BMD Picks: Jacob’s Top Five Michael Mann Movies

On the crime auteur's 75th birthday, we pay homage to his very best works.

(Photo used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

It's no secret how much I adore Michael Mann and his movies. From the hardened men and wiomen who he's fascinated with, to the details of process that make up his characters' day-to-day existences, to the formal experimentation he's implemented that's helped push the medium forward in new and exciting ways, he's one of the most brilliant creators of pulp fiction to ever step behind a camera. Add on the fact that he helped usher along the careers of fellow idiosyncratic filmmakers such as Abel Ferrara (who helmed episodes of both Crime Story and Miami Vice), and you have an artist who's always going to own an incredibly special place in my heart. 

Today, Michael Mann turns seventy-five years old, and to celebrate I'm running down my five favorite films he's helmed. Because we need to keep celebrating our most gifted visionaries, while they're still kicking the tires and looking to wow us with their personal stories...


#5. Collateral [2004] (w. Stuart Beattie) 

There’s always been something subtextually cosmic about Mann’s movies; the way they speak to the physical, spiritual and emotional space (often represented in the negative areas of Mann’s frame) we keep between ourselves before inevitably crashing into one another. In Collateral ('04), this visual philosophy is bolstered by spoken text (courtesy of Stuart Beattie’s long-gestating script). Los Angeles isn’t just a character, but also a stand-in for the universe itself – the working men (such as Jamie Foxx's cab driver, Max), assassins (such as Tom Cruise's kidnapping killer Vincent) and authority figures circling around each other like planets, their respective gravitational pulls headed for a vacuous black hole. That unforgiving vortex is Felix (Javier Bardem), an impatient liaison for the South American drug cartels operating out of a labyrinth body that’s connected by concrete arteries. Plainclothes bloodhounds like Fanning (a greased Mark Ruffalo) and Weidner (Mann protégé Peter Berg) are always two steps behind, while federal counterparts like Pedrosa (Bruce McGill), monitor it all like omnipotent Gods behind banks of surveillance devices. In the cab and jazz clubs, an action picture riff on My Dinner With Andre (’81) takes place, as everything from Max’s inability to break from his mundane reality to the history of Miles Davis is discussed. Collateral is pistol grip existentialism, the cosmos unwilling to simply bestow those who float through their black ether a sense of momentous purpose without them earning it.

The audience can practically smell the cordite whenever violence erupts. Vincent is a double tap animal – his lethal movements rigid thanks to the countless times he’s been called on to execute them during his six years working the private sector. Cinematographer Dion Beebe’s implementation of digital gives way to celluloid during the ‘Fever’ club siege; neon and water shimmering in ornate structures as the killer pushes through a crowd, breaking the legs of numerous beefy bodyguards along the way. Mann’s set pieces are always breathtaking, methodically staged with the adrenaline shot instincts he’s been known for ever since the climactic shoot out in Thief (’81). Here he even takes a stab at a sequence that seems ready made for some sort of high-tech slasher, as Vincent prowls an office building. Searching for prey, the power cuts out, reducing him to nothing more than a Grim Reaper shadow, moving across a window looking out over the never-ending vista of an iridescent LA. Collateral would be the last time Mann’s shot anything resembling “traditional” action, as his subsequent HD output (Miami Vice [‘06], Public Enemies [‘09] and Blackhat [‘15]) sees him pushing each remarkably implemented sequence further and further into impressionistic territory.

Read more from me on Collateral here

#4. The Insider [1999] (w. Eric Roth & Michael Mann)

Mann's The Insider ('99) was released as the year already began to fade into memory. Yet despite the fact that it came during a political period of fat economic growth and liberal policies being implemented across the board in America, Mann's movie owes more to the post-Nixon paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula. Another of his consummate professionals, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (a dialed down Al Pacino) is a good man sensing that something is still wrong inside the corporate institutions of the United States, and drives forward in the name of that ultimate journalistic ideal: "the truth". In Russell Crowe's jaded, whistle-blowing tabacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand, Bergman discovers a reluctant ally, whose entire existence is meticulously dismantled by the smoke-producing powers that used to bestow him a hefty paycheck every month. 

