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The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Michael Mann

Nov. 17, 2013by:

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 HEAT turned out to be impossible. I'd wager they're equally good movies, but for different reasons. 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 HEAT. While it's justifiably famous as the first movie to ever put 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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+12
8:33AM on 11/18/2013
I always felt like Nolan stole a lot of Manns style for his Batman films, I mean just watch the bank robbery scene in Dark Knight and tell me that doesn't look a lot like Heat.

He is one of my top 5 FAVORITE directors of all time. AND.... I totally disagree I think Public Enemies is his most underrated film, you spoke about his amazing skill of brining out the best in actors and I feel he did that with Depp. It was Depp's best performance of the last ten years IMO. Cant't wait for a new MANN
I always felt like Nolan stole a lot of Manns style for his Batman films, I mean just watch the bank robbery scene in Dark Knight and tell me that doesn't look a lot like Heat.

He is one of my top 5 FAVORITE directors of all time. AND.... I totally disagree I think Public Enemies is his most underrated film, you spoke about his amazing skill of brining out the best in actors and I feel he did that with Depp. It was Depp's best performance of the last ten years IMO. Cant't wait for a new MANN film next year, it feels like its been so long.
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8:23AM on 11/18/2013
Definitely one of my favourite directors as well. The problem with the guy, is that he doesn't direct enough movies. The guy did an amazing job on Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, simply classics.
Definitely one of my favourite directors as well. The problem with the guy, is that he doesn't direct enough movies. The guy did an amazing job on Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, simply classics.
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+5
9:18AM on 11/18/2013
Love Mann, as I get older, I think The Insider is his best.
Love Mann, as I get older, I think The Insider is his best.
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8:30AM on 11/18/2013
I loved Crime Story!
r.i.p Dennis Farina
I loved Crime Story!
r.i.p Dennis Farina
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2:00PM on 11/18/2013
That must've been a tough decision leaving Collateral out if the top 5 but I agree with Heat at #1. Personally I think it's the best crime film ever made.
That must've been a tough decision leaving Collateral out if the top 5 but I agree with Heat at #1. Personally I think it's the best crime film ever made.
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8:22AM on 11/18/2013
Michael Mann is a great director. Collateral is my favorite film of all time by him. Terrific film.
Michael Mann is a great director. Collateral is my favorite film of all time by him. Terrific film.
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6:51AM on 11/18/2013
Thief and Heat are my most favorite films of Michael Mann. The guy is simply badass. And yes, that bank heist and downtown L.A. shootout is probably the most intense cops and robbers shootout I've ever seen in a movie.
Thief and Heat are my most favorite films of Michael Mann. The guy is simply badass. And yes, that bank heist and downtown L.A. shootout is probably the most intense cops and robbers shootout I've ever seen in a movie.
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7:47AM on 11/18/2013
My favorite Michael Mann movie is "The Last of the Mohicans". Such an amazing epic. And having one of the best soundtracks ever doesn't hurt either.
My favorite Michael Mann movie is "The Last of the Mohicans". Such an amazing epic. And having one of the best soundtracks ever doesn't hurt either.
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12:10AM on 11/18/2013
I've never seen Thief or Manhunter (I know, shame on me), but I still find it hard to believe Collateral doesn't make the top 5. Love that film, along with a lot of Mann's movies. However, I couldn't get into Miami Vice or Public Enemies, so I'm hoping his next film is a return to form for him.
I've never seen Thief or Manhunter (I know, shame on me), but I still find it hard to believe Collateral doesn't make the top 5. Love that film, along with a lot of Mann's movies. However, I couldn't get into Miami Vice or Public Enemies, so I'm hoping his next film is a return to form for him.
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4:25AM on 11/18/2013
He was able to coax the best performance of Tom Cruise's career out of the actor. Looking forward to the cyber-thriller starring Chris Hemsworth he has in the works.
He was able to coax the best performance of Tom Cruise's career out of the actor. Looking forward to the cyber-thriller starring Chris Hemsworth he has in the works.
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8:38AM on 11/18/2013
Wow. Best performance? How ab emotionally layered with magnolia instead of Michael Myers? No where near as good, and I'm not even sure if magnolia is his best
Wow. Best performance? How ab emotionally layered with magnolia instead of Michael Myers? No where near as good, and I'm not even sure if magnolia is his best
1:38AM on 11/18/2013
Love his films. No Heat in the Top 5?? Had just finished watching The Insider when I read this. GREAT MOVIE.
Love his films. No Heat in the Top 5?? Had just finished watching The Insider when I read this. GREAT MOVIE.
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12:14PM on 11/18/2013
Michael Mann is absolutely one of the best directors working today. Oddly enough, I consider Public Enemies to be pretty underrated. It's not a masterpiece, but I found the HD photography and documentary style helped me imagine myself in the time period rather than observe as a re-enactment.

