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Mann of the People: A Tribute to Michael Mann

by Peter Sobczynski

No matter what their career choice–cop, robber, journalist, killer, boxer or cabbie–the characters in a Michael Mann film go about their business with the kind of care and attention to detail that makes them experts in their particular fields. They know the game, they are familiar with all the angles and utilize that knowledge to maximize their efficiency for the task at hand while minimizing the risk. And if things start to spin out of control, they are smart enough to realize that one cannot plan for every possible circumstance and resourceful enough to think their way out of most situations with a minimum of fuss. In Mann’s films, such designations as “good guys” and “bad guys” are irrelevant as long as they do their job, do it well and resist cracking under the strain of their high-stress situations. To paraphrase a line that sound tailor-made for one of his films, it is their professionalism that he respects.

This admiration extends to Mann’s directorial approach as well. Though not the most prolific of directors (only eight feature films to date since his 1981 debut “Thief”), each one is meticulously constructed with the kind of skill and attention to detail that has become increasingly rare in contemporary Hollywood. And yet, his films are more than simple exercises in slick cinematic style. Instead, each one takes a subject that would appear, on the surface, to be either unfilmable (such as a 2 ½ hour examination of professional ethics in the tobacco and journalism industries or an adaptation of one of the more famously unreadable “classic” novels) or done to death (including tales of obsessed cops, monstrous serial killers and honorable thieves struggling to leave their old lives behind and begin anew) and reinvigorates them by treating them as a springboard for surprisingly thoughtful and complex character examinations that are epic-sized in regards to behavior and personality as they are in terms of action and spectacle. In his films, even seemingly minor characters (Willie Nelson in “Thief,” Joan Allen in “Manhunter” and most of the enormous supporting casts of “Heat” and “The Insider”) are given a depth and complexity in their relatively few scenes than most current films give to their central characters. This has been helped by his unerring eye for casting–he has always displayed an unerring eye for finding the right actor for the part, whether the choice is obvious (such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as the cop and robber in “Heat”), a change-of-pace (who else would have seen Daniel-Day Lewis as a lusty warrior, Tom Cruise as a cold-blooded assassin or Will Smith as Muhammed Ali) or a relative unknown (Mann has given key early roles to the likes of William Petersen, Joan Allen, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Russell Crowe and Jamie Foxx).

And while his films hold enough intellectual excitement to thrill auteurists everywhere, they also contain the kind of sheer visceral excitement and impact that allow them to stand out from the dime-a-dozen spectacles clogging multiplexes. Simply put, Mann is one of the finest directors of action sequences working today and his ability to create scenes of spectacle that are thrilling to behold while still coherently executed (no matter how convoluted the activity becomes, he never loses sight of where the participants are in regards to each other or allows things to get too far out of hand) is unrivaled by anyone that you or I could possibly think of. If you doubt me, take another look at the climax of “Manhunter” (especially the spot-on usage of the otherwise interminable “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” on the soundtrack), the battle scenes in “Last of the Mohicans,” the bank robbery centerpiece of “Heat,” the nightclub shoot-out in “Collateral” or even the electrifying courtroom sequences of “The Insider” and then tell me I am wrong.<

Michael Mann has been dazzling audiences on both the big and small screens (oh yeah, while doing these films, he also revolutionized television in 1985 with “Miami Vice,” followed that up a year later with the great “Crime Story”–described by critic David Thomson as “a true American epic”–and recently returned to the medium with the impressive, if short-lived, “Robbery Homicide Division”) for nearly three decades. To celebrate these accomplishments, the Gene Siskel Film Center of the Art Institute is proud to present him with the Visionary Award for Innovation in Filmmaking honor him with a tribute on April 2, featuring an appearance by Mann himself in an evening hosted by Richard Roeper, and a showing of some of the films that have earned him accolades from critics and audiences alike.

