Michael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers. For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan. The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief. While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.
James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life. In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life. Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.
I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream. This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago. One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style. Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling. When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies. The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann. He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul. Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few. There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.
This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through. It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his. He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here. Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family. He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up. Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject. Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man. Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety. Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie. This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her. Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human. Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience. However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.
Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness. Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels. There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller. Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.
There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me. For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator. He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more. The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away. This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude. Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank. So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.
Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago. All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role. This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time. This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists. None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified. We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill. The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score. Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising. However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others. Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.
There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars. Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront. And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms. This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film. He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies. He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.
Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude. He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes. Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments. This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass. How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed. The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose. From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love. And overall, their score is innovative and captivating. It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.
Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling. Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie. It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter. Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook. No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story. With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie. If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann. It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.
The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more. This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece. It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection. I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.” His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down. As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives. Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered. With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!
Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them. Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it. Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it. Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives. They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that. All they are is what they’re going after. That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.
Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here. However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is. You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene. He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime. He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything. You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin. Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine. The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna. These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person. Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.
And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro. He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him. De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient. There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures. Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities. That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover. Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady. It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart. Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.
Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities. Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch. Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance. Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last. Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto. There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.
I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns. Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion. Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew. He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery. Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear. Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses. Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating. It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.
The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women. Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them. The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life. Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage. She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty. Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals. She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about. For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life. Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife. As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble. For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.
Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat. He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight. Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture. There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon. This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe. Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.
Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score. A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes. His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix. It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story. At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout. The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl. Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully. Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work. Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”
Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory. That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation. The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings. They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives. Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film. Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro. In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down. They show what haunts them and what drives them. There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other. These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another. Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.
Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan. Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted. It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially. The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films. He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.
The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann. The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent. Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted. The climactic moment is excellent and poetic. Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.
I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it. Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all. This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season. Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either. It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations. This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director. Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds. And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider. However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.
Recently, in order to expand the exposure of Forever Cinematic, I have begun doing video movie reviews on YouTube. Now armed with my new high-definition camcorder, I’m putting forth fast paced reviews that summarize my feelings and critiques on various films. Mainly, I am reviewing newly released films alongside the written reviews, but in lulls between those reviews I am taking stuff from the archives to further publicize the back catalog of reviews I’ve done. The video reviews are an extension of the written ones, and I will not be doing a video review of something I have not done a written review of first. These video movie reviews only enhance the content, not replace it.
So far, listed below these are the video reviews I have done which are posted to the RavensFilm Productions YouTube Channel. The first two were shot prior to obtaining my Sony HDR-CX580V camcorder, and so, they are in standard definition quality. From Miami Vice forward, you get 720p HD in 24fps which is a massive upgrade on every technical level. There will also be occasional Forever Cinematic “Specials” where I maybe do a Top 5 list, spotlight some bad movies I own, do a run through of my complete Star Wars home video collection, or whatever else strikes me as fun and entertaining. I hope you will enjoy these videos, share them around, and subscribe to the RavensFilm Productions YouTube Channel to catch all the new videos as they are posted. Thanks much!
On a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film. While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind. While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love. I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into. Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.
Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years. The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer. When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight. Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall. Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination. And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.
I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night. While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right. We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent. At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in. Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape. There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere. There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them. Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments. The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.
In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together. It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses. This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then. Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before. In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them. We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming. Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.
Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here. He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care. Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real. Max is an entirely unlikely hero. He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work. He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level. Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him. However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing. It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence. Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage. Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.
Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent. It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges. That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head. He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move. This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story. Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay. He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max. Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity. Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices. Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law. McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught. However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell. Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling. There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him. If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film. It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here. In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him. He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.
The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase. The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested. If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it. As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor. He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level. These skills are not learned easily or quickly. Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication. And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence. He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.
Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning. His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned. He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive. Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively. Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind. He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.
Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa. However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem. Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene. The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life. Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body. It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent. This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.
Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix. He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion. You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure. Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended. It’s stellar work by him all around.
I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters. While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level. It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards. These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls. Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.
One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline. All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters. Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it. There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment. All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion. Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now. The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline. The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here. It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters. The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on. There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times. It’s an amazingly well edited movie.
Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists. The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film. It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality. Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax. Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments. The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie. It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence. Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least. It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me. I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.
The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly. Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film. So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral. What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot. I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did. It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some. I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end. It still does. Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout. It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones. It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before. It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene. It never gets repetitive or dull. These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value. There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well. Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch. The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before. And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired. I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.
We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome. The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire. It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.” Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos. Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act. As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension. This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used. On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing. The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama. I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation. This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection. The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film. It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.
This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller. Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats. It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance. Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals. I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done. I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart. Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year. Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much. However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.
In my view, there are psychological thrillers, and then, there is Manhunter. I have never seen another movie that gets so deep inside the psyches of its protagonist and antagonist as Manhunter does. Every element of filmmaking is used to envelop you into the psychological state of its characters, and done so with amazing depth and beauty. Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon by writer and director Michael Mann in 1986, this is the best film featuring Hannibal Lecter that I have seen. I never grasped what everyone was so enthusiastic about over The Silence of the Lambs, and that was my sentiment years before I ever watched Manhunter. I have never watched the Brett Ratner helmed re-adaptation Red Dragon, and so, you will not find any comparison between the two here. I have plenty to explore in Manhunter alone. This is my favorite film from Michael Mann, and I am going to tell you why.
F.B.I. Agent and criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is drawn out of retirement by friend and partner Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down and capture a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.” He is named as such due to the peculiar bite marks taken off his slain victims. To reclaim the mindset needed to delve into the psyche of this new killer, who works on a lunar cycle, Graham must tap the mind of the psychopath he captured which led to his own retirement – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Graham must come to see through the eyes of this enigmatic killer in order to anticipate his methods, motives, and actions. The psyches of both Graham and this killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), are eventually put into severe conflict even putting Graham’s wife and son into danger, but most importantly, Graham’s own sanity. If Will Graham can enter into the mind of a psychopath, can he ever come back?
This is a beautifully layered psychological film. It’s fascinating to see the process Michael Mann has Will Graham go through to absorb himself into the psyche of this killer. It’s a slow descent where Graham is trepidatious stepping back into this mindset, but once he’s delved in deep enough, it starts to influence his emotions and manipulate his actions. He’s gradually connecting with the psyche of Francis Dollarhyde, slowly putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, and by the end, there is an obsessive impulse to destroy Dollarhyde so that Graham can simply be free of him. When Graham was hunting Hannibal Lecktor, he integrated Dr. Lecktor’s psyche so deep into his own that he had to be institutionalized to in order to be brought back to good mental health. It was a dark, terrible place for his thoughts to be that he is afraid to allow himself to go back there. However, in order to capture this new serial killer, he has no choice but to tap Lecktor’s mind to recapture that mindset.
Still, the real Will Graham remains beneath, but remains slightly detached from himself. Graham has heartfelt moments with his wife and son at various points in the film that allow the humanity to show through the darkness. These are brief reprieves from the troubling case at hand, but go a long way to show that Graham has not lost himself in this killer as he did with Lecktor. All of these fascinating facets of Will Graham are brilliantly brought to detailed, nuanced life by William Petersen. He deeply engulfed himself in this role so much that after production had wrapped, he couldn’t shake Will Graham from his head. He had to shave off his beard and dye his hair blonde just to shed the character fully. That’s an unsettling example of method acting. Petersen puts so much emotional and psychological intensity into this performance that it is mesmerizing and captivating. You can constantly see the emotional and intellectual gears moving in his head. Petersen’s rich facial nuances and intense eyes also perfectly display Will Graham’s conflict and development throughout the film. He leads this film with a wide breadth of weight and deep, amazing talent. He forges a finely detailed and dimensional character.
