The Completist

The Descent of Mann

Ranking the works of Michael Mann, from best to worst.

Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans; Al Pacino in Heat; and Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in Miami Vice.
Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, Al Pacino in Heat, and Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in Miami Vice.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Warner Bros., and Michael Mann Productions/Universal TV

Click here for Daniel Engber’s essay on the oeuvre of Michael Mann, Hollywood’s greatest hack.

If you want to be a Michael Mann completist, you’ll have to set some boundaries. You may have to grant yourself a pass, for example, on the very early work. Mann says his first documentary, Insurrection, about the riots in France in 1968, no longer exists, and neither does another film from that era called Dead Birds. There are several prints around of his award-winning, experimental short from 1970, Jaunpuri, but Mann himself has barred their screening. A fourth film, the road-trip documentary 17 Days Down the Line (1972), has never been formally exhibited; when I visited Mann’s production office in 2012, a technical glitch prevented me from seeing it. But it is possible (though maybe not advisable) to watch every other film that he directed, starting with his Emmy-winning TV movie from 1979, The Jericho Mile.

Still, you couldn’t say your job was done unless you’d watched the TV shows as well. To be a certified Mann completist, you’d have to watch every work on which he’d been credited as “director,” but also every one on which he served as “creator” or “executive producer.” At least that’s the rule I came up with for myself. It covers all the major motion pictures, plus a slew of made-for-TV movies, miniseries, and episodic programs.

There was one problem, though. For the TV shows, how many episodes of each would I have to watch? If I’d tried to log every minute of the original Miami Vice—a show that ran for five seasons and 111 hourlong episodes—the project would have taken me a lifetime. So I did the best I could, starting with the pilot and dipping into later episodes until I understood each show. (I also watched every one Mann directed, with the exception of the 1977 episode of Police Woman called “The Buttercup Killer,” which I tried, and failed, to find.)

With that in mind, here’s my ranking of the works, from best to worst and more.

The Masterpiece

Heat: I’m sure I won’t get any arguments for putting Heat at No. 1. This is Mann’s most complete work, and the purest version of the story he’s been telling for so many years. All the elements are clicking: De Niro and Pacino as the not-so-different men who can’t escape their chosen roles in life, a perfect cast of real-life thugs and actors who excel at playing thugs, and of course the movie gunfight to end all movie gunfights—a 6-minute tour de force of drama, dread, and action. Mann wrote the screenplay for Heat in 1979, and at first he never thought he’d make the film: “As a writer, I really want to see this picture made,” he told Film Comment in 1983. “But as a director I don’t want to touch it.” Thank goodness he changed his mind.

The Disasterpiece

The Keep: Everything that’s good about Michael Mann turned upside down and inside out—the very nadir of his style. This is a horror film about the Holocaust rendered in the style of Starlight Express, with smoke machines and laser lights, but drenched in pompous art-house aspiration. A mismatched score by the German electronica outfit, Tangerine Dream, adds to the overwhelming sense of failure. At a recent Q&A in New York City, actor Tom Noonan remembered watching The Keep after he was cast in Mann’s next film, Manhunter. “I thought, uh-oh,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s the worst. The worst ever.” I agree: This movie is amazing.

The Big Scores

Ali: An underrated film, perhaps on account of its release date. Just three months after 9/11, it may not have been the time for a biopic about a principled Muslim who refused to fight in Vietnam. The film may not be quite as nimble as its subject, but Mann has tucked several extraordinary sequences into its 2½-hour running time. My favorite is the crackling, 10-minute overture set to a live recording of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” The rest of the movie rarely reaches that electric height, but it floats nearby.

Manhunter: Made at the peak of Mann’s High-’80s period, this film uses sumptuous superficiality to maximal effect. It’s an adaptation of the Thomas Harris book, Red Dragon, and the first appearance in the movies for Hannibal Lecter. Mann has him locked inside an all-white cell, in an all-white prison full of ramps and hallways—an eerie, abstract maze that parallels the villain’s mind. (The scenes were shot at Richard Meier’s High Museum of Art in Atlanta.) At times the movie barrels into cheesiness, but, man, what a thing to look at.

