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Heat (1995)

Heat 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.


The Monster Squad (1987)

You know, the video rental store was a glorious thing growing up in the 1980s and 90s.  It was better than any other place around.  Especially in the 80s, I believe I discovered more great films from VHS rentals and cable television than actually going to the theatre.  While the vast majority of my horror movie fandom was sparked off in the late 90s, I’ve been a fan of The Monster Squad since it came to home video.  It was always a rare treat either renting it or finding it airing on television some afternoon.  This was a greatly fun and frightening movie.

In the late nineteenth century, legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) led a siege upon the castle of Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) with an amulet of concentrated good in an attempt to cast all monsters into Limbo.  They blew it.  One hundred years later, his diary comes into the possession of Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower) who leads a group of pre-teens who idolize classic movie monsters.  They call themselves The Monster Squad.  Sean and his friends workup the courage to visit the “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cimino), who turns out to be a kindly gentleman, to translate the German text in Van Helsing’s diary.  They learn of the amulet and its power, and that they only have a few days before it becomes vulnerable to destruction.  However, danger approaches as Dracula reawakens joined by the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Gill-Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster to help the Count take control of the amulet and plunge the world into darkness.  Now, the Monster Squad are the only ones who can stand in his way, and save the world from his impending reign of evil.

I find it immensely pleasing that Fred Dekker, director and co-writer, created a film that fully delivers on high quality horror while still incorporating adventurous fun.  There is such a deep, rich respect for these icons of classic horror that it shows through in every frame of film.  The entire film is given fine dramatic integrity.  Nothing is ever farcical.  It follows in the style of a film like The Goonies which has very fleshed out, dimensional, and relatable young characters put into very dangerous and exciting scenarios.  There’s a fine balance between the serious story and the charming fun.  The characters nor actors ever treat their situation as ridiculous.  They hold up the dramatic weight of the story very well.  The film never descends into cheap silliness like I imagine a modern remake would.  It sets everything up as a very honest threat that our heroes take with earnestness, but the film is still able to inject smart humor at just the right moments.  It is a brilliant mix and balance that is not easy to pull off.

The entire child cast is absolutely excellent.  André Gower leads the group with a lot of conviction and emotional determination.  He naturally fits the role of a confident, inspiring leader as Sean.  I love that Sean feels he has sort of inherited the mantle of Abraham Van Helsing.  He is inspired by Van Helsing’s journal, and wants to fulfill that failed mission.  Ryan Lambert does a great job as Rudy, the older, tougher, cooler kid of the group.  His leather jacket rebel style attitude adds a nice sense of edginess and credibility to the team.  Rudy’s also given a fine action hero moment when he starts slinging arrows in the climax.  You’ve also got to love how Horace is used in the film paying off some smart and hilarious jokes.  He’s the one that gets picked on at school, but ultimately, gets his hard edged action hero moment by the end.  This entire youthful cast is as solid as it gets.  They endear themselves to an audience, and all have their own qualities that make them distinct amongst the group.  They all bring something fun and unique to the cast’s dynamics.

Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor turn in very solid and well-rounded performances as Sean & Pheobe’s parents.  While the strained marriage aspect wasn’t all that necessary, it added to the emotional dimension of these characters, and it resonated well where it needed to.  The relationship between Sean and his father is very strongly handled with subtle moments that go a long way.  Macht and Gower have a very heartfelt bond that penetrates the screen, and builds a depth with Sean that an audience can connect with.  It surely solidifies Sean’s stature as the lead protagonist.

The film’s Dracula is brilliantly portrayed by Duncan Regehr.  His is seriously one of my favorite interpretations of Count Dracula.  He has such an intimidating and theatrical presence which saturates the screen.  The cold blooded, violent aspects of his performance are very chilling.  He has absolutely no hesitation to kill, and you never doubt how genuinely threatening or dangerous he is.  However, he can also demonstrate a passionate desire at times when on the hunt.  The film doesn’t give him a lot of scenes to establish much character, but you can feel this is a fleshed out villain from this rich performance alone.  I have seen Regehr in a few other roles, and he has brought this same level of passion to them as well.  As Dracula, he never ceases to be terrifying and compelling. He is an immensely strong lead villain that I think should never be forgotten in the annals of great Dracula portrayals.