This might be a procedural crime thriller, but I find the psychological development of the plot to be richly exciting and fascinating. The physical evidence is an important cog in the process, and the detail and urgent context in which these procedures are displayed make them compelling. Michael Mann keeps them unfolding at a tight pace with sharp dialogue that quickly pushes the narrative forward. Of course, the investigation truly comes together through the psychological methods of Will Graham. Without Graham’s constant prodding and deconstruction of the mind of this serial killer, the pieces would never come together. While Lecktor is someone that Graham fears, he respects Lecktor’s intellect. Where someone else might discount or take offense to Lecktor’s manipulative or sickly unsettling perceptions, Graham understands the valuable insight. He knows there’s something more intuitive underneath Lecktor’s words. Still, how Graham reacts after his first meeting with Lecktor here, you see how disturbed he is allowing Lecktor into his mind at all.
I absolutely love Brain Cox’s subtle and subversive performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. Where Anthony Hopkins would later be a little more obvious and deliberately creepy, Cox slowly gets in under your skin. He could be generally unassuming, but he can gradually deconstruct your mind right before your eyes. He’s immensely intelligent and intimidating by way of his psychological prowess. Yes, he is a psychopath, and certainly a sociopath. However, the scene where Lecktor calls the office of Dr. Bloom shows how naturally charming and charismatic he is, and that is very unsettling. Brian Cox based his performance on a real life serial killer. Such people are usually able to blend seamlessly into society, many as charming and unassuming individuals, and to see Cox bring that quality to this fascinating role adds further intriguing layers to Lecktor. While the character only has three scenes, he remains involved in the plot, and maintains a strong presence through much of the runtime. Overall, I believe the magnificently talented Brian Cox put in a masterful performance that chillingly supports the intelligence of this film.
The performance of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde makes just as major of an impact as Petersen and Cox. His is a chilling portrayal of a fascinating and intimidating character. His generally soft spoken voice creates an unsettling presence. You know he is a frighteningly violent and lethal individual, and this restrained, subtle manner makes you fear for when that violent impulse is ultimately unleashed. Michael Mann chose to leave out aspects of the character from Thomas Harris’ novel such as the Red Dragon tattoo on his torso, of which scenes were filmed with it, and much of his back story. For Manhunter, this seems to truly work for the best. Instead, the first half of the film is used to build him up as an anonymous threat through Graham’s investigation and psychological profiling. When the film directly delves us into who Dollarhyde is, Noonan brings an incredible depth of emotion and internal pain to the role. Where Lecktor is a sociopath devoid of compassion, Dollarhyde has a wealth of emotional turmoil stemming from his distorted self-perception. Noonan’s performance reflects shame as Dollarhyde masks his face with his hands or sunglasses, and won’t allow the blind Reba to touch his face. He’s absorbed himself into this mangled self-identity that he resents those who he perceives as having the idealized life, such as the suburban nuclear family. This fuels his obsession as a serial killer. Tom Noonan brings such immense power to the emotional core of this sympathetic monster, and probably more than anyone else, makes this movie as powerful and effective as it is.
Chicago native actor Dennis Farina puts in a great and strong performance as Jack Crawford. It’s great to see how he showcases Crawford’s trust of Graham. He rarely questions any of what Graham says or believes, but when he does, it has a purpose. Crawford can’t fully understand the process that Will has to go through to do what he does, but he entirely respects it and understands the danger of him doing so. He essentially goes to Will Graham as a last resort. It’s also great seeing that Farina is able to keep up with Petersen’s intensity at times. Late in the film when time, as well as patience, has run short, both Crawford and Graham are jumping down each other’s throats. Crawford’s accepting defeat this time out, but Graham’s gone too far to accept that at all. Still, you see the loyalty and faith return in Farina’s performance as Graham begins to puts the final pieces together. I like the compassion and concern in his performance as Crawford tries to hold to his word of keeping Will as far away from danger as possible up until the last minute. He wants this case closed and this killer captured, but not at the expense of his friend’s safety and sanity.