For details on the gala tribute to Michael Mann and a complete schedule of the films to be shown, go to

THIEF (1981): After working in television for over a decade (on shows such as “Vega$” and “Starsky & Hutch” as well as the acclaimed TV movie “The Jericho Mile,” Mann made his feature debut with this hard-edged crime drama that initially underperformed at the box-office, but which later became a cult hit. In one of his very best performances, James Caan stars as an expert thief who wants the American Dream–wife, child, home in the suburbs–and agrees to pull off a major job for a local gangster, only to discover that when he wants to put the life behind him for good, they refuse to let him go. Thrilling action scenes (Mann used real cops and thieves as technical consultants and utilized actual safe-cracking tools on screen) share the screen with equally compelling moments of human drama and a gallery of nice supporting turns from an eclectic cast including Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Jim Belushi and Willie Nelson. The film also serves as a sort of time capsule, preserving in its lovely cinematography images of a Chicago that, for the most part, no longer exists.

MANHUNTER (1986): After working on the odd 1983 horror film “The Keep” (a mess, but a stylish and intriguing mess worthy of reappraisal) and helping to change the face of television with the hit show “Miami Vice,” Mann returned to the screen with this adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel “Red Dragon” (according to two different stories, the title was changed either because producer Dino De Laurentis feared that audiences would mistake it for a kung-fu film or confuse it with his failed production of Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon”), the first cinematic incarnation of literature’s favorite erudite cannibal, Hannibal Lecter (a chilling supporting turn from Brian Cox, more than holding his own against the more famous Anthony Hopkins portrayal). Misrepresented as just another cop-on-the-edge programmer, it took a while for audiences to realize that it was, in fact, perhaps the most gripping police procedural to emerge during the 1980's. Eventually, they did and its influence can be seen in films such as “Seven” (David Fincher has cited it as an inspiration) and TV shows such as “C.S.I.” which obsesses over the minutiae of investigative techniques–one of the most gripping sequences concerns the rush to forensically analyze a crucial note against an impossible deadline (and look for oddball Chris Elliott as one of the technicians). With all due respect to Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott (and a punch to the gut for Brett “Rush Hour 2" Ratner, who had the audacity to weakly remake it years later), this remains the finest cinematic adaptation of Harris’s work to date. (Shameless plug: The author of this article will be introducing the March 26 screening.)

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992): James Fenimore Cooper’s original novel is considered a “classic” only by those who know the title but who have never actually sat down to read the damn thing. And yet, Mann, working outside of a contemporary urban environment for the first time, transforms Cooper’s unreadable prose into a gloriously romantic, blood-and-thunder epic that is just as thrilling to watch today as it was in 1992.. Cast against type, Daniel Day-Lewis is a surprisingly formidable Hawkeye and Madeline Stowe is more than his match as Cora, one of the two sisters that he has vowed to protect against the threat of a vengeful Indian warrior. Perhaps the most emotionally satisfying of Mann’s films to date–is there anyone out there who hasn’t used, or at least mentally used, the unforgettable line “Stay alive-no matter what occurs, I will find you!”?

HEAT (1995): Simply put, this is Mann’s masterpiece–a stunning and lyrical crime drama that works both as an intimate character study of two obsessed men (cop Al Pacino and thief Robert De Niro) whose single-minded pursuit of their respective crafts lead them on an inevitable collision course and as the kind of jumbo-sized saga that truly deserves to be called epic. This movie has everything that an audience could possibly want in a film; standout performances by every member of the enormous cast (including smart supporting turns from Jon Voight and Val Kilmer as well as key early work by Ashley Judd and Natalie Portman), endlessly quotable dialogue and the kind of action scenes, especially the centerpiece bank robbery sequence, that will be regarded as classics for as long as people are around to discuss them. There is also that scene, the infamous coffee-shop meeting between Pacino and De Niro (the first time that, despite “The Godfather Part II”, the two had ever appeared together in a film) that starts off as a stunt meeting of two Hollywood heavyweights and ends as a portrait of two weary men whose grudging respect for each other does not change the fact that the next time that they meet, one of them will most likely wind up dead or in jail.

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originally posted: 03/22/05 05:34:22
last updated: 04/07/05 04:10:35
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