh Prince. But after the first act, things derail a little: the script, credited to four writers including Mann and “The Insider” ‘s Eric Roth, is unwieldy and overstuffed, ultimately falling prey to the biopic trap of trying to take on too large a chunk of its subject’s life. And Mann never quite feels as simpatico with the socio-political upheaval stuff as with the boxing scenes (which are as well shot as anything in the genre since “Raging Bull”—indeed, as Mann’s sole collaboration with the great Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s a reminder that while his digital experimentation has been welcome, his work has never looked as beautiful since he left 35mm behind). The film’s closest cousin is probably “Malcolm X,” and it’s hard to not wonder what Spike Lee could have done with the material. But still, there’s an awful lot to love here, from the killer soundtrack and rousing recreations of the Rumble In the Jungle, to the way Smith genuinely exposes a little of his subject’s soul, to fine supporting performances from Jamie Foxx, Jeffrey Wright and the Oscar-nominated Jon Voight, who pulls off a remarkable, prosthetics-aided facsimile of legendary commentator Howard Cosell. [B-]

Collateral” (2004)
While Mann employed high-definition video cameras for select portions of “Ali” (yes really), he more extensively utilized the format for “Collateral,” a movie that served as his halfway point between the classical, shot-on-celluloid films of the early part of his career and the more experimental, extremely stylized movies (films seems to be the wrong word) of this current creative period. Here, while the digital photography seems fresh and oftentimes comes across as electrically alive, it still looks pretty crummy, and the digital stuff sitting side-by-side the traditionally photographed material (like the great sequence where Jamie Foxx goes into the Mexican dancehall to meet Javier Bardem‘s terrifying drug kingpin and the stuff in the jazz club) certainly doesn’t do it any favors. Still, Mann seems creatively reinvigorated by the use of the new format, with his sociological observations on Los Angeles resting comfortably inside a nifty genre contraption about a hitman (Tom Cruise, whose silver hair and equally silver suit suggest The Terminator more than anything else, and whose against-type performance here is among the very best of his career) who charters a taxi (driven by Foxx) as he goes on a nightlong killing spree. As impressive as the film’s technical aspects are, the performances and particularly the chemistry between Foxx and Cruise, in one of his only outwardly villainous roles, are where the movie’s heart truly lies. (There are a number of great blink-and-you’ll-miss-them supporting performances, including speaking roles essayed by Mann’s protégé Peter Berg, Mark Ruffalo, Jason Statham and Jada Pinkett-Smith.) “Collateral” isn’t perfect, with Mann having seemingly lost his grasp on his ability to choose appropriate music to go along with his impeccable images (what is that Audioslave song all about?) and it twists and turns satisfyingly only until it finally snaps our belief, but as a work of streamlined genre storytelling, it’s pretty unstoppable. Before the movie came out Cruise was fond of telling people that the script was so finely calibrated that you could tune a guitar to it. He’s not wrong. At the end of Mann’s occasionally brilliant, blood-splattered nighttime odyssey, it’s the characters that really matter, not the number of pixels. [B+]

Miami Vice” (2006)
Michael Man’s most audacious experiment in recent memory, turning the beloved, colorful, highly stylized eighties cop drama “Miami Vice,” on which he originally served as an executive producer, into a vibrant, grainy, you-are-there contemporary thriller, ended up wildly divisive. But on our side of the fence, it’s a crackerjack piece of filmmaking that is maybe the sine qua non of late-period Mann aesthetics, tethered to a recognisably Mann’s-man’s-man plot (sorry). Colin Farrell plays Crockett, the character originally played by Don Johnson, and Jamie Foxx is his partner Tubbs (originally Philip Michael Thomas), two undercover cops who get in over their heads with an international drug ring. And while all the good stuff is there in the theatrical version of “Miami Vice,” which Mann wrote, directed, and produced, the expanded director’s cut, later released on home video, is a revelation. The expanded runtime allows both the labyrinthine mechanics of Mann’s crime narrative to take on the appropriate sprawl, and lets us spend more time with the characters, giving us more investment in the pair of doomed relationships that the detectives develop (with, in a move that still, sadly, seems way ahead of its time, a pair of non-white actresses—Gong Li and Naomi Harris). While very little of the original television show remains in the movie, aside from some of the fashions and an emphasis on those cigarette-like “go boats” that race off the coast, it’s still fun to play spot-the-reference, like the twinkly flourishes of John Murphy’s neato score or the inclusion of a cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” which was memorably used in the series’ pilot. (Though, on the minus side, Mann’s baffling love of Chris Cornell continues; he uses two horrible Audioslave songs here.) The movie also features Mann’s deftest use of high-def digital photography, with everything taking on an added level of immediacy that borders on the splashily electric and gives the action sequences, many of which are amongst the best of Mann’s career, additional sizzle. It’s unclear whether or not Universal saw “Miami Vice” as the beginning of an adults-only franchise; as it stands it’s a one-off treat, and if perhaps it doesn’t exert the deeper thematic pull that the filmmaker at his very best can summon. It’s still, naysayers be damned (and seriously, revisit!), a smooth, jazzy late career triumph for one of Hollywood’s headiest action filmmakers. [B+]

