Walking out of The Counselor (2013 – Ridley Scott), I had to bite my tongue. I had just seen an oppressive thriller, where every note of dialogue indicated a heavy sense of the inevitability of death. The film was living, breathing dread, and it had captured my heart in a way few films do. Those strangers around me, more fascinated with updating their facebook status during the viewing, muttered about whether they could ask for their money back. Moaning about a film is the least interesting thing you can do (even when the film is genuinely terrible). Discovering lost masterpieces, passionately advocating for personal favourites, speaking up for the underdog are some of the most delightful aspects of cinephilia.
This is not the most appropriate introduction to a list of favourite Michael Mann films, given the absolute adoration in which he is held by many (mainly male) cinephiles, but when I saw Miami Vice it grabbed my heart and I could not for one second understand why it had been so critically neglected upon release (a critical consensus that I shamefully heeded at the time). The film has become a call to arms, one of the clearest indicators of the way ahead for cinema in the 21st Century. I’m not spoiling things by saying it is one of my favourite films of all time.
- Collateral (2004)
Mann has long explored the dedication to which some men hand over to their professions. Here, that dedication overwhelms even the most benign of daydreams. Jamie Foxx is a fantasist; in Mann’s world if he was meant to own a limousine, he would do so already. His words are not reflected in actions (a key defining characteristic of Mann’s protagonists, often identified by their refusal to use contractions in speech). That honour is given to Tom Cruise’s contract killer – defined as atagonistic to Foxx. In Collateral, Mann takes the dual leads of Heat and places them in opposition. Instead of equals, the killer holds the position of power, not only through the threat of violence, but through his wealth and the oppressiveness that this brings him as he occupies the role of consumer. He manipulates the idle dreams of the working man, using his financial dominance to move Foxx into compromising his integrity. He dies, defeated not through any implicit physical superiority, but by running out of bullets. His wealth is spent. The digital filmmaking is sometimes overstated on this film, but does allow for some extraordinary moments when nature disrupts the frame. Some things cannot be bought.
- Heat (1995)
There’s a whole film within this film about the desperate, miserable relationship between Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his wife Justine (Hanna). It contains some of my favourite writing by Mann, as he explores the collateral damage wrought by the dedication Pacino has to his career. “You live among the remains of dead people,” she tells him trying to communicate with him how he looks at her like she’s a ghost, and later, “This isn’t life. This is leftovers.” It is a brutal exploration of how living with murder robs a person of their essence, their ability to connect with others. In the end, all they see are cadavers. The fact that this is not the heart of the film, and just one of many small elements, shows how complex the construct of this film is (perhaps due to the fact that this is one of those few occasions where a filmmaker was giving the material a second shot, here a few years after the TV movie L.A. Takedown). It goes without saying that the downtown shooting is as extraordinary as action cinema ever got.
- Thief (1981)
Mann’s superb examination of how the individual can struggle to survive in the face of a corporation has an obliqueness of image and sound that belies the genre trappings in which it operates. There is an emotional honesty, a directness, to the work that is quite charming. Ultimately, the individual can survive, but only through a level of self-delusion. They have been bought, their values destroyed by simply operating within a capitalist marketplace. We all know this – I write this typing on a computer, wearing clothes that are accessible only through slave labour. Mann tried to show the universality of James Caan’s predicament by applying a fantastical Tangerine Dream soundtrack; the fact that the film, packaged and commercialised as the movie industry does so often, was simplified into a neon-lit, rain-drenched neo-noir speaks to how pervading corporations are. They even bought this film’s truth.
- Manhunter (1986)
‘It’s you and me now sport.’ mutters Will Graham (William Petersen) as he looks through a reflection that he no longer recognises. In Mann’s greatest exploration of the fragility of mental health, Graham’s complete empathy for the sick and murderous becomes a virus, one that consumes his very notion of who he is and what and why he loves. Mann never shies from displaying horror; he does not protect us and deny us the full extent of man’s capacity for destruction. Death is everywhere. He knows how the deliberate constructs we create to help us find peace, those of family and responsibility, can be disrupted by the sadistic impulses of the deranged. It is a violence we cannot escape, and one we relentlessly vicariously explore through the movies. Manhunter is the greatest exploration of this impulse committed to celluloid.
- Miami Vice (2006)
And here, Mann’s opposes that view, by exploring how family and responsibility can be disrupted by complete, uncontrollable love. It is a film of moments; of glances and touch and micro-gestures that betray the true emotions we seek to bury. Filmed with an immediacy, a kaleidoscopic montage of alien colour and stolen looks, Mann shows how little we are able to control the world around us. For a man who is so dedicated, so knowledgeable, so prepared for the films he makes, he has tirelessly delved into the brutality of existence, and the fact that we cannot keep these little castles we build in life forever. The film shone the way forward; it showed us that we were capable of extracting narrative from flashes of images and meaning from half-formed words. He created a panoramic world, one where culture and geographical location was simultaneously the most and least important thing. And no one listened. The lessons were never learned. We couldn’t let go.
It’s important to note that at one point every Michael Mann fan has watched The Keep (1983) hoping to find a neglected masterpiece. It’s not.