The Insider: A well-made and wonderful movie. Mann likes to put incidental shots of painted murals in his films, to convey, oh, I don’t know, the textured multiculturalism of a modern city? In The Insider, the painted mural has a more direct relation to the story. In the movie’s best scene, a beaten-down and lonely Russell Crowe mopes in front of one in his hotel room. The colors melt and morph into a moving vision of his family.

Public Enemies: I get the sense that some people hate this film, but I don’t. It’s essentially Heat transposed into the 1930s, but Mann’s obsession with surface detail makes the setting seem both cool and luscious. I love the strange mix of electric guitar and digital video in a deeply researched period piece. Nathan Crowley, the enormously talented production designer for Christopher Nolan’s films, helped to recreate the settings for John Dillinger’s most famous gunfights. 

Thief: Mann’s breakthrough film—a stylish, moody, and often beautiful melodrama that got the director noticed by the critics. It’s also a showcase for his favorite themes: a stoic ex-con named Frank who’s running out of time, a woman who proves to be his greatest weakness. Dennis Farina, at that point still a Chicago cop, made his screen debut as the Afro-wearing, gun-toting Goon No. 3. Hollywood quotables: “Doctrinaire Camus existentialism is something Frank comes upon by himself apodictically,” Mann said at Cannes in 1981.

Miami Vice: I prefer the DVD version of this film, which has a more drawn-out and abstract opening than the theatrical release, but both are very good, if a little slow at points. There are more bad accents than in any other Mann film, which says a lot. The worst is Naomie Harris speaking Brooklynese. (You also get Ciarán Hinds doing what I think might be transplanted Texan?)

Quality Television

The Jericho Mile: Mann won an Emmy for this TV movie, shown in 1979, and he deserved it. Filmed in Folsom Prison using real criminals, it’s a good, gritty drama about a lonesome inmate who must find a way to do his time. Trivia bonus: The guy who played the film’s white-power killer was, in fact, a white-power killer. He himself was killed, shortly after production.

“I Need You Tonight”: Mann directed this little-known Peter Wolf music video from 1984, and it’s kind of awesome. Rain-soaked streets and lavender lighting, an interracial couple in a hot Lamborghini.* There’s even a gun-toting crime boss and his henchman, wearing suits in matching white. It’s the director at his Miami Vice–iest.

Crime Story: A follow-up to Miami Vice and a neo-’60s noir that made Dennis Farina into a leading man. It’s like The Wire meets Mad Men and in many ways the perfect formula for Mann. He gets to put the old-school cops and robbers from Chicago back into their natural setting. The show was dark and mean, and very good. Hollywood quotables:  “We want to do something that’s on the scale of, say, Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Mann announced in a 1986 interview about the project.

Robbery Homicide Division: A tough and cinematic police procedural set in Los Angeles and shot in sick HD. (Mann would start shooting movies this way shortly after.) The great Tom Sizemore carried a show that deserved more than a single season. He’s super-cool but also kind of schlubby.

Drug Wars: The Camarena Story: An Emmy-winning 1990 miniseries, executive-produced by Mann, that lies at the threshold of his High-’80s work and the grittier, more nuanced style he adopted in the ’90s. Some scenes were shot on videotape for an interesting surveillance-camera look. The dialogue may be corny, but the actors are superb—especially the 23-year-old Benicio del Toro in a villain’s role.

Witness: A four-episode documentary series that aired on HBO in 2012, Witness tells the story of several war photographers who have risked their lives in Libya, Mexico, and South Sudan. Mann executive-produced the show, and it conveys a familiar macho sensibility. It’s solid, sometimes gripping work.

