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Michael Mann Week: The Oeuvre of Mann

August 11, 2009

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From his earliest films, Michael Mann established certain signature cinematic traits: a distinct visual style, remarkable soundtracks, protagonists who are consummate professionals at whatever they do, and at least an undercurrent of masculine struggle and angst. What is remarkable is how these traits have shifted, transformed, and matured over the years and course of his filmography. Let’s explore this shall we? C‘mon, like you have anything better to do…

200px-Theif_1981Thief (1981)—Essentially a pulp-novel brought to screen, Thief is neither epic nor complex. What it is, however, is compelling and engaging. James Caan’s titular thief does a job for a shady Robert Prosky. Things go sideways, it all ends in bloodshed. At the same time, Caan is trying desperately to start a family with main-squeeze Tuesday Weld (cue scene at the adoption center: “You got a spade kid, we’ll take a spade kid. A chink kid, we’ll take it…”) The uncut forms of Mann’s themes are all on display in Thief: Caan’s a consummate professional whose pursuit of the masculine ideal—the happy home and family to support—alienates him the moment it intersects with his criminal endeavors. The movie ends with him alone disappearing into the night. Mann’s look was the early form of the glossy sheen he would later bring to the TV incarnation of Miami Vice. The Chicago locales are rain-slicked and glittering. Tangerine Dream provides the retro-techno score that is sometimes propulsive, and sometimes ludicrously intrusive. All in all, it could stand as a particularly gritty episode of Vice.

keepThe Keep (1983)Well, everyone’s gotta have at least one “WTF?!?” moment. This big-screen adaptation of the pulp-horror novel by F. Paul Wilson features Nazis taking over a Romanian castle, only to findout—the hard way, natch—that the castle is actually a keep designed to imprison an ancient evil. And the ancient evil gets out and kills them by blowing up their heads. Unavailable on DVD, I last saw this when I was 16, so forgive me for being a bit fuzzy on many of the details. Gabriel Byrne plays a Nazi commandant (sure, why not?). Scott Glenn plays an immortal Greek fisherman (sure, why not?). A lot of people’s eyes glow red and green. Glenn uses a magic stick to kill the vampire. Tangerine Dream also scored this movie, but the soundtrack has, like, three actual movie tracks on it. Allegedly, the studio made Mann cut the film to hell, so maybe we’ll see a Director’s Cut someday, but if I were him I’d be disowning this one.

200px-Manhunter_michael_mann_film_posterManhunter (1986)Here Mann’s career finds some traction. The first (and arguably the best) Hannibal Lecter screen treatment finds a remote, implosive William Petersen’s psychologically-burnt FBI agent Will Graham squaring off with Brian Cox’s nerve-dead Hannibal Lecter. Mann is still in his Miami Vice mode of stylization, but scenes such as the one in which a room full of FBI agents work against a deadline to decipher a communiqué Lecter is sending to his serial protégé are a glimpse of the more documentary style he will adopt later in his career. This film also first heavily showcases the theme of the doppelganger, which Mann will explore in nearly all of his subsequent films. Graham and Lecter are two sides of the same coin—a fact that makes Graham flee from one of the duo’s  tet-a-tets. Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal would transform Lecter into a leering, Grand Guignol anti-hero, and Manhunter’s remake—under the source novel’s title of Red Dragon, and directoral stewardship of Brett Ratner—would transform the story into sheer crap. Of all the five (sweet crap!) presentations of Hannibal Lecter, only Manhunter captures his icy remove from humanity. (Bonus points for setting a bloodbath to classic hippie-trippy song In-a-Gada-da-Vida).

200px-MohicansposterThe Last of the Mohicans (1992)—Honestly, I don’t remember much about this movie except for a lot of Indian fighting. Mann recycles the doppelganger trope with good Indian Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis, presumably believing he’s not actually acting, but instead posing for a series of romance novel covers) and bad-Indian Magua. Mann also indulges his “nature-vs.-civilization” trope that he glanced upon in Manhunter, but it’s a bit lopsided here, for obvious reasons. The soundtrack’s great, and the visuals are sumptuous. The movie feels over-plotted and smothers many of Mann’s more intriguing ideas.

200px-HeatposterHeat (1995)—Mann’s magnum opus, his best-known film, and best-received film. Heat was described by Martin Scorsese as one of the best films of the 20th century. Who am I to argue with Scorsese? At over three hours, Heat unfolds more like a crime novel than a movie, and Mann is never tempted outside the limited scope of cops and killers he has assembled. The result is a set of well-drawn, well-developed storylines that gel into a cohesive whole. Sure, the movie could have worked without the parolee short-order cook (a pre-Presidential Dennis Haysbert) who’s tempted back into being a wheelman during the movie’s set piece shootout. But then we wouldn’t have the same sense of tragedy and human loss. Mann’s themes of masculine alienation are in full swing here as demonstrated by his doppelgangers, Robert DeNiro’s  Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna—both of whom allow their respective taqlents—crime, catching criminals—to drive them away from human contact. Mann illustrates these themes with sharp, memorable shots—McCauley placing his gun on a glass table in his empty seaside house, Hanna making love to his wife (Diane Venora) in a scene which slips in and out of focus. The famous onscreen meeting of these two actors feels so guarded and restrained it’s as if Mann feared the medium couldn’t contain that much talent and legend in one frame. Heat represents the transitional period between extreme stylization and a more naturalistic style. While static scenes are still as composed as landscape paintings, the bravura 10-minute shootout in the middle of the film is mostly filmed in a handheld style and with virtually no soundtrack. Heat may be Mann’s masterpiece, but it’s far from the last great film he would make.

