Michael Mann is a national treasure, one of the finest American filmmakers. He hasn’t necessarily collected the accolades or been on stage Oscar night, but that doesn’t take away from his incredible talent, his ability to tell stories about men and women who drift through their very formulated lives, reaching out at every turn for a connection. It’s the invisible connections between his characters, the aching longing that defines his films. Regardless of the subject matter, the films of Michael Mann all carry a connective tissue of desire and despair, of hard men who cannot shed the worlds they’ve cultivated for themselves.
Mann’s filmography is loaded with brilliance. Ranking his films feels like a lost cause, but it’s fun to try and rank unequivocal greatness. He’s directed only eleven feature films – with a few TV movies and series scattered in between – but his style and his impeccable perfectionism have singed a brand into modern auteur filmmaking. Ranking his films is comical because by the time you reach number seven or eight, you’re in the realm of true masterpieces, seemingly inseparable given their very specific motivations within what Mann finds compelling.
That being said, here is a personal ranking. There is no metric to measure the genius of Michael Mann in this list, and this list will undoubtedly differ from 90% of the people who scan it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes Michael Mann such an indispensable filmmaker.
11. The Keep – Here is the outlier in Mann’s directorial efforts, a poor 80s horror slog full of unidentifiable stock characters and nonsense. And one most people wouldn’t even remember belonged to Mann. It’s weird to even consider this is a Michael Mann picture, because it’s utterly ridiculous, devoid of any sort of characterization. Perhaps it was just Mann testing his limits on the heels of Thief.
Regardless of the motivation, The Keep is a dirty and forgettable film, laboring through genre tropes hoping to find a merciful end. A group of Nazis must turn to an old Jewish man to help them dispose of a demo they have released on the world. If the metaphors feel heavy handed in that description, just think about the movie itself.
10. Public Enemies –For all of its period perfection and slick design, there is something connectively absent in Mann’s story of John Dillinger. While it is perhaps the most accurate cinematic portrayal of Dillinger’s rise and fall (The Lady in Red wasn’t wearing a red dress, but an orange skirt), Public Enemies feels simultaneously claustrophobic and consistently at arm’s length. While Mann’s camera pushes in close on Depp’s Dillinger, there is a detachment to the man and his mission.
Perhaps it’s Johnny Depp as Dillinger. It’s been over a decade since Depp delivered something resembling a quality leading man performance, and here he doesn’t grab us the way we’d expect a hedonistic hood to grab us. The action in Public Enemies is not lacking, however, namely the Little Bohemia cabin assault in Wisconsin. But it’s not enough to rescue the picture’s cold delivery.
9. Last of The Mohicans – Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s historical novel sticks out among his catalogue for obvious reasons. For other reasons – men from different sides working together, the quiet connections among us, the doomed love – the film slides into his filmography rather well. This, and the next film, may be seen as the dividing line in Mann’s work, where he begins finding true greatness.
Daniel Day Lewis is predictably tremendous as Hawkeye, a trapper stuck between loyalties during the French and Indian War. Mann’s attention to detail and Day-Lewis’s persistent methodology work in concert here, creating a textured, believable colonial America. The romance between Hawkeye and Madeleine Stowe’s Cora (anyone else miss her in features?) is tangible, and the film builds slowly to a thrilling, heartbreaking showdown.
8. Manhunter – Mann was able to harness the white-hot masculinity that was mid-80s William Petersen in his adaptation of Red Dragon. Petersen would have been a bigger star than what he became, but here, in the 80s, there was nobody more hard-charged and charismatic than he. Petersen is Will Graham, the man who captured Hannibal Lector and has the scars to prove it. But he must work with the madman once again to bring in another serial killer. We know the story.
Manhunter is Mann in his comfort zone: the crime drama. And here, he injects the unsettling events with a static energy and steely-synth pop score. It’s strange to examine this film in a vacuum because, five years later, Hannibal Lector would be redefined forever by Anthony Hopkins’ performance. Brian Cox is interesting as Lector, make no mistake, but the power of his performance has been stolen away in the 25 years post-Silence of The Lambs.
7. Ali – When I first saw Ali, I wasn’t impressed. Then again, I was a 22 year old and I went to a late showing (undoubtedly under the influence of something) of a film that demanded my full attention. It didn’t go well. For years I dismissed Ali as a film with a great performance surrounded by slog. And then, after the fast-living years of my youth had passed me by, I revisited this comprehensive docudrama about one of the most legendary American figures of all time.
While it still lags at points, especially when Ali is in Africa, the film itself is at times revelatory. Will Smith deserved the Oscar for his seamless embodiment of the great Cassius clay turned Muhammad Ali. But as a whole, Mann taps into the psychology of the most famous athlete of the 20th Century, unwrapping a larger-than-life persona with surprisingly intimate scenes. Not once did I think I was seeing Will Smith in this role; he was Ali from the get go.
And just as brazenly as Muhammad Ali traversed his public life, so he navigated his personal life confused and a little frightened, finding women he was inexplicably drawn to over the years. Ali was attracted to women, and those women were attracted to his ego. But when the man didn’t match the public persona, trouble bloomed. And the cycle seemed to go on forever.
6. Blackhat – What a difference a year makes. Blackhat was dumped into the purgatory of January releases, and came and went without a whimper in 2015. But over a year later, what Mann was trying to achieve has congealed and come into focus. Blackhat may toggle convention, but that dedication to the plot-drven thriller is what Mann was aiming for all along, and it’s where the film excels. If you give it a chance.
