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The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Michael Mann

11.17.2013

Last week, we took a look at the career of internationally acclaimed action icon Chow Yun-Fat. While Chow's known mostly for his work with John Woo, he'd no doubt be right at home in a movie directed by this week's subject...

Michael Mann

Michael Mann is without a doubt one of my favourite living directors. He's certainly one of the great visual stylists working in the industry, and his movies (many of which were lensed by master DP Dante Spinotti) are influential to the point that when you say a “Mann-style shot” one immediately thinks of a man driving through a neon-lit city in the dead of night, accompanied by a cool electronic soundtrack. The other day, I was walking along the water in Montreal, with the city lights in the background, and the friend who was with me said that all we were missing was a Tangerine Dream soundtrack to make it seem just like a Mann movie. Without Mann, a movie like Nicholas Winding Refn's DRIVE would not exist.

While Mann has proven to be a virtuoso filmmaker, directing career-best performances out of actors as diverse as Tom Cruise (COLLATERAL), Will Smith (whose performance in ALI is underrated) and James Caan (THIEF), it's worth noting that his influence goes beyond film. In the eighties, despite the success of THIEF (although his follow-up- the fascinating THE KEEP- was a flop) Mann was mostly known for his work on TV's MIAMI VICE. As the showrunner for the first two seasons, he gave the show its distinct neon and pastel look, and influenced the MTV-style editing, all of which is still being used on TV and in films (his less successful show CRIME STORY is also worth checking out).

Truly, Michael Mann is one of the greats, and boiling this feature down to his career highlights was tough, as there's so much of his work that I love (even THE KEEP), and I'd argue that he's one of the few directors out there that's never made an all-out bad film, as even his misfires are interesting.

His Best Film(s)

Choosing between THIEF and THIEF was Mann's first feature, and while it's often overlooked by his fans in favor of his later, more famous work, THIEF is a masterpiece. Now, the frenetic editing and stylized visuals may seem familiar, but back in 1981, they were revolutionary. That first scene where James Caan cracks a safe, with the amazing Tangerine Dream score blaring on the soundtrack still gives me goosebumps. This is a movie I return to over and over. James Caan, who's appeared in no shortage of great films, has called it his best work, and I'm inclined to agree.

For most directors, THIEF would be an impossible movie to measure up to, but Mann's done it again and again, most successfully with 1995's Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together on screen (although they had both appeared in GODFATHER PART II), there's more to it than that. Mann took years honing his screenplay for this, to the point that in 1989, he even directed a pilot called L.A TAKEDOWN, which was essentially a dry-run for this (it's a fascinating curio, and kinda cool in it's own right). By the time he got around to making HEAT, Mann must have known he was crafting a masterpiece, and Pacino and De Niro, as friendly adversaries, have never been better.

His Most Overrated Film

While I like PUBLIC ENEMIES of all of his films it's the one I return to the least. It's hard to say why the film doesn't entirely work, but to me it's the fact that Mann's too contemporary a director to go period. Sure, he pulled off one hell of a good epic with THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, but since then he's adopted a DV-cinema verite look that works beautifully in urban thrillers, but didn't really suit a movie about John Dillinger. It's still a perfectly fine film, but it's not the masterpiece I think a lot of us were expecting.

His Most Underrated Film(s)

Mann's got loads of underrated films, but for me the ones that really stick out are MANHUNTER and the film version of MIAMI VICE. MANHUNTER was actually remade (badly) as RED DRAGON (oddly also shot by Dante Spinotti) to eke out one final performance by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, but Mann's film destroys it. Not only is William Petersen more convincing as the tortured Will Graham than an uninspired Edward Norton, but Brian Cox, who was mostly unknown at the time, makes for a fascinating Lecter. I'm not saying Cox is better, just different, but he's damn good, and coupled with Tom Noonan as the creepy/oddly sympathetic “Tooth Fairy”, you've got one hell of an intriguing movie.

As for MIAMI VICE, this one seems to be a victim of the press, with so many tabloid stories about the troubled production, and stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx coming out that the film was labled a disaster before it even opened. The actual movie is one heck of a cool actioner, which is much more faithful to the series than critics gave it credit for. It's actually a full-on remake of one of the most popular episodes, “Smuggler's Blues”, and not only has a typically awesome soundtrack (with epecially good use of “Autorock” by Mogwai) but even comes close (close!) to beating HEAT's famous gunfight in the final showdown with the baddies. The only thing I don't like about this movie is Farrell's moustache.

His Most Memorable Scene

I knew that his best scene had to come from HEAT but I wasn't sure which one to use, the coffee shop sequence or the gunfight. In the end, I chose the gunfight, merely for the fact that it's probably the best shoot-out ever filmed, even (for my money) beating the hospital shootout in HARD BOILED. Watch and be amazed.

His Top-Five Films

5. THE INSIDER
4. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
3. MANHUNTER
2. THIEF
1. HEAT

Up Next

While his HBO show LUCK was sadly cancelled (and tragically, star Dennis Farina died a few months later) Mann is back at work with a movie called CYBER that's apparently a techno-thriller set in China, starring Chris Hemsworth and Holt McCallany (who looks right at home in the Mann-universe). It comes out sometime next year. I can't wait.

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