Retrospective: 6 Essential Michael Mann Movies | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Retrospective: 6 Essential Michael Mann Movies

Retrospective: 6 Essential Michael Mann Movies

Throughout his career spanning three decades as a feature filmmaker, Chicago-born director Michael Mann has made only 10 feature movies. Although a total of ten feature movies may consider a small amount, Mann's works are always unique to look at. His distinctive use of colour (particularly blue), architecture and image of an ocean are some of his signature visual styles often seen in his feature movies. His directorial efforts are diverse, ranging from horror (1983's THE KEEP), historical epic (1992's THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS) to biopic (2001's ALI). However, Mann is often reputed for his creative outputs in the crime genre such as THIEF (1981), MANHUNTER (1986) and HEAT (1995).

In conjunction of his upcoming movie, BLACKHAT arriving this Thursday on January 15, here is a retrospective of six essential feature efforts directed by Michael Mann (in chronological order):

1. THIEF (1981)

Prior to his stunning feature debut in THIEF, Michael Mann was known for his TV screenwriting works in the '70s such as Starsky and Hutch (1975-1977) and Police Story (1976-1978). His extensive TV background served him well when he made a smooth transition from television to feature filmmaking for the first time ever with THIEF in 1981. Despite the generic title, THIEF was a solid character-driven crime picture, best remembered for James Caan's tour de force performance as the tough but naïve professional safecracker, Frank. The famous diner scene was particularly one of Caan's finest hours -- a memorable moment where Frank confesses his love to girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) about his real job as a thief and his past life in the prison. The cast was top notch, with strong supports from Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky and James Belushi (his feature debut). THIEF was, of course, notable for Mann's visual blueprint that would later characterised his subsequent works. With the help of Donald E. Thorin's superb cinematography, the movie was captivating enough for its nighttime visual on the rain-soaked cityscape of Chicago. The opening and the climactic heist sequences were meticulously executed, while Mann was equally effective on staging a brief but engaging final shootout in a Sam Peckinpah-like stylish slow-motion effect. THIEF also featured one of Tangerine Dream's (1977's SORCERER) most unforgettable synth-heavy scores ever composed in a movie. (Believe it or not, the score was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Musical Score!)

2. MANHUNTER (1986)

Long before directors including Jonathan Demme in 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Ridley Scott in 2001's HANNIBAL, Brett Ratner in 2002's RED DRAGON, Peter Webber in 2007's HANNIBAL RISING and TV creator Bryan Fuller in 2013's TV series of Hannibal, author Thomas Harris' most famous creation of the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter was first adapted by Michael Mann in 1986 titled as MANHUNTER. Whereas Demme's version in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was a commercial and Oscar-winning success, MANHUNTER was notoriously overlooked at the time of its release. However, beyond its feeble box office fiasco, MANHUNTER remained one of the finest underrated thrillers of the '80s. As proven in THIEF, Mann's meticulous direction was put into great use for its contrast of different procedural details between William Petersen -- in his pre-CSI era -- as an FBI profiler of the Behavioral Science Unit, Graham; Brian Cox as the imprisoned psychiatrist-turned-cannibalistic killer, Dr. Hannibal Lektor; and Tom Noonan as the psychotic killer Francis a.k.a. "The Tooth Fairy". All three male leads were excellent, while Mann's stylised visual palette was perfectly enhanced for the movie's thematically cold and disturbing subject matter.


After Michael Mann failed to break mainstream Hollywood with three movies (THIEF, THE KEEP and MANHUNTER) in a row, he took a six-year hiatus from feature filmmaking and returned to television works again (notably in the acclaimed TV series of Miami Vice). In 1992, he made a huge comeback with THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, a historical epic based on James Fenimore Cooper's novel of the same name and George B. Seitz's 1936 feature adaptation. The result was a commercial success at the box office and emerged as one of Mann's biggest hits in his illustrious directing career. While the overall story was utterly formulaic, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS remained best known for Mann's bravura direction during its thrillingly staged action set-pieces (the two ambush sequences were both noteworthy), and epic visual palette with the help of Dante Spinotti's breathtaking cinematography shot on location in the North Carolina wilderness. Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones' rousing score were especially reputed as one of the most memorable soundtracks in the '90s, while Daniel Day-Lewis made a solid leap from arthouse favourites (1988's THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, 1989's MY LEFT FOOT) to an unexpected mainstream Hollywood star playing the noble warrior Hawkeye.

4. HEAT (1995)

A solid remake of his own TV movie L.A. Takedown in 1989, HEAT was an engrossing cops-and-robbers crime drama blessed with Mann's masterful direction and a thought-provoking story that showcased the thematic insight from both sides of the law. The movie was, of course, best known for the memorable collaboration between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the same screen together for the first time ever (Both of them actually appeared in 1974's THE GODFATHER, PART II before, but never in the same scenes). The dramatic verbal exchange between LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and veteran bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in the diner scene alone was enough to make this movie a must-see. The centrepiece of this nearly three-hour magnum opus -- the broad daylight shootout scene in the open downtown area between Hanna's team and McCauley's gang -- was highly regarded as one of the best action set pieces ever staged in a movie history. Despite the movie's great acclaim, it was ironic that HEAT failed to land any Oscar nomination.

5. THE INSIDER (1999)

Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture and a long-overdue Best Director for Michael Mann (his one and only so far), THE INSIDER was a gripping, if lengthy true-story drama about Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former head researcher-turned-whistleblower who found himself under pressure after he decided to expose the tobacco scandal of Brown & Williamson to 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). Both Russell Crowe (who earned a Best Actor nomination) and Al Pacino delivered memorable performances together, while Mann was brilliant enough to craft an intense ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN-like corporate thriller that touches on fear and paranoia without resorting into a typical action set-pieces often found in his movie. On the technical side, Dante Spinotti's handheld cinematography and tight closeups were put into great use to give the movie a documentary-like feel and a heightened sense of dramatic urgency.

6. COLLATERAL (2004)

Michael Mann first experimented high-definition video camera technique for some of the scenes in his 2001's underwhelming biopic, ALI. He continued utilising the same format for COLLATERAL, a crackerjack thriller starring Tom Cruise as a hitman and Jamie Foxx as a taxi driver. The movie was particularly notable for its extensive use of high-definition (HD) video camera on all of the exterior scenes (while the interior scenes were shot on film stock). Although shooting a big budget Hollywood movie on a digital format might look strange at the first place, Mann and his pair of cinematographers, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, successfully brought a unique contrast of depth and detail to its nighttime surroundings of the Los Angeles city. With HD, never before a Los Angeles cityscape, which were illuminated by glowing neon lights, looked so vividly alive and hypnotising at the same time. Apart from its mesmerising cinematography and Mann's equally stylish direction, COLLATERAL was also a top-notch acting showcase for both Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Tom Cruise nailed his role surprisingly well with his first bad-guy performance as a smooth-talking hitman, Vincent. It's a kind of shame that Cruise's perfectly menacing role failed to land him a well-deserved Oscar recognition for Best Actor. Foxx, in the meantime, was equally captivating as the lonely taxi driver, Max. Although the movie's third act went overboard with a number of implausibilities -- including the fact that Vincent became increasingly indestructible even after getting shot in the body and involved in car crashes -- COLLATERAL remained an engaging crowd pleaser.

Sadly enough, COLLATERAL would be Mann's last great movie so far. His subsequent directorial efforts, 2006's MIAMI VICE and 2009's PUBLIC ENEMIES, were both highly-anticipated, star-studded crime dramas that failed to live up to the expectations.

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