What might have unsettled audiences was the opening act of Blackhat, an exposition-heavy table setting that sometimes loses sight of its very compelling characters. Look past the Adonis physique of Chris Hemsworth, forever Thor, and accept him as an infamous computer hacker. If you allow yourself to get past his build – which is explained in some early scenes – then the film moves along at a wonderfully kinetic pace. The plot is standard – a hacker is wreaking havoc and must be stopped by an even better hacker, who also happens to be in jail – but Mann reaches deep into his characters’ motivations. Beyond the need to end this plot, Hemsworth and Chen Lien, his love interest, seek a better existence than the one they currently occupy.
Hemsworth’s Nick and Chen Lien are the invisible connection at the heart of Blackhat. But beyond the emotional, this picture is rife with static action. A shootout here, a fight there, and they all mean something to these characters in the end. And let us not forget the performance of Viola Davis as, Carol Barrett, a dogged FBI agent desperately painted into a corner. She is the brightest of all the lights here.
5. Collateral – It seems these days Tom Cruise is perfectly fine churning out incredible stunts as Ethan Hunt, and there isn’t really anything wrong with that. But there was a time when Cruise was still seeking out different challenges in his acting. In Collateral, Cruise embodies a character altogether unique from his body of work. He is Vincent, a steely-haired contract killer whose disdain for the detachment of Los Angeles seems to fuel his inner turmoil. Vincent is a wolf, an animal adapting to the world around him moment to moment.
Vincent “hires” the impeccably ordered Max (Jamie Foxx, Oscar nominated), a cab driver fooling himself into thinking he has bigger plans on the horizon, into driving him around for the evening to collect five… ahem… signatures. It isn’t long before Max realizes Vincent is offing potential witnesses in a high-profile murder case, and he is in way over his head. Collateral then churns along mercilessly, balancing a cat-and-mouse thriller with real human drama between two men whose relationship is built strictly on chance.
All of Mann’s signatures are subtly interjected as these two men pull against each other while pushing towards the same end. Collateral is a sharp thriller with not an ounce of fat on it. And while the symmetry involving Jada Pinkett Smith’s lawyer may be just a but to convenient, by the time that realization comes around we are so invested in the methodically constructed tension, we buy in.
4. Miami Vice – Preconceived notions may have ruined this film before it ever even hit theaters. This Miami Vice is not pastels, alligators, and pop music. Though Michael Mann did create the wildly successful 80s police drama, a cultural watershed moment, he had different things in mind when he tackled the undercover world of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs in 2006. Miami Vice is a film all about unspoken communication, and it deserves more credit than its received over the years.
Crockett and Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx here) speak primarily in shorthand, because they don’t need to say more. This is an immersive picture about two men, and their team of vice officers, who are so ingrained in an undercover world of serious drug trafficking they don’t have time to explain things to each other. Or the audience. This is Mann working inside a story without the want or desire to lay things out for the audience. Whites why many felt it was too obtuse.
But Miami Vice is a pitch-perfect thriller about men whose lives begin to blur after so many years wallowing in the criminal elements of the world. It’s slick and often gorgeous, with Mann’s digital deep focus adding texture, and his signature character gazes are better here than just about anywhere else.
3. Thief – It’s hard to believe Thief was Michael Mann’s feature debut. Much of the DNA of Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice can be found here, in the emotional tale of Frank, a career criminal who burns hot with the desire to escape his life of thievery. James Caan is all smoldering intensity and, ultimately, frustration once he finds himself under the thumb of a vicious gangster who forces him to pull off another heist.
Mann’s synth-pop energy was birthed in Thief, and the film hums with energy. What’s more, the humans at the heart of Thief are real humans who are often times glossed over in heist pictures. Caan is much more than a one-note bad guy trying to make good, and the best scene of the film is a conversation he has with Jessie (Tuesday Weld), the woman he loves. His story in this diner lays the groundwork for Frank, it explains everything we need explained, and it adds tremendous depth.
2. Heat – It’s strange how Heat came and went in the winter of 1995 without much fanfare or accolades. It simply existed back then. But this is one of Michael Mann’s two true, complete masterpieces, a story of cops and robbers and the thin line separating the two. Here is the story of cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and crook Neil McAuley (Robert De Niro), two career men whose line of work juxtaposes one another. While Vincent tries to navigate this world by engaging in all the standard human relationships – friends, family, a wife – he fails. Neil, on the other hand, eschews human connection because he knows he must; and yet, he fails. “There’s a flipped to that coin,” Neil tells Vincent in their famous diner conversation. These two men are the flipside of the same coin in life.
Beyond the team of Pacino and De Niro, still at the peak of their careers, is a full, vivid ensemble of fully-realized characters and career men who lend undeniable authenticity to the narrative. Heat also has one of the greatest shootouts of its kind in cinematic history, a deafening assault in the streets of Los Angeles.
1. The Insider – Mann’s 1999 film about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand is a complex masterpiece about morality, the best film of his illustrious career. His ability to create a compelling thriller around such a seemingly mundane subject matter – corporate malfeasance – speaks to his craft as a storyteller. Russell Crowe plays Wigand with depth and truth; Wigand is not some moral martyr, but a complicated and flawed human whose drive to spill the beans about big tobacco comes from a very personal place.
The relationship between he and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) evolves and devolves throughout the story, and as Wigand’s personal life begins to unravel, it’s Bergman who must keep him from falling off the cliff. Mann’s film is, much like his crime dramas, immersive and authentic beyond simple narrative notes; this is a picture about journalism that seems to fully understand the power and ultimate structural pollution of the occupation. The Insider pulls us into the world of Wigand and shows us his motivations, then pushes us to the brink with these incredibly honest human characters.