Stephen Lang does an excellent job as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. He’s a great antagonist for Graham since Lounds only cares about his headlines. He’s despicably charismatic, and a great character you’d love to hate. However, the terror Lang puts into his performance when confronted and abducted by Dollarhyde perfectly sells the imposing and unsettling presence of Dollarhyde. This once egotistical, arrogant grand standing man is reduced to a small man drowning in fear. That is both the culmination of the film’s build up to Francis Dollarhyde, and the impactful introduction of the character in the flesh. In my opinion, it couldn’t have been any more perfectly executed.
Kim Griest does a very solid job as Molly Graham, playing opposite William Petersen vey well. She puts in just the right amount of compassion and concern for Molly’s husband. She fears for his safety, and clearly wishes that Jack Crawford had never asked for Will’s help. It’s not a comfortable position for her to be in knowing what Lecktor had done to him previously. However, probably the least standout performance is Joan Allen as Reba, the blind woman who stimulates Dollarhyde’s affections. She does a decent job, but it feels like the character with the least substance and depth. She is given some strong scenes which intensify Dollarhyde’s character, such as with the sedated tiger, but there’s not much done with Reba to flesh her out like the richly dimensional characters around her. This is likely due to a factor of time, and that the film is focused on Dollarhyde in these instances.
Now, without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is one of the best cinematographers around, and he brought a great amount of beauty, intelligence, and grace to Manhunter. He creates some gorgeous, vibrant visuals that are awe inspiring. Also, scenes are composed and staged very smartly. It’s rarely just standard shots. Every shot seems to be handled with a purpose to symbolize a character’s mindset, relationship with someone else, or to establish mood and tone. In Graham and Lecktor’s first scene together, Mann and Spinotti compose it to where as Graham and Lecktor’s psyches begin to overlap and align, so do the shots of them. The scene begins with a regular composition with Graham on the left side of frame and Lecktor on the right, but eventually they are dead center in the frame looking dead-on towards the camera by the end. Both men reflect one another in this moment. The visuals of the film have numerous mirroring aspects, and evolving motifs which visualize the psychological states and connections of characters. There are a series of shots of Will Graham looking into mirrors, and each successive shot is more and more obscured until there is eventually no reflection seen to the audience. This shows Graham’s journey in finding and ultimately detaching from Dollarhyde’s psyche. Dollarhyde himself cannot even look at himself in a mirror due to his perception of how grossly disfigured he is. Graham can confront the monster within himself, but Dollarhyde cannot.
The use of steadicam is greatly on display here giving us a film of very fluid motion, reflecting the intensely focused mindsets of Graham and Dollarhyde. It’s very gorgeous cinematography. Yet, in the film’s climax, as Dollarhyde destabilizes, the film also becomes chaotic with jump cuts and a surreal frenetic style. This works amazingly well delving our protagonist and antagonist into an explosive conflict which will either destroy or free their respective psyches.
The use of color is also integral to the moods and emotions of the film. Blue tones reflect safety as the love scene between Will and Molly demonstrates. However, green punctuates a feeling of discovery as with Graham’s early wardrobe, or a subversive quality such as in the dark room scene with Reba and Dollarhyde. There are even splashes of green lighting in Dollarhyde’s home at times. In my own independent films, I have used color washes heavily to evoke certain moods and atmosphere, but it’s never been used with such deliberate purpose as in Manhunter.
