Somewhat hidden among the slate of lackluster January studio releases is Blackhat, the latest film by the mighty Michael Mann, America’s finest purveyor of machismo ennui, neon expressionism, ebullient firefights, and dynamic shots of zooming speedboats. I wouldn’t necessarily count myself among the cult of Mann—next to Paul W.S. Anderson, he’s probably the most revered and obsessed-over filmmaker among auteur fetishists—but I’m far from a skeptic. I suppose I’m still getting used to his digital phase. The confident craftsmanship that defined his early career—something that seems to have ended with The Insider—is largely absent from his later work. His recent films have an internalized, more handmade quality, which would seem to suggest that they’re more intimate, and though they very nearly are, the dull gloss of digital imagery keeps things at bay. For lack of a better term, things have gotten really weird with Mann: it’s almost like he’s trying to make 16-millimeter films with high-end digital cameras, resulting in some problematic yet gloriously fun and intellectually stimulating films (more on those below) and one outright failure (Public Enemies—yeesh!). I’ve yet to check out Blackhat, but I’m eager to see if the film finds Mann refining his recent approach. Until then, these are my five favorite Michael Mann movies.
5. Miami Vice (2006) For obvious reasons, this is Mann’s most self-referential film, and the one his most fervent devotees point to as not only his most accomplished masterwork, but one of the key films in 21st-century cinema. Personally, I see it as a fascinating mess, an amalgam of the director’s best and worst tendencies. Then again, like all of Mann’s films, it’s never not beautiful, even when it’s ugly. Plus, speedboats.
4. Heat (1995) A populist choice, but I don’t think there’s a more effortlessly watchable action film out there, even with the gargantuan run time. Mann improves upon Jean-Pierre Melville’s model of murky good-guy-bad-guy characterizations and elaborate crime schemes as pop-movie blueprints, playing against the most well-known attributes of his famous stars and revealing himself as one of Hollywood’s preeminent craftsmen. Mann once made the nebulous statement that Heat is based “on research.” Indeed, the film has a schematic nature, but the explosive characterizations and energized visual design have a way of negating any sense of predetermination; this one really lives on the screen.
3. Collateral (2004) More than just a great LA movie, Collateral is a transformative urban drama, turning a sort of postmodern, post-9/11 thriller into what Robin Wood describes as an “incoherent text.” It begins on a character level: this is one of Mann’s patented “good-guy-bad-guy” movies, a la the aforementioned Heat (in addition to Manhunter, Public Enemies et cetera); but there is rarely any insight into what the characters are thinking or feeling, so the audience is always surprised by their actions. Not merely “thrilling,” this thriller is calculating, very much like the Tom Cruise character, who stands as one of the director’s most inspired inventions.
2. Thief (1981) One of the great debut features, using a New Hollywood neoclassical narrative framework—a beleaguered crook takes that proverbial One Last Job, and from there an existential moral episode is spun—and bathing it in neon light and Tangerine Dream. The film immediately announces Mann as a great director of action set pieces, but there’s a tremendous amount of character nuance here as well. Along with the panache and bravura of the opening sequence, there are genuine inquiries into the heart and mind of the protagonist that deepen as the story progresses. The nihilistic ending is a tough pill to swallow, but I find it bracing.
1. Manhunter (1986) If Mann’s films encourage viewers to see images rather than simply watch them, this thriller is easily his most involving, a tapestry of calculated if occasionally paradoxical colors, textures, contrasts, and surfaces. Film writer Jean-Baptiste Thoret put it most succinctly in his essay on Mann’s films: “The obsession with lines, glass walls and ultra-modern interiors turn those who inhabit these worlds into pure simulacra, similar to the hologram rooms of some installation videos. In fact, what kind of people could live in these places? How to refind the centre in a space that keeps turning you into a satellite?” These fascinating and perhaps unanswerable questions—or variations of them—are at the center of Mann’s best films, but never more prominently than in Manhunter.