Ranking the Michael Mann Films

Need to Re-Watch: The Insider


Michael Mann is just about as good as it gets. No one is able to take the general cops/robbers premise and make it as beautiful to look at and experience as Mann.


LAST: The Last of the Mohicans [1992]

Fairly classic example of a Hollywood production focusing on the less interesting but theoretically more bankable story and characters. Nothing about Daniel Day Lewis’ character or performance was all that impressive and mostly came across as quite flat. Wes Studi meanwhile just magnetic in every scene and begging to have his story shown instead of told in exposition soundbites sporadically. Yet another Hollywood film that is stunning as a technical achievement but just too unpleasant and icky to want to celebrate.


9. Public Enemies [2009]

Public Enemies is a film solely concerned with tone, look, and mood, and on that level the film is largely successful. It is hard to get emotionally invested in any of the specifics of anything that happens or anything anyone says. But the film is much more about the feeling of the United States power structure and how those in charge weaponize a federal police force to protect capital at all costs. Oh and the ten-minute shootout about two-thirds of the way through the film kicks fucking ass.


8. The Keep [1983]

Okay, so apparently the original Mann cut of this was three hours and thirty minutes, and then it got cut down to two hours before getting cut down to 90 minutes. This information is particularly important because the movie’s story is insane and made only more so by the short run time. And it rules. Like, is it a mess? But it’s a good mess! There is a citadel in 1941 Romania that houses a giant ghost of some kind that starts to slaughter the occupying Nazis. And then the ghost causes Ian McKellen to become young again. Scott Glenn shows up to have steamy sex with Alberta Watson. Nazis sporadically get blown up by the ghost. This is an essential text. Release the 3.5 hour version.


7. Ali [2001]

Two major things stick out to me when I watch Ali. First off, the first act of the film is centered around Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X. It is an absolutely haunting, tragic, and just impossibly sad hour of film. Ali was so young at time (and later in life expressed that his handling of it was a rare regret in his life), and the futility of youth was on full display here. Mario Van Peebles captures the late struggle of Malcolm beautifully. Despite his inner life not being the focus of the film, you can see it all playing out behind his eyes. The genuine hurt. The resisting of fear. It is all quite amazing.

It is also the clear highlight of the film, as the second thing that really stands out about Ali is that Smith is clearly miscast. Compared to someone like Denzel Washington, Smith just really cannot make you believe the revolutionary words and language that he is using. He does fine with the brashness (though even there, he falls short), but at times Smith just seems too phony and scared of failure. Now, despite that being the titular role, the film still largely works. As the movie is not seeking to recreate Ali’s life but more to give a sense of what it felt like to experience this particular decade of his life, and Mann is more than able to capture that.


6. Manhunter [1986]

Hannibal Lecter, and specifically Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is essentially a Darth Vader-level character in pop culture. Thus, it is actually fairly bizarre to accept that the cinematic portrayal of Hannibal did not start with Hopkins, but with Brian Cox in this early Michael Mann film. It was a more lowkey performance (though only really in comparison to Hopkins’ work, not generally speaking), but otherwise a film that in many ways feels more similar in tone and mood to Silence than the actual remake of this film (Red Dragon).

The film is not burdened by what Hannibal Lecter means as a pop culture icon, but is instead far more interested in Will Graham. The films asks why is Will Graham continuously making decisions that get him closer and closer to Lecter and to The Tooth Fairy despite there being no rational reason for him to do so. He’s drawn to it in clearly an alarming way. The film also serves as a pretty consistent part of the general Michael Mann ethos when it comes to cops and robbers: shit is fucked. There’s a great sadness about the state of people in Mann’s work at this point.


5. Blackhat [2015]Tang Len’s character Chen Lien is asked by her brother (played by Leehom Wang) that she is the only person he can trust to help him on his mission to get his old college roommate out of prison and stop the “Blackhat” hacker from doing something or whatever. Immediately unclear is how exactly Lien is meant to help and as seen (or not seen as the case may be) throughout the movie, what role her brother envisioned for her is not exactly evident.