The Insider knows that viewers know cigarettes are bad for them, and that Big Tobacco companies used to implore you to consume their product at seemingly every turn. Instead, what Mann becomes fascinated by is how corporate structures work to destroy the individuals inside their systems that seek to raise dissent against their product. It's during these sequences that the auteur constructs a thriller that could rub elbows with The Parallax View ('74) or All the President's Men ('76); as shady operatives scurry about golf courses and Wigand discovers a bullet in his mailbox as a threat. We're watching as unseen forces conspire to take down one man who just wants to "do the right thing", and are then able to even help censor one of the biggest network news shows in history. Mann is worried about America here, mourning how we've become an infected body, oozing lies while the truth is bandaged and buried, never to see the light of day. 

#3. Heat [1995] (w. Michael Mann) 

There's a seemingly minor exchange that speaks volumes about Michael Mann’s Heat ('95). Donald (Dennis Haysbert) drinks himself into a stupor after a tough day at work. His piece of shit boss (Bud Cort) at the diner where he works as a line cook is unforgiving and unsympathetic toward the plight of the recently released ex-con. “I did time for what that motherfucker does every day,” Donald sneers, not wanting to kick back a percentage of his already measly paycheck to the balding supervisor. His wife, Lily (Kim Staunton), reaches across the table and gently touches his hand. “Come home,” she implores, letting her hardened husband know that, no matter how many times he fucks up, she’ll always be there for him. Because no prison stretch, no foul day, lack of income or truckload of self-pity could keep her away from the person whose soul is linked to hers by both vows and indefinable attachment. He is her man, and she is his woman, and this is their life. Only bullets could bring them down.

Ostensibly the culmination of Mann’s talents working with celluloid (his digital output is obviously a separate discussion) Heat is one of the most vital crime dramas ever crafted. A revision of the ’89 television pilot-turned-movie, LA Takedown, Mann’s inspiration for the volatile cop (Al Pacino) and smooth criminal (Robert De Niro) at the center of this elegant cat and mouse chase came from Charlie Adamson – leader of the Chicago major crimes unit who shot down the real life Neil McCauley in ’63. According to Mann, Charlie was dropping off his dry-cleaning when he saw McCauley, whose case he had already been working. McCauley was getting out of his car to grab some coffee, and Neil knew that Charlie was watching him. Instead of breaking out into violence, Charlie simply offered to buy the man a cup. McCauley agreed, and the two essentially shared the same conversation that became the iconic moment in Mann’s movie. According to the writer/director, the two shared “the kind of intimacy you can only have with strangers who think in ways that are not dissimilar to the way you think.”

This level of intimacy stretches beyond characters who are strangers and actually becomes the driving, defining element of Mann’s magnum opus. Though he’s often been pegged by both critics and fans as meticulously committed to the details of both crime and its investigation (the director himself is pleased as punch that his heist shootouts are regularly shown in military training classes), Mann’s approach to his characters is nothing less than microcosmic pulp melodrama. Presented throughout the three-hour runtime is a series of standoffs – showdowns with adversaries, significant others, personal codes and (in trademark Mann fashion) existence itself. It’s easy for the viewer to get caught up in the back and forth between Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro), as they’re the most thoroughly realized duo of damned nightcrawlers in the entirety of Mann’s filmography. Yet to only focus on Pacino and De Niro would be a “forest for the trees” approach to viewing Heat, as this is a movie where everyone in its universe is struggling with their own personal stalemate, praying to whatever God they hold dear that this urban cage of steel and glass won’t cave in on them.

Read more from me on Heat here

#2. Thief [1981] (w. Michael Mann)

Like Scorsese in New York, Michael Mann’s upbringing on the streets of Chicago translated to his criminal cinematic universe, where hard men live and die by their own sets of self-made moral codes. In Heat, bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) shares coffee and wisdom with his dogged pursuer, Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). “A guy told me one time,” McCauley says, “don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” This adopted mantra is the reason the fearless thief refuses to take on a love in his life. It’s a value system that’s served him well, and whose violation ends up being the cause of the modern day Dillinger’s ultimate demise.

Over a decade before Mann helmed that L.A. masterwork, Thief ('81) saw him set his sights on another ethos-obsessed burglar. “I am Joe, the boss of my own body,” jewel thief Frank (James Caan) says to a mob boss (Robert Prosky) soliciting his specific line of expertise, “why the fuck do I have to work for you?” An independent contractor of the most slippery kind, Frank does as he pleases. Even when he isn’t cracking safes - a profession Mann employed real ex-cons to supervise as he recreated it - he cuts directly to the chase. “I’ve been cool,” he says to his lady-love Jessie (Tuesday Weld), “I am now unmarried. So we can cut the mini-movies and the bullshit and get on with this big romance.” Given his background as an ex-con, he knows that free time is not to be wasted, diving headfirst into near marriage half-way through an arguably awful date.

