Where to begin with Michael Mann

From Manhunter to Miami Vice, Thief to Ferrari, Michael Mann’s cinema of action and crime focuses on proficiency and professionalism on both sides of the law.

18 December 2023

By Brogan Morris

Miami Vice (2006) © Universal Pictures

Why this might not seem so easy

For an ostensibly popular filmmaker, Michael Mann is unusually uncommercial. He attracts stars and commands large budgets, but has had few major box office hits. He seeks out projects seemingly conceived as mainstream entertainment – action movies, crime thrillers, biopics of iconic men – then approaches the material in a way that oftentimes wrongfoots and occasionally confounds his audience. And he is, in his bid to feel an authentic pulse of a period, a field of work, an environment, such an obsessive prepper that he only infrequently finds the time to make films.

Mann’s first successes came in television, where he was prolific: starting out as a writer for crime shows including Starsky and Hutch and Police Story, and later the showrunner of Miami Vice, Mann was an Emmy and DGA award winner (for 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, which he directed and co-wrote) before he made a feature. In the more than four decades since he began making movies, however, Mann has directed just 12 of them, including his latest, the motor-racing drama Ferrari.

Accumulating detail through deep-dive research, Mann builds great mosaics – albeit works so dense that the newcomer should keep in mind their brilliance isn’t always apparent on just the first look.

The best place to start – Thief

Having cut his teeth as a screenwriter over hours of episodic television, and already an award-winning director for his anthropological study of prison life in The Jericho Mile, Mann was virtually fully formed as a filmmaker by the time he got around to his first feature. A work of formal precision energised by expressive touches – cinematography composed in shadow and neon, a synth-led Tangerine Dream score – Thief (1981) is such an assured debut that all the director’s thematic hallmarks are already present and correct.

Thief (1981)

Starring an intensely charismatic James Caan as template-setting Mann antihero Frank – an ex-con moulded by prison time into a singularly focused individual, he’s no-nonsense yet sensitive, dangerous yet honourable – it’s one of Mann’s many portraits of the ultra-proficient criminal, doing methodical work in what proves a hostile urban milieu (in this case, Mann’s native Chicago). Influenced by classic noir as he is, Mann can’t simply allow his lawbreaking hero to get away clean from his latest job, and so the relationship between safecracker Frank and his controlling financier Leo (a despicable and avuncular Robert Prosky) ultimately collapses into shootouts on the city streets.

Maybe Mann’s most purely satisfying film for its streamlined heist-cum-revenge narrative, Thief is also one of the director’s most passionate pictures. If you’re familiar with any scene of Mann’s, it’s probably Heat’s legendary diner exchange, which had Robert De Niro and Al Pacino trading dialogue on screen for the first time. But the director’s great diner scene is actually in Thief, as Frank, one of Mann’s solitary men, over coffee suddenly bares his soul and creates a whole-life plan with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) in the first 10 minutes of their first date.

What to watch next

Heat (1995)

Thief might be the easiest Mann entry point, but the consensus choice for the director’s masterpiece would surely be Heat (1995). Having already given the material a test drive with his broadly similar (though evidently cheaper) 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown, Mann had by 1995 ironed out the story kinks and acquired the Hollywood budget and cast to realise Heat as a robust crime epic. The setpieces thunder, and De Niro and Pacino toe-to-toe as master thief Neil McCauley and seasoned detective Vincent Hanna makes for electric cinematic spectacle, but the film’s real achievement is the city symphony that Mann builds out of McCauley and Hanna’s skirmishes across Los Angeles. Populating the concrete metropolis with a deeply considered cast of characters, Mann lends his action movie the gravity and widescreen scope of a great novel.

His whole career, Mann has challenged traditional Hollywood conceptions of heroism and villainy by pitting cop against crook and giving equal airtime and sympathy to both. Along with Heat, Mann has explored the dynamic in Manhunter (1986), a mesmerically lurid Thomas Harris adaptation in which William Peterson’s Will Graham seeks out a serial killer with help from psychopathic cannibal Hannibal Lecktor (a chillingly ordinary Brian Cox); Collateral (2004), a high-concept thriller in which hitman Tom Cruise is reluctantly driven to his targets by cabbie Jamie Foxx, with detective Mark Ruffalo in pursuit; and Public Enemies (2009), in which fame-hungry bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is pursued across the country by tireless federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).