In the process of writing this review, I ecstatically discovered the complete Manhunter soundtrack album on iTunes. I purchased it without a doubt, even though I already had a few of the songs from the film. No other film have I ever seen makes as impactful, integral use of its soundtrack as Manhunter. It’s all very atmospheric, ambient music from amazing, lesser known 1980s artists such as Shriekback, The Prime Movers, and Red 7. The Shriekback tracks are the most enveloping in the film’s deep haunting mood. “This Big Hush” punctuates the seductive and quietly powerful love scene between Reba and Francis. It’s the deepest insight into Francis’ soul that we get, and this song made the scene what it is. The score was composed by Michel Rubini and The Reds. It’s very synthesizer based which might seem typical of the 1980s, but it sets an overall ominous, mesmerizing, and dangerous tone that absorbs itself into every fiber of the film. Michael Mann employed Tangerine Dream to score Thief five years earlier which created a very sleek and beautiful soundscape of that noir crime thriller. Here, the atmospheric synth music is very much in the forefront creating a bold and intense experience. The soundtrack truly does follow in the style Mann had perfected on Miami Vice at the time using popular music along with striking visuals to tell an emotional and exciting story. However, I feel Manhunter takes it a to higher level due to the overall tone and deep psychological aspects of the story. The music takes the audience deep inside the emotions and psyches of the characters. I love the cue of “Graham’s Theme” which accompanies and accentuates Will Graham’s slow revelation of the final pieces of the puzzle. It is a brilliantly executed sequence. Furthermore, the film brilliantly uses Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to orchestrate the entire climax of the movie. It’s entirely edited and constructed around the various dramatic beats in that seventeen minute long jam. The organ section of the song creates a haunting Phantom of the Opera style mood until it and Will Graham crash back into full blown action. This is a score and soundtrack that simply blows my mind in how well executed and finely weaved into the fabric of the film.
This is undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s absolute best films. It is very tightly crafted with a taut, suspenseful atmosphere. Manhunter is a deeply enveloping film utilizing all its aspects of sight and sound to create a thoroughly absorbing experience. The investigative aspects are given a rarely implemented psychological focus built upon some solid and sharp procedural elements. We are treated to a wealth of rich performances and fascinating characters. There’s a depth of detail to everything which comes out in those performances, and they are presented in very intriguing ways to keep an audience riveted with every moment.
Manhunter has been a curiosity on DVD. Four different cuts exist from both Anchor Bay and MGM. The original theatrical version was actually the last one to be released, and that was from MGM which they also put out on Blu Ray Disc. Anchor Bay released a two-disc set with both a video tape sourced director’s cut and a THX certified version billed as the theatrical cut, but contains some additional scenes and a few bits and pieces cutout. A “restored director’s cut” was later released by them which features a vast improvement in quality, but leaves out one scene from the first director’s cut between Will Graham and Dr. Chilton. It was likely cutout due to it not being shot very well. There’s no one version I wholly prefer over another since they all add in or leave out something I like from another cut, but as far as quality is concerned, the THX certified DVD from Anchor Bay has the best transfer. All other transfers have desaturated colors, are darker prints, and lack some sharpness. I did personally assemble what I called the “Definitive Cut” adding in almost all footage from various cuts of the film into one amalgamation for a complete experience. It’s just something for my own complete satisfaction of the film which I love so very much.
As I said, this is my favorite Michael Mann movie. Although, I do consider The Insider to be the best film he has ever made for very distinctly different but immensely admirable reasons. Manhunter really has been a major influence on me as a filmmaker. It was the main influence on my psychological noir thriller Dead of Night. I wanted to explore what would happen if a criminal profiler similar to Will Graham lost himself in his psychologically twisted work and went off the deep end by hunting down serial killers. There was a similarly themed episode of Miami Vice titled “Shadow in the Dark” that had Sonny Crockett delving into the disturbed mind of a crazed home invader that I also really love. However, nothing is as rich or as layered as Manhunter. Where The Silence of the Lambs seemed more focused on regular investigative work to lead to the capture of its serial killer, Manhunter is all about the psychological construction and deconstruction as the main cog in tracking down the killer. That is far more fascinating to me. Not to mention, Will Graham is a vastly more intriguing character to explore, in my eyes, than Clarice Starling. Graham is someone that’s been to some terrifyingly dark places, and has the capabilities to contend with Hannibal Lecter. He is the one who captured the cannibalistic doctor to begin with, even if it was at a troubling price. Simply everything in Manhunter appeals to my imagination, and I love that time has given the film the respect and praise it deserves. It wasn’t a successful release in 1986 for many reasons, and thus, is why The Silence of the Lambs was never handled as an actual sequel. I’m sure there are people who would be put off by the 1980s neon and pastel aesthetics of Manhunter today, but that’s no bother to me. I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Michael Mann showcased a very powerful vision with this film, more so than any other film I’ve seen from him. While his last two films – Miami Vice and Public Enemies – have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, his general body of work maintains him as one of my favorite and most influential filmmakers of all time.