The title to Mann’s feature debut is pithy for a reason. As a writer/director, he is often taken with men who survive by adhering to rigorous forms of structured thinking. Their job defines them, years of hard living having led them them down a distinctly delinquent path. These are men who have been chewed up and spat out by the system, as both Neil and Frank are orphans who struggled to survive in state-sponsored homes, prisons and on the streets. When he was fourteen, Frank stole forty dollars and ended up getting a two-year sentence. Only once he was inside, he earned himself another seventeen after killing an inmate whilst defending himself from sexual assault. During this extended stay, Frank met Okla (Willie Nelson), a master thief who became a mentor to the punk killer, molding him in his own, pilfering image. The institution and its internees carved Frank’s worldview out of stone, flesh and blood. When combined with some of Mann's most stunningly staged gunfights - which helped mint producer Jerry Bruckheimer's brand of bombastic entertainment - you have one of the greatest starting points any big screen filmography has ever seen. 

#1. Miami Vice [2006] (w. Michael Mann) 

It’s debatable whether or not Miami Vice is Michael Mann’s best movie, but what’s indisputable is that Miami Vice is Michael Mann’s definitive movie. A brooding, boiling feature update of the hyper-stylized ‘80s cop drama (for which Mann acted as Executive Producer), Vice ’06 is the natural zenith of both the auteur’s thematic and aesthetic fascinations. Dropping us directly into a deep cover environment that we cannot hope to initially comprehend, the new Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are blood brothers who speak in shorthand and exchange knowing glances, their eye movements telling each other (and, in turn, the viewer) every bit of info necessary to understand both the sting operation they’re currently engaged in, and a relationship that has formed over countless undercover maneuvers. This is no pilot. There is no “meet cute” intro or episodic trial and error, clueing us into how these associations were formed. This is action as storytelling in the purest sense, daring those who have opted to tag along for the ride to keep up…or risk getting everyone around you killed.

Mann has always been an achingly intimate director, utilizing his camera to probe not only adult relationships, but also his main characters’ wrestling with their own souls. “Time is luck,” Isabella says to Sonny, after the two enjoy a romantic speed boat ride to Cuba (a trip motivated by a shared love for mojitos). We witness the two ravishing each other’s bodies; the tangled flesh and soft lips of new lovers intertwined amongst a tropical, otherworldly backdrop. These are people who both exist in a world of death, knowing they have to maximize what borrowed minutes they have to spend in each other’s embrace. Here, Mann’s lovingness is at an all-time high, depicting both physical and spiritual yearning that may never be fulfilled for any of these people. He catches them often staring out at the vanishing point, wondering what waits beyond the wall of mortality and soft forms. Just like his other stone cold masterworks (particularly Heat), Miami Vice is as much a romance between Mann and his protagonists as it is a fictional affair involving an undercover cop and an unhappy drug consigliere or two partners. As he positions his camera high above a speedboat that hums toward the horizon, we’re not just seeing an infatuated couple jetting off for a drink, but also two human beings hoping that their souls can somday find peace amongst those sun-kissed clouds.

For all of the lip service paid to Mann’s formal experimentation, what often gets lost in the conversation is how deeply felt his films are. Miami Vice is a work of pulsing, hot-blooded power. By folding his fascinations in on themselves, the director has achieved a near elemental sense of emotional connection, allowing us to pine for these characters on the same soulful levels that they do for one another. The most common criticism of Mann’s later digital work is that he’s making movies either purely for himself or for the devoted. This is nonsense. While a greater appreciation of Vice is certainly achieved when considering it within the context of his body of work, it’s difficult not to be moved by the clash of conventional and iconoclastic imagery he synchronizes to reach a deeper level of pulp truth. Lovers screaming across a shell-strewn wasteland as machine guns aim to twist their human forms. A relationship experiences its last gasp of life on a beach as a hurricane approaches. Grief-stricken, a man reaches out to take the hand of his ailing partner, the blip of a hospital heart monitor instilling new hope. As the drums to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” swell and the final neon title card appears, Mann is leaving us as he found us; ready to experience similar sensations without the aid of action movie constructs. His is a cinema of immediacy – visual, emotional, sensual, spiritual. All you have to do is let yourself be immersed in the moment. Because you never know when your luck’s going to run out.

Read more from me on Miami Vice here