200px-The_insider_movie_poster_1999The Insider (1999)—An unusual follow-up to one of the seminal heist pictures in American film history, Mann tells the story of tobacco-industry whistle-blower Jeffery Wigand and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, whose piece on the industry was spiked when that venerable news organization was cowed into submission by the threat of lawsuits and loss of advertising. What should be a duller-than-dirt story about a minor blip on television news’s continued debasement becomes instead a thrilling, wrenching film about having the courage of your convictions. Al Pacino is a live-wire, but Russell Crowe blows him off the screen as the flawed, but fundamentally-decent Wigand, whose life is systemically destroyed by his former employers. Mann’s themes of masculine alienation in face of masculine duty are front and center here, as Wigand becomes increasingly cut off from everyone around him. In one bravura, and highly-stylized sequence, the massive mosaic on the wall of Wigand’s hotel room twists and undulates until it becomes a massive scene of he and his family together at the park. Crowe lost the Academy Award to Kevin Spacey, but got one for his performance in Gladiator. I like to think the Academy realized its mistake.

200px-Ali_movie_posterAli (2001)Mann moves further away from the dramatic-stylization of his earlier films and adopts a more documentary-style. This is both a pro and a con, It’s a pro because the highly stage style had gone out of fashion—only still used by hacks like Renny Harlin and Michael Bay. It’s a con, since narrative exposition tends to go out the window with it. Mann’s films increasingly require the viewer to fill in the blanks left onscreen. As a result, the greatest knock against Ali is that it tells the viewer little they didn’t already know (especially having been released after the documentary Rumble in the Jungle). Still, Mann’s touches are in obvious evidence here, like in the film’s opening where Ali’s media posturing is contrasted with his rigorous, lonesome training regimen.

200px-Collateral_%28Movie%29Collateral (2004)Perhaps not Mann’s best film, but my favorite, and one of my favorite films period, Collateral plays to many of Mann’s strengths by containing the plot to two primary characters who are, in essence, stuck with one another. This allows for Mann to explore to much greater degree than in earlier films his pet themes. Tom Cruise’s enigmatic Vincent and Jamie Foxx’s controlled, beaten-down Max are both consummate professionals (killer and cab-driver) whose work has effectively detached them from the world. This was the first movie Mann shot in Hi-Def video and the movie looks simply gorgeous with Mann now able to bring greater depth and detail to night scenes (which often look unrealistic in film, as they were shot in normal or low light with the exposure then played with). Collateral provides plenty of great moments (such as when Cruise effortlessly dispatches two thugs at close range), and follows up Heat’s great gun battle with a smaller yet no less thrilling gunfight in the chaos of a crowded club. Mann all but discards his static visuals in this movie, but his hand-held aesthetic and growing disinterest in exposition doesn’t work against a movie as self-contained as this one. Collateral also has arguably the best soundtrack of all Mann’s films.

200px-Miami_Vice_Teaser_PosterMiami Vice (2007)—A tremendous disappointment from this filmmaker. Vice was a troubled shoot, with Colin Farrell checking into rehab almost immediately upon completion of filming, and Jamie Foxx having been transformed by his Oscar win into a prima donna who was too much a little girl to film any scenen with boats, planes, or fly commercial to shooting locations. Add to this mix a couple forces majeure—a hurricane, an on-set murder—and you get a real mess. Even though the film looks great, Mann’s script curiously abandons all his usual themes and goes through the motions of a typical Vice episode.

 

500px-Publen-tommy5Public Enemies (2009)A bit of a wobbly-goblin of a movie, mostly due to Mann’s greater focus on Dillinger than Purvis, it nonetheless marks a return to form. Both a gorgeous picture and a violent, existential meditation on one man’s race to outrun his own obsolesce, Enemies strips away the myth of Dillinger and exposes the more fascinating reality behind it.

BHBlackhat (2015)–Mann’s attempt at a cyber-thriller end up mostly being a heist film–which is fine, since he does heist films so well. But this entry sees him coasting on his previous work to such a degree that it feels like he stopped being creative immediately after he decided he was going to make a movie about hackers. Recycling tropes,characters, and even whole lines of dialogue from earlier movies, Mann seems more to be going through the motions more than anything here. The result is an agreeable movie with some excellent scenes, but also the most lightweight movie he has made since Thief. (updated 8 Jan. 2015)

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