This film was not what I had hoped it to be. At the time of release, I couldn’t have been more disappointed. However, over time, I have gained some appreciation for it, at least, for what it had the potential to be. I had not watched the television series during the 1980s. I grew up on cartoons, sitcoms, the WWF, and Knight Rider. However, I blind bought the first season of Miami Vice on DVD in 2005, and was immediately hooked. It seemed like good timing with news of the feature film hitting at that time, and the trailer coming a few months later.
What I love about the television show was its way of using popular music as a dramatic storytelling device, and the strong chemistry amongst the cast. The five seasons of Miami Vice redefined what could be achieved on television. Its use of cinematic visuals, gritty crime themes, and action packed, violent stories changed the medium forever. It was slick, colorful, exciting, dramatic, and compelling. Unfortunately, this 2006 feature film lacks all of that.
In this new Miami Vice, roles of James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, replacing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from the original series. Crockett & Tubbs get pulled away from a local undercover operation to deal with the deterioration of a interagency task force. As Tubbs says, “Your ‘op sec’ (operational security) is blown.” How it links to them is by way of an old informant who got in over his head, and now, pays a dire price. So, to bring down this Colombian crime kingpin, Jesus Montoya, Crockett & Tubbs go deep undercover where they have no back-up, and Crockett gets in close with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s woman.
The real problem of this film is that it lacks chemistry and momentum. The plot moves along very straight forward allowing for no unexpected twists or turns to create exciting plot developments. The first 15-20 minutes of the film (theatrical cut) are wrought with potential for a very exciting, fast-paced feature. Things develop quickly creating urgency for everyone to act quickly, and for a dangerous premise to be setup with agents being gunned down. Action ensues, things blow up while maintaining a hard edged, realistic Michael Mann style. However, it soon slows to a dull pace. The plot moves from one thing to another just establishing elements and relationships and characters, but none of it really means anything. Nothing develops beyond the surface. It’s procedural to a fault. It’s more like watching a documentary of undercover vice cops than an engaging narrative with relatable characters.
In the television series, the clashing personalities of the slick, smooth New Yorker of Ricardo Tubbs and the weathered, cynical Miami Vice cop of Sonny Crockett created a classic chemistry. They didn’t always mesh well, but the chemistry Johnson & Thomas struck was what made the show work. They connected on an emotional level. You saw how these two went from reluctant partners to trusted brothers in arms. You felt it between them, and they played it well. Here, the script keeps the characters in an ‘all business’ mode for so long that you don’t get a moment where it’s just Crockett & Tubbs being themselves. There are little touches that are reflective of the original characters as I know them such as Crockett charming a female bartender at the start, or Tubbs offering his compassionate condolences to interagency commander Fujima, “Sorry about your men.” Regardless of that, you don’t get to know the men personally. It’s all on the surface because that’s what the script demands of them. There is only one such personal scene, but it comes so extremely late in the film, it does nothing to enhance the characters for the audience’s benefit. Also, Lieutenant Martin Castillo, who was one of the most fascinating and textured characters of the original series, portrayed amazingly well by the always fantastic Edward James Olmos, is now just another random character. Simply said, if you changed the names of all these characters, and slapped a different title on the film, you’d never know it was supposed to be Miami Vice.
The attempted romance between Sonny and Isabella just fell flat for me. Part of it is that Gong Li doesn’t speak English very well, and so, she has to spend more time just trying to pronounce the words instead of putting character and emotion behind them. You can see this relationship is having a conflicted effect on Sonny since he’s playing the undercover role of Sonny Burnett, a criminal and smuggler, and has to be close to her without actually being Sonny Crockett. He loves this woman, but as I said, the chemistry isn’t there. I felt no spark between them. No heat. Like so many things in this movie, it just doesn’t click.
