His is a cinema of the sly and the stylish, and whether it’s in the form of the sprawling Heat and Public Enemies or the sleeker Thief and Collateral, the arrival of a new Michael Mann film in theaters always fills me with anticipation. As Blackhat is in theaters now, it seemed like the right time to spotlight Mann in our Quick Picks selections.
One of the things that draws me to Mann’s work is that some of it occurs at the place where occupational obsession meets committed relationships. On the subject of that kind of push/pull, there is also a fairly consistent one throughout his career between the sprawling and the compact. To be sure, Heat represents the finest balance of his sensibilities. The script is a tight one with outstanding characterization for each member of the film’s exceedingly talented cast. How much screen time they might have doesn’t matter; every character has some level of depth in addition to their presence. Mann’s customary cool blue widescreen frame, his use of negative space, and his love of Los Angeles as a location all seamlessly combine to tell an epic story that is intricate at a narrative level and powerful at an emotional one. It’s certainly the finest crime film this side of Jean-Pierre Melville. And while we’re talking superlatives, his Hannibal Lecter film Manhunter (yes, I know, it was spelled Lecktor, but same character) is far more captivating than either The Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal.
As much as I love his more epic fare like Heat or the romantic period piece The Last of the Mohicans, I also like Mann in exercise mode. To explain: after a mixed-critical reception and a box-office disappointment for Ali, Mann returned to a “go-with-what-you-know” approach and produced a couple of very strong films: Collateral and Miami Vice. As solid as they are on their own, I also felt as though Mann was building to something different stylistically, particularly with the greater integration of digital video into his visual aesthetic. I think of Scorsese, who—after the box office flop that was The King of Comedy—also went back to the drawing board with After Hours and The Color of Money before making one of his masterpieces, The Last Temptation of Christ. What we got from Mann after Collateral and Miami Vice was Public Enemies, something quite removed from a masterpiece. Subsequent viewings of the film have elevated my opinion of it, but it remains a lesser film, trying to do too much with the history of the era and making the story’s central conflict unnecessarily diffuse.
I’m also fascinated with Mann’s penchant for tinkering with his films after their release. Several of his films have multiple versions, sometimes resulting in vastly different impressions of the same movie. The criminally underrated Miami Vice is a good example of this, and serves well in demonstrating Mann’s pull between character and atmosphere. The theatrical version’s opening drops you into the middle of a nightclub, with our protagonists on watch for something about to go down. You get initial impressions of Crockett (Colin Farrell), Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the rest of their team in ways reminiscent of Budd Boetticher westerns: sparse dialogue, subtle gesture, and brief bursts of action, all showing you what professionals these people are. When I first saw Miami Vice, I loved the fact that I had to acclimate myself to what was going on; the movie wasn’t making it easy. Despite the booming music on the soundtrack, it’s a rewardingly understated opening. On the other hand, the “Unrated Director’s Cut” makes what’s going on in the nightclub far more explicit, with a different opening containing dialogue that sets up the bust Crockett, Tubbs, and company are trying to make. From a storytelling perspective, it’s repetitive, and it’s easy to see why it was cut from the theatrical release. From the perspective of Mann’s love of the milieu, though, a fleet of “go-fast” boats on parade outside Miami makes for some pretty compelling cinematography in Mann and Dion Beebe’s hands.
There is much more I’d like to say about Mann’s films (especially the way he recycles music across his work), but I also feel obliged to say a few words about Mann’s latest outing, the cyber-thriller Blackhat. There are a couple of excellently staged action sequences, and within those Mann seems occasionally to be playing with frame rates in some interesting ways. There is also a terrific shot early on, where Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), having just been released from prison, is walking with his benefactors on a runway to a waiting plane. He stops to silently survey the wide open space around him, and Mann’s composition is full of cool meditation. Unfortunately, there is little else in the film to which I can pay compliment, as Blackhat trucks in style but not story. The script is a mess, and the visualization of computer processes seems dreadfully out of place. You have a group of actors—many of whom I enjoy in other work—who exude presence but no depth. The sense of consummate professionalism with which Mann’s characters are usually endowed seems almost absent here. Due to some awful decision-making, the only thing the forces of good seem to be fighting for is who gets to get shot next. As if that weren’t enough, it’s difficult for me to think of a movie in recent memory where the stakes actually decline as the movie goes on. We start with a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant, but by the time we find out who executed that attack, the only thing that is surprising is the utter lack of intrigue that got you there.
My hope is that after this, Mann goes into exercise mode, using the style here to build to something better. My hope is also that his next film has a far better script as its foundation, because his approach to genre is something I value as much as I do his distinctive style. So, instead of rushing to see Blackhat, go instead to the nearest couch and queue up some of his far better work listed below.
Click on the movie posters without tags to take you to Netflix, Amazon Instant or other streaming resources based on current availability.
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Local DVDs: Four Star Video Cooperative and Madison Public Library
For our Madison readers, also be sure to check out or revisit The Insider. I maintain that 1999 is one of the single best years of cinema in the past 20. Mann’s film is one of the reasons why. Some of the titles above are also available on Blu-Ray and DVD; click the buttons below to search “Michael Mann” in their catalogues (a note of caution or excitement [your mileage may vary]: several Miami Vice television discs will be among the Madison Public Library search results, since Mann was an executive producer on the series).