The Insider (1999)

A different kind of crime film, The Insider (1999) dramatises 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman’s (Al Pacino) crusade to put Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) on the air. Adopting a quasi-documentary style, Mann makes The Insider a tribute to the investigative process, as well as delivering his most political work in the film’s rebuke of unchecked corporate power.

Though Mann’s early style proved highly palatable to audiences, with the pastels, neon and synths of his 80s output having a significant cultural influence in that decade, the director’s style from the 2000s on has been more divisive. Mann began experimenting with digital technology on 2001’s Ali, and by 2004’s Collateral, fuzzy handheld images with immense depth of field and ultra-sensitive nighttime photography had become Mann’s distinct aesthetic. Digital-era Mann – his images ranging from motion-smeared to pin-sharp to so pixelated that low-light scenes take on a kind of techno-pointillist quality – sacrifices a traditional ‘cinematic’ look for greater audience immersion.

Blackhat (2015)

Collateral and Public Enemies are the most straightforward of Mann’s digital films, written like standard Hollywood crime thrillers if not always much looking like them (the digital sheen of the Prohibition-set Public Enemies will give some viewers pause). Miami Vice (2006) and Blackhat (2015), on the other hand, push Mann’s late style towards abstraction.

Respectively a feature-length update of Mann’s own crime series for the surveillance age and a globe-spinning hacker thriller, Miami Vice and Blackhat both satisfyingly marry content with new-age form, though the films’ jargony plotting and minimal characterisation aren’t for everyone. The two films do, however, have passionate defenders, a cult fanbase that’s less interested in the director depicting character than the directors’ ability to make viewers feel something like the characters’ experiences, emotions and environments for themselves through an impressionist-realist style.

Mann’s obsessive search for perfection has seen him create alternate cuts for a number of his movies, but none have been so tinkered with as 2001’s Ali. In any of its three versions, the film is inevitably a skim-read of a life, attempting in under three hours to encapsulate the times and unique celebrity of boxer-poet-activist Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) from 1964 to 1974. Still, it’s boldly original for a biopic, exploring the changing social and political landscape of America through what was an eventful decade for Ali and the country both.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

A seemingly unlikely picture for Mann, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), an adventure movie with the modern urban sprawl traded in for the fields and forests of 18th-century New England, was actually a dream project of the director’s going back to childhood. It’s still recognisably Mann in some ferociously orchestrated battle scenes, and in an outlaw hero (Daniel Day-Lewis) who’ll risk it all for a woman (Madeleine Stowe), but what makes Mohicans most surprising for Mann – pleasantly so – is how sincerely, swooningly romantic it is.

Where not to start

Uncertain of next steps after Thief, Mann in his words “decided what the world needed was a Freudian fairy tale on the nature of fascism”. One of a number of dark fantasy pictures produced by Hollywood in the 80s, The Keep (1983) – a Second World War-set rumination on good and evil, with Nazi troopers battling a demonic entity in a Romanian village – wasn’t what studio Paramount had in mind, and execs ordered cuts. The most clearly compromised of his pictures, what Mann calls the “butchered” extant version of The Keep is still entrancing for its antique industrial production design and triumphant Tangerine Dream music, and fans of what’s left of the director’s original vision have called for a restoration. Mann’s claim that the original materials are lost, though, suggests this is one of his films that won’t be getting a director’s cut.

Ferrari is in cinema from 26 December.

Blackhat is out now on limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow.

Further reading

Ferrari: Michael Mann’s family melodrama spends too little time on the track

By John Bleasdale

Ferrari: Michael Mann’s family melodrama spends too little time on the track

Tokyo Vice gives its crime-world probings the Michael Mann stamp

By Jason Anderson

Tokyo Vice gives its crime-world probings the Michael Mann stamp

Attack of the zeros and ones: the early years of digital cinema, as told by David Lynch, Miranda July, Michael Mann and more

By Sam Wigley

Attack of the zeros and ones: the early years of digital cinema, as told by David Lynch, Miranda July, Michael Mann and more
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Originally published: 18 December 2023