The music is also dark and brooding. Aside from a few dance club scenes, the music is not lively. The music itself is not bad at all, I own the soundtrack, but it just further drags down the emotional weight of the film. I know the pop music of today is not like that of the 1980s, but this 2006 movie seems to make every effort to be in stark contrast to everything that defined the name Miami Vice. Thus, why I was so disappointed at the time of release. Michael Mann approached this film with the intention of realism. Make everything feel real, and do nothing that is not comparable to the true operations and people of this world. However, making it too realistic drains out the entertainment value, and the depth to the story being told. Because of this, as I said, the movie comes off more like a documentary.
On a positive note, the cinematography is mostly gorgeous. The shots over the open water as Sonny & Isabella speedboat to Havana are wondrous and sprawling. I live near Chicago, and so, the only large body of water I can enjoy is Lake Michigan. Still, staring out into that endless horizon, to the edge of the world is so perfectly tranquil, and that sense is captured here, exponentially. The film has a large amount of handheld work. A lot of it is handled well, but it can get to be too much. However, it’s nowhere near as bad as Mann’s next film Public Enemies. That was the perfect example of a badly shot movie. Collateral was amazing in every aspect to me, and I embraced the HD digital video look of it. It was shot fantastically. Miami Vice is the downward step between Collateral and Public Enemies in many ways, not just in camera work.
Characters in Michael Mann films went from deep, textured, and complex people to far more stoic people who Mann does not allow to show their depth. While Manhunter is my favorite Mann film, it is The Insider that I feel remains his best film to date. That was the clear definition of character depth, and a well written dramatic film. And Mann did it all without a single action sequence or gunshot. People conflicting with other people on an emotional, psychological, and ideological level. While based on true events, it shows that Mann can bring those qualities out in his films. Where it has gone in the last few years is beyond me.
Miami Vice was marketed as a slick, dangerous, edgy, sexy, and exciting summer action film. That is not the film Michael Mann made, and the film I got was not the one I expected to see on an August midnight showing in 2006. However, after listening to his director’s commentary, and allowing the passage of time, I at least have appreciation for the film it could have been. I understand what Mann was going for, and I love the ideas behind it. I just don’t feel it all successfully came together in this movie. The worst part of the film was the ending. As the movie progressed, I felt there hadn’t yet been a climax. There was a big shootout, but it felt like a precursor to the real climax. Nothing had yet been resolved on a plot development or emotional level. Jesus Montoya was still out there, at large, and I felt like the film would lead into Crockett & Tubbs going after him to shut him down. This was because the same thing happened in the episode “Calderone’s Return.” The villain from the pilot episode escaped, and now, Sonny & Rico had the chance to get him for good. They speedboat to the Bahamas for a final confrontation. None of that happened here. There’s a montage sequence, Crockett walks into the hospital, and the movie cuts to black. Roll credits. There was no resolution to any plot or character elements in the film. The bad guy gets away, he will rebuild his empire, and life goes on. All the Miami Vice squad achieved was killing a bunch of thugs with guns. Expendable, replaceable people in Montoya’s employ. You can pull that off on a television series because there’s always next week, sometimes next season to revisit the storyline, and tie it off at a later time (just like “Calderone’s Return”). In a feature film, you have only 90-120 minutes to establish, develop, and resolve a story. There was no satisfying resolution to Miami Vice 2006. Had there been, maybe I could forgive a lot of the negative marks by there being an exciting ending that actually resolved something that the audience decided to invest their time in.
The worst thing to do going into this movie is to anticipate anything resembling the 1980s television series. Going into it expecting a Michael Mann film might be more suitable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be pleased. It’s been five years since this film was released, and while I have an appreciation for the ideas behind it, and enjoy much of the cinematography, I don’t view it as that good of a film. The lack of chemistry amongst the cast, momentum within the story, and the grim overall sense just doesn’t allow for much to invest in, unfortunately.