On one hand, you could probably write this off to sloppy writing or editing that cut out her role in the crime. But you could also just appreciate what gets focused on instead and how her lack of “role” in the plot serves to emphasize her deep feelings of powerlessness with her own life. It is not a feeling that needs to be explained or spelled out to the audience (though there is one token line from her about it late in the film).

You can feel this lack of control from her early and often. The way you see her just blatantly shoot her shot with Hemsworth (as seen in the image above) is this beautiful human moment in the midst of insanity of the world they are living in. It captures a lot of what makes Michael Man movies interesting in that way. The world is absolutely fucked, and you have to take your pleasures where and when you can.


4. Miami Vice [2006]

“You cannot negotiate with gravity.”

Speaking of taking your pleasures while you can since the world is fucked, enter Miami Vice. Colin Farrell pushes his life to the limits in all ways and is constantly in search for cliffs to look out over. He pushes to go deeper and longer undercover in a high stakes investigation into some very dangerous drug dealers while simultaneously starting an affair with Li Gong, the wife of the head drug dealer.

This combination of decisions run together, and he simply never stops from going deeper into the shit. His partner’s girlfriend nearly dies. His whole team is in danger. The closer he gets to Li Gong the more likely her life blows up. And he never stops to consider maybe none of this is worth it. This movie captures much of the Michael Mann ethos. The world is a sad and miserable place, and there is nothing you can meaningfully do about it. You cannot negotiate with gravity. So, you might as well jump from the highest cliff.


3. Collateral [2004]

There is always going to be a weird thing with this film where it is a total masterpiece but the ending will always “feel wrong” in some way that is not totally easy to explain in a nuanced way.  The ending is really not the point though so instead lets focus on how this is a masterclass exercise in character work, action, tension, mood, tone, and all sorts of other wonderful words we use to analyze shit. This movie hooks you in right away and feels like a nonstop roller coaster. I fucking love this movie and have no real mature way of describing why beyond a lot of cool shit happens and is performed by actors at the top of their game.


2. Heat [1995]

“So you never wanted a regular type life?”

There is simply something very wrong with the conditions of the world, and how so many of us in this world are forced to live. Mann manages to take that fundamental truth and combine it with a cops/robbers story to make one of the great films of our time.

A real constant idea throughout a lot of Mann’s works is that there is something so repulsive about the typical “barbecue and ballgame” life. Mann asks if there is something more that we can aim for but he fills his films with people who have given up on the idea of a better world. They bury themselves in an escape. They live out escapist fantasy lives, and Mann captures so well the sequence of events when the world forces them to wake up.

De Niro plays the professional cook. Pacino plays the detective. Both know no other form of happiness. While they both know and accept that they are destined to just cross paths violently here, there is something very sweet about how they approach it that inevitable end.

The conditions of the world and the struggle to escape are best capture by the gun fight scenes. The gun violence in this movie feels like something out of a horror film. When the bullets starting coming, the film turns into this immersive experience that makes gunfire seem truly suffocating.


1. Thief [1981]

A rare flawless film. There is so much you could talk about in this film. The two things that stand out the most though are one scene and one moment. The scene in question is the adoption agency scene. On the surface, you are almost scared by how suddenly Caan shifts to outright anger here. It is quite terrifying in a way. The real story of the scene though was the pain underneath the anger. It was not just Caan’s character throwing a tantrum for not getting his way but the triggering a deep feeling of rejection that was buried deep inside of him all of his life.

The second moment I want to call attention to is when James Caan finishes breaking into the big vault. It’s a small moment in some ways or more accurately it’s played small. But the very serene and calm look on his face when he knows the hard part is done is just so magnificent and beautiful. James Caan in this one delivers one of the most beautiful performances of all time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s