Public Enemies” (2009)

“Digital makes things feel more real, like you could reach out and touch them,” Michael Mann said in cinematography magazines on the eve of the release of his Dante Spinotti-shot high-resolution 2009 feature. And while the director had dabbled with digital photography as far back as “Ali,” never had the stylistic choice been so polarizing and so jarring as with the 1930s, Depression-era period piece “Public Enemies.” Starring Johnny Depp as notorious bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale as famed, dogged FBI agent Melvin Purvis, one could have expected lots of heavyweight sparks between the two actors, but like in “Heat,” Mann lets these men-at-cross-purposes share just one scene. In fact, similarities with Mann’s inarguable masterpiece are everywhere: Dillinger, like De Niro’s Neil McCauley has zero tolerance for unprofessional loose cannons and those associates who do not respect the craft. And while Dillinger is much more a would-be celebrity populist than McCauley’s austere, anti-social thief, his honor within criminal codes similarly defines him. And like the hard-luck crook in “Thief,” Dillinger subconsciously knows he’s living on borrowed time, hence the similar accelerator-to-the-pedal approach to romance. But while perhaps a confluence of many of Mann’s greatest themes, “Public Enemies” just doesn’t quite gel on the level of earlier masterpieces and actually says far less (revelatory or otherwise) about each of its characters. Bale’s Purvis for one is mostly a non-entity other than the determined and driven FBI agent, and for all of Depp’s charms, he rarely can make Dillinger into a wholly captivating individual. Chock-a-block with supporting actors and cameos (pre-fame Carey Mulligan, Emilie de Ravin and Jason Clarke, plus Channing Tatum, Stephen Dorff, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Billy Crudup and more to name a few), it doesn’t help that the central romance between Depp and Marion Cotillard is missing a lot of crucial, fundamental chemistry. The use of anachronistic modern music and digital photography isn’t so much of an issue (especially on repeat viewings), though it admittedly veers between looking astonishingly beautiful, and then as if it was shot on a cell phone. And digital does push the coldness factor. The dispassionate, but locked-in and masterfully detailed gaze of Michael Mann often creates deeply engrossing and humanizing portraits of criminals and their fetishes, but “Public Enemies” is perhaps his most detached work; it’s as if these men don’t mesmerize the filmmaker in the same way. Still, the stylish and brutal film and its technically accomplished pursuit has a grinding intensity that crackles in its last act, capping a film that might be hard to fully fall for, but still has many elements that are easy to admire. [B-]

Luck” (2011, TV show)
Creator, executive producer and director of the pilot episode, Michael Mann’s return to television on HBO was certainly rich with promise, exploring the world and lives of those around a horse racing track. As the story goes, production on the show was contentious, with Mann and writer David Milch forced to strictly divide their duties: the director tackled the pilot, and closely oversaw the episodes shot by other filmmakers over the rest of the season, while the scribe gained total control of the scripts. The result? A show that was energetically and excitingly shot—the horse race sequences were always thrilling across all nine episodes—but narratively bogged down, with at least a half dozen subplots going at any one time, but none allowed to take central focus. Both initially confusing and molasses-paced, “Luck” somewhat rewarded the patient viewer who stuck around to see how the storylines eventually developed. But overall, it felt very much like a show created by two people who owned individual parts of the production but never truly collaborated. The verve Mann puts on display and instills in the guest directors makes it feel like the visuals are moving at a different pace than the actual storylines, creating a disconnect that the show never really managed to overcome. Still, for Mann completists, the pilot and show are worth tracking down if only to see the filmmaker bring his cinematic techniques to a smaller canvas, in the modern age of great TV, without missing a beat. [B-]

Michael Mann will return! His next film “Cyber” (a title it’s working under but hasn’t been officially confirmed) is slated to arrive in January 2015, but we kind of refuse to believe that for several reasons, and have included it in our 100 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 (in fact, were that release date debate any clearer, it would probably have been higher than no. 16). Detailing a cyberterrorist attack which necessitates the involvement of a hacker criminal and spans several countries across South East Asia, it stars Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis and Tang Wei and we can’t wait. — Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Ben Brock & Gabe Toro

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