Friday, July 10, 2009

Mann, He's Good.

Michael Mann is currently on one of the great runs in cinema history. The 66 year old director from Chicago has made 7 exceptional films in a row, starting with The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Since then he has made, Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006), and the newly released Public Enemies (2009), which I saw last night.

Like Martin Scorsese, Mann has long been thought of as a "Crime" film maker, and while in both cases it's true that Crime is a theme frequently visited by these directors, both have made great films that have little or nothing to do with crime. It's a shame because neither of these great talents should ever be thought of as a one-trick-pony.

I first fell in love with Mann's work with 1995's Heat. I had seen Last of the Mohicans before that, but I was too young for it to really register with me. But Heat grabbed me. In the press it was a landmark film for bringing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together on screen for the first time, but honestly, I didn't care or even realize that was significant at the time.

In my eyes, the great thing about Heat was how it was shot and edited. Quite the opposite of many action/drama films Heat has many long takes and scenes where the characters don't say very much, and that's where Mann first revealed himself to me as a master. He has the remarkable ability to build drama and tension without much actually happening on screen. He always knows exactly where to point the camera and exactly how to get what he wants from his actors.

Public Enemies is no exception. Mann gets great performances from Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard, and everyone else seems to blend seamlessly into their characters. It's set in the mid-1930s during the golden age of crime. Depp plays John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber, and we follow him from his peak to his inevitable downfall.

It's interesting that this film comes now, during an economic crisis when much of America is feeling the stress of dwindling bank accounts. Surely, many of us must be tempted to lash out at the unfair nature of the economy and simply take what we want. It's that reason why Dillinger was loved by the public during the Great Depression, and it's that reason why we admire Depp's portrayal of the man now as we're teetering on the edge of another financial collapse. Despite its designation as a period piece, Public Enemies is a film for right now.

Michael Mann has never been loved by critics. Most of his films get mixed reviews at best, including Public Enemies, which is currently only registering a 65% rating on Ali (2001) was similarly doubted, though in my mind it is a masterpiece and one of the best "Bio-eps" of all time, and I think we all remember the bloodbath critics made of Miami Vice (2006). However, Miami Vice, while maybe not reaching the same level of greatness as much of Mann's work, is a very misunderstood and underrated film, but that's a topic for another post.

I think the reason for this critical skepticism towards Mann's work is that his films are often not what people are expecting them to be. Heat was marketed as an Action film, and instead he delivered a 3 hour epic drama. Ali was expected to be exciting and flashy like Muhammad himself, and instead it focused on inner struggle. Miami Vice was expected to be colorful and flashy, like the 80s TV series, and instead it was a darker, mood driven piece.

He has said that he has no idea how any other film maker works and that he only knows how to do it his way. He tells the story he wants to tell, even if it's not what's expected, and often he suffers at the box office for it. But Mann is exactly the type of film maker that America should learn to appreciate. His work isn't always flashy (even though he does gun fights better than anyone in the business) but it's always heartfelt and meaningful, and that's what should count at the end of the day.

Pubilc Enemies (2009) 9/10
Miami Vice (2006) 8/10
Collateral (2004) 9/10
Ali (2001) 10/10
The Insider (1999) 10/10
Heat (1995) 10/10
The Last of the Mohicans (1992) 9/10
Manhunter (1986) 7/10
Theif (1981) 6/10


  1. While I did enjoy the movie, I think the previews outdid it, sadly. The story was told much more clearly in the previews, which made me want to see it, but I think the actual telling of the story in this movie was muddled.
    I maintain that shoot out scene in the woods went on entirely too long, the point of which didn't become clear until Dillinger goes into the police office (a great scene, and probably one that developed his character more than any other one.)Not to mention the boom-enhanced headache.
    However, I can't comment on the director. First of all, I don't care. I'm one of those people you're constantly trying to convert. Second, I never saw another Michael Mann movie. I know you'll loan them, however I am so far behind on my media. I think I have some reading to do. Then six feet under.

  2. So basically you're saying Mann's acclaim suffers from unsuitable marketing???
    Just kidding :D
    Well, sort of. The Trailer for Public Enemies did give a hint of a faster, one-liner type action movie. Similar goes for Collateral. And I think Miami Vice should’ve never been tied to the show. It had really very little to do with it, and given that the longer version of the show was what people were expecting (and this also hadn’t been disputed by the trailer) most were inevitably disappointed.

    That being said, I have to say that Mann is one of my favourite directors. Actually The Last of the Mohicans would be in my TOP 10 list (if I ever bothered to make one)
    But the one thing you forgot to mention about his movies is THE MUSIC. It is such a vital part of his movies. The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral, especially IMO. I do love the visual style, the wonderful narrative and the magnificent characters but it’s the soundtrack that always floors me in the end. Case in question – Bye, Bye, Blackbird.

  3. I'd like to see a post about Miami Vice, whenever you get around to it. I remember leaving the theater thinking "I can't figure out if that was any good or not." You seem to have a particular opinion on it, so do share!