The man knows how to film action that feels real. Visceral but without heroics. And he's definitely an actor's director. Russell Crowe is another actor who gave a career-best in a Michael Mann movie. Not
Michael Mann is absolutely one of the best directors working today. Oddly enough, I consider Public Enemies to be pretty underrated. It's not a masterpiece, but I found the HD photography and documentary style helped me imagine myself in the time period rather than observe as a re-enactment.

The man knows how to film action that feels real. Visceral but without heroics. And he's definitely an actor's director. Russell Crowe is another actor who gave a career-best in a Michael Mann movie. Not to mention he gave the late Dennis Farina some of his best early work in movies and TV.
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1:37AM on 11/18/2013
Love his films. No Heat in the Top 5?? Had just finished watching The Insider when I read this. GREAT MOVIE.
Love his films. No Heat in the Top 5?? Had just finished watching The Insider when I read this. GREAT MOVIE.
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5:29PM on 11/19/2013

Would have fit in perfectly in the Studio Era

...and I mean that as an absolute compliment. Look at directors like Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, John Ford...all directors who worked within the boundaries of the Studio System and yet stamped their films as their own. Michael Mann brings that to the table in spades. He also, as has been mentioned before, been an actors director, getting performances out of people you wouldn't think were there. My favourite Mann Sequence? The conversation between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in the cab in
...and I mean that as an absolute compliment. Look at directors like Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, John Ford...all directors who worked within the boundaries of the Studio System and yet stamped their films as their own. Michael Mann brings that to the table in spades. He also, as has been mentioned before, been an actors director, getting performances out of people you wouldn't think were there. My favourite Mann Sequence? The conversation between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in the cab in Collateral, with Foxx's character letting Cruise's hitman character know how he feels...then Cruise cooly and viciously dissecting Foxx like science experiment. Its chilling to watch, and Foxx's reaction to it fits perfectly. Anyone who says Cruise can't act should check this film out. Thief, Heat, Manhunter, Collateral, The Insider are my favourites from him, and I look forward to where he goes next.
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7:10PM on 11/18/2013

The Best

Mann is my favorite director and has been for easily 15 years, Last Of The Mohicans and HEAT are the best, why no one sees Last Of The Mohicans as his best along with HEAT, I mean it is the most well balanced epic I have ever seen.
Mann is my favorite director and has been for easily 15 years, Last Of The Mohicans and HEAT are the best, why no one sees Last Of The Mohicans as his best along with HEAT, I mean it is the most well balanced epic I have ever seen.
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8:46AM on 11/18/2013
Wasn't a fan of Miami Vice. May need a re-watch. Heat will forever be a 1995 classic
Wasn't a fan of Miami Vice. May need a re-watch. Heat will forever be a 1995 classic
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6:01AM on 11/18/2013

Collateral is a remake of The Hitcher!

I'm torn between Public Enemies and Collateral being most overated.
I enjoyed Collateral but didn't think the 2 leads performances were as amazing as people have said. Also key parts of the plot are way too similar to The Hitcher, I'm surprised so few noticed.
I think the only people who thought Public Enemies was fantastic were fanboys of the 2 leads.

Couldn't agree more about William Peterson, he is Will Graham.
I'm torn between Public Enemies and Collateral being most overated.
I enjoyed Collateral but didn't think the 2 leads performances were as amazing as people have said. Also key parts of the plot are way too similar to The Hitcher, I'm surprised so few noticed.
I think the only people who thought Public Enemies was fantastic were fanboys of the 2 leads.

Couldn't agree more about William Peterson, he is Will Graham.
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9:39AM on 11/18/2013
You gotta be way in the minority w/ Collateral. It is very well liked.
You gotta be way in the minority w/ Collateral. It is very well liked.
9:37AM on 11/18/2013
Love his work! But I flat out hated Miami Vice & Public Enemies. And I've still never seen Ali.
Love his work! But I flat out hated Miami Vice & Public Enemies. And I've still never seen Ali.
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-7
8:33AM on 11/18/2013
Kind of hit and miss. Has GREAT films, but public enemies was a disaster, and I didn't like collateral. It's good up until the end, when Cruise becomes Michael Myers, and it ruins the movie for me
Kind of hit and miss. Has GREAT films, but public enemies was a disaster, and I didn't like collateral. It's good up until the end, when Cruise becomes Michael Myers, and it ruins the movie for me
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