I know the amazing talent of Tom Noonan from Manhunter, and as Frankenstein’s Monster, he continues to amaze.  The touching, tragic humanity he pours into this role is heartbreaking.  He can truly capture an audience’s heart as he does with the Monster Squad kids themselves.  Noonan deserves special recognition for his work here.  I also love the portrayal of the Wolfman by Jonathan Gries.  He’s a guy frightened to death of what the full moon turns him into so much he goes crazy on the police to force them to lock him up.  However, as the wolf, he is Dracula’s willing ally who is entirely ferocious and terrifying.  The transformation effects from man into werewolf are some of the best ever committed to film.  You definitely get the sense of a violent metamorphosis into this vicious beast, and that is no surprise consider the brilliance behind these effects.

All of the monsters are magnificently brought to life by Stan Winston Studios.  In the same year he brought us the iconic Predator, Winston brings that same level of realistic, textured detail to the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Gill-Man.  There are even impressive moments of seeing Dracula in mid-bat transformation.  This is a benchmark of quality realizing these classic icons of horror with stellar modern practical effects work, and giving them a very tangible and textured quality.  Stan created the absolute highest standards for creature effects that continue to be shining standard bearers to this day, and likely for all cinematic time.  It’s tragic to see a movie like Van Helsing, which contained many of the same classic horror monsters and had more than ten times the budget of The Monster Squad, indulged in horrendous looking computer generated effects.  It goes to show that a bigger budget doesn’t always equal a technically superior film.  Talent is what counts, and Stan Winston clearly provided that and injected a vast amount of quality with these iconic movie monsters.  He did them justice, and paid great respect to their legacies, as did Fred Dekker.

Considering all the amazing known talents behind this film, it’s no surprise how damn good it is.  Fred Dekker co-wrote the screenplay with the excellent Shane Black who has written Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed).  The film was also executive produced by Peter Hyams, a great director and amazing cinematographer on films such as 2010, Running Scared, Timecop, Sudden Death, and End of Days.  It’s just enough talent to keep the quality at a high level in every aspect of the film.  The Monster Squad is genuinely very frightening because of that talent and quality standards.  Plenty of imposing atmosphere with beautiful cinematography that showcases integrity and great production values make for a highly effective and fun horror movie.  This might’ve only had an estimated budget of $12 million, but it sure doesn’t look like it.  This looks big budget all the way.

If there’s any negative mark to leverage against the film it would be the brisk 82 minute runtime.  The positive side of that is it moves at a very consistent, steady pace.  There are no lulls in the film.  It just keeps rolling forward, and flows exceptionally well.  Still, that 82 minutes hits you pretty hard making you wish there was a little more going on in that second act because you’re into the third act of the movie before you know it.  As I said, not much time is devoted to developing Dracula, and that’s certainly one area where they could’ve added in more content.  They quickly touch on an existing strong friendship between him and Frankenstein’s Monster, and that’s something which would’ve been interesting to see developed so to create more of an arc for Frank.  See him go from this brutish pawn of the villain to an ally of the heroes would be ripe for an extended setup and pay-off.

The Monster Squad seems to be a cult classic movie, and it’s sad and surprising that something of such high quality and solid entertainment value bombed hard at the box office.  Considering it opened two weeks after the vastly successful and more broadly appealing The Lost Boys, one could see it not having as much impact at the box office as Tri Star Pictures likely desired.  Still, making less than $4 million at the domestic box office is very harsh even for 1987’s standards.  Thankfully, time has been kind to this film, and it eventually got the treatment it deserved on DVD and Blu ray with a features loaded two-disc set that would satisfy any fan.  If you’ve never seen this movie, I give it an extremely solid recommendation.  You get a fine dose of adventure and fun with some solid, serious horror elements.  It is a PG-13 rated movie, but that is only because it lacks any serious gore or pervasive language.  It has plenty of suspense and unsettling moments that are greatly handled to where the rating is inconsequential.  It’s an exceptionally fun ride that shows deep respect to the icons of horror it showcases.


Manhunter (1986)

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.