“For Me the Action Is the Juice”

Collateral: Mann’s first full-length feature to be shot in high-definition video, this is a beautiful and often thrilling movie that suffers from a lousy plot. The story hinges on absurd coincidence, and Tom Cruise keeps doing things that make no sense. (Why does he have to assassinate prosecutor Jada Pinkett Smith, once he’s murdered all of her most important witnesses? That’s just putting a hat on a hat.) I did love seeing Mann-regular Barry Shabaka Henley as the hangdog, trumpet-playing snitch.

Blackhat: Computer experts say this cyber-thriller is believable. That doesn’t make it very good. While there are some lovely Mann-ish touches—a data center lined with rows of flashing lights, a cityscape at night that could double as a circuit-board covered with transistors—the action and emotion end up feeling rushed, or crammed into a space in which they don’t quite fit. I think that Mann would like to grapple with the future, but he’ll always be embroiled in his old ideas.

The Last of the Mohicans: I loved this movie as a kid, but as a grown-up I found it pretty dull. It’s a cheesy romance, intermixed with scenes of brutal violence. The action feels cartoonish: Hawkeye rips through his foes like a character in a video game. Still, it has moments of great beauty and grand excitement.

Double Blanks

Miami Vice (TV): This series has not exactly stood the test of time. There are moments of brilliance, such as the groundbreaking “In the Air Tonight” scene, that reappear in different forms throughout Mann’s other work. But you’ll also find him at his worst: ponderous dialogue, bad jokes, characters doing fake accents, pointless gunfights, and more. The character of Elvis the alligator represents a charming minitrend in this Completist: the random carnivore. (There’s also a tiger in Manhunter, and a lion in the pilot for Vega$.) If you have to watch one episode of Miami Vice, it may as well be the batshit-crazy one where Trudy gets abducted by aliens.

Various commercials: Mann has directed at least six commercial spots, advertising luxury cars and sneakers, among other things. An effects-heavy Nike ad is pretty great. An effects-heavy Sprint-NASCAR ad is pretty lame. The rest are OK.

Baadasssss!: Mann served as the executive producer for this biopic about Melvin van Peebles, directed by longtime Mann-collaborator Mario van Peebles. You know what? I did not watch this movie, forgot it existed until just now. My baad.

Band of the Hand: The original Miami Vice movie, in a sense. Mann executive-produced this corny 1986 project, directed by the guy who played Starsky on Starsky and Hutch (the show on which Mann cut his teeth in television). Starring a very young John Cameron Mitchell and a pretty-young Laurence Fishburne, it tells the story of an interracial crew of wayward teenagers who take on a local drug lord in Miami. Carl Hiaasen called it “a Dirty Dozen with acne.” That’s about right.

Luck: I did not understand this horse-racing series on HBO, nor did I enjoy it. The animals ran around (and sometimes died), but the stakes were never clear. Were we supposed to care which horse came out ahead, or was the deeper point that life takes us through its laps and in the end no one wins? Whatever, I’m bored. Also: Mann continues to have British actors flub regional American accents.

L.A. Takedown: Originally planned as the pilot for a TV series, it’s the script for Heat as performed by a cast of sullen pretty boys in double-breasted suits. Some unintentional comedy, but little more.

Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel: A 1992 follow-up to The Camarena Story, also executive-produced by Mann, it stars Dennis Farina opposite the guy who was the stand-in for De Niro in L.A. Takedown. I had to watch a Russian-language version of this movie, but I could still make out the English underneath a somewhat lazy dub. It was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. It is not outstanding.

Vega$: Mann created this program in 1978 but didn’t like what it became. For good reason: This show is blatantly sexist and blatantly stupid. Robert Urich plays a private investigator who lives in a warehouse, sleeps with showgirls, and solves dumb crimes. “Who are you?” a villain asks at the end of the first episode. Urich responds: “I’m the ghost of Christmas past, turkey! I’m the Lone Ranger, and I’m gonna nail you!” A perfect line, perfectly delivered.

*Correction, Jan. 16, 2015: This piece originally misidentified the sports car in the “I Need You Tonight” video as a Ferrari. It’s a Lamborghini.