Given that I've worked my way through most of Michael Mann's oeuvre over the last week in preparation for my column, I figured I'd stir up some trouble by ranking his films. Note: When we're discussing Michael Mann films, it's important to note that, with one exception (which we'll deal with in a moment), we're dealing with shades of excellence. So to say "This is the eighth-best Michael Mann film" is not a slight; that's still better than 98 percent of what comes out of Hollywood.
10. The Keep
Look, this is a bad movie and the less said about it the better. Just look at that image. It was his second theatrical feature and there was some amount of studio interference, apparently. It's kind of a trainwreck. I'm not even going to bother with a plot description. Last I checked, it's streaming on Netflix. But I'd argue that completists are the only ones who should really be too concerned with it.
9. Last of the Mohicans
Again, remember, this is a relative ranking. Last of the Mohicans—Mann's stirring adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's novel—is a very good film. Daniel Day Lewis brings an understated intensity to his role and there are a couple of amazing and gorgeous sequences (the waterfall fight, in particular). But, as a whole, it just doesn't hang together for me and I always have trouble focusing on it. It's not one I'm likely to throw in the Blu-ray player and watch again.
There are things I really like about Ali: The opening montage; Jon Voight disappearing into the role of Howard Cossel; Mykelti Williamson's turn as Don King; the fact that Michael Mann made a better movie about the influence of Malcolm X than Malcolm X. There's one big thing I don't like about Ali, however, and that's Ali himself. I just could never quite buy Will Smith as Ali. This is on me, not Smith (a fantastic actor who I love in I Am Legend and Hancock and ID4 and almost everything else he's ever been in). I'll take the blame.
7. Public Enemies
My friend and fellow film critic Alan Zilberman pointed out on gchat earlier today that the digital film aesthetic embraced by Mann since Collateral gives this period piece set in the Great Depression a weird gloss. While it's true that Mann used digital film for portions of Ali, it was less noticeable and less distracting than it is here. I also get the sense that Mann was trying to recapture some of the magic of Heat—alpha cop vs. alpha criminal with a love story added in—but I just didn't care about Christian Bale's lawman. Still, this film has at least three set pieces worthy of studying in film school: The prison break at the beginning; Dillinger's first bank robbery; and the shootout in the woods. Jason Clarke and Stephen Dorff are both entirely underrated in this picture.
Discussed in plenty of detail here. Available now on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection here. If any other Michael Mann film were to get the Criterion treatment, I'd want it to be The Keep. No, seriously! I'd love to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff, interviews with the filmmakers and actors, etc. It'd be tremendously interesting. But, then again, I'm a completist.
Manhunter is perhaps best known as "the film that introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal Lecter!" Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Brian Cox's Lecter is better than Anthony Hopkins'. This is a #SlatePitch too far for me. But Manhunter is an underrated gem, a tightly wound thriller stocked with great performances from top to bottom. Rewatching the film this weekend I was surprised to see Stephen Lang (best known as the ex-Marine in Avatar) show up as a scuzzy tabloid journo. Mann's ability to pluck talent seemingly out of the aether is almost unrivaled: Robert Prosky‘s first film was Thief, as was Dennis Farina‘s. Jamie Foxx's first "serious" role came in Ali. He deftly mixes character actor regulars such as Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson, Tom Noonan, Barry Shabaka Henley, and John Ortiz with big marquee names like Depp and Bale and Farrell. Mann knows how to find talent—and, more importantly, he knows how to use it.
4. The Insider
Two men against the system. Pretty standard Mann fare. But it's so beautifully shot and the story is so compellingly told that you can't tear your eyes away from the screen. 1999 was a great year for movies—and The Insider might have been the best of them all.
3. Miami Vice
I understand why Miami Vice was somewhat maligned upon its initial release. The sound mix and the accents used by the actors combine to make the dialogue difficult to discern. Further, the plot is almost purposefully obscure, with cops and robbers alike talking in criminal patois, utilizing slang and abbreviations with little regard for the audience.
However. Once one gets past all that—and it might take a viewing or three—the film comes together quite nicely. Indeed, I would argue that Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) is Mann's most fully realized alpha male. In him we see the struggle between duty and love. He wants what his partner has—a woman, a life—but he understands as the action comes to a head that such a life is not for him. It may never be for him. Unlike Neal McCauley, Heat‘s master thief, or Frank, Thief‘s titular thief, Crockett doesn't destroy the world he has built for himself out of malice or spite or because he can't have it just the way he wants. No, he does so out of love. He is the most mature of Mann's alpha men.
The tightest of Mann's films—one night, two men, one woman, one job—is eminently rewatchable. Tom Cruise's wolf in man's clothing comes pretty close to nailing what I imagine to be Cruise's true nature: somewhat bemused by the human condition and these things we call feelings.