To Serve Mann (What Is Every Film Critic’s Highest Calling?)

THIEF_Caan_Solo_Rain_cropHeat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann
February 5-16 at BAM

Billed as “New York’s first complete retrospective of the master auteur’s modern take on urban noir,” BAM’s series includes all of Michael Mann’s features, but you won’t find any of his significant work producing, writing and directing television movies like The Jericho Mile and L.A. Takedown, the amateurishly acted shoestring blueprint for the masterpiece Heat. There also isn’t space for his work on shows like Miami Vice, Crime Story (supremely entertaining) and Luck, but I don’t know what’s involved in acquiring such things, and really, beggars oughtn’t be choosers, as this series as it stands is a godsend. It arrives on the heels of 2015’s Blackhat, a box office nonstarter that also took some dings in the press, though I count myself among its fervid cult. Boring gripes about unbelievability and Chris Hemsworth’s inappropriate chiseled-ness and slippery accent seemed to make up much of the criticism, though Mann’s slick and considered digital style (refined since 2004’s Collateral) and balletic open-air action scenes are as strong as anything in Miami Vice (2006). Mann will be toting a special, never-released director’s cut of Blackhat. Details are hazy, but excitement should be tempered by the fact that he’s done this on many of his films, with sometimes less than positive results (Miami Vice added a boat race intro and other unnecessaries, Heat lost a little purple prose). Mann has said his original cut of the eventually two-hour Blackhat had another 45 minutes, so expect to see some of that and a little reshuffling.

At twelve films, BAM’s series is a comparatively light complete retrospective because Mann is a slow worker. An allegiance to authenticity marks his work from this series’s earliest entry, Thief (1981), one of the most soulful heist movies ever made and containing rarely-better work from James Caan, Tuesday Weld and a white-hot Tangerine Dream score. Real thieves served as technical advisers, so you can be confident that every drill bit and saw is authentic, which would mean little if not for the passion the young Mann is already able to convey in even throwaway shots and quiet scenes like the celebrated Caan-Weld coffeeshop talk. “I don’t care how it looks; I care about how it feels,” is one of my favorite of the director’s quotes (from a Miami Vice 2006 DVD extra), because there’s an unmistakable feeling behind Mann and his cinematographers’ pretty pictures, one that can be hard to put into text without sounding blowhard-y, which is one reason why Matt Zoller Seitz’s 2009 video essay series “Zen Pulp” is valuable. If Mann were in fact merely a vacuous “style” fetishist, his films would still be worth seeing, but his pictorial and musical choices are always character- or setting-driven. Silhouetted Robert De Niro placing his gun down on a table in his clean-lined modern house as he looks out into a oceanic void in Heat (1995) is an image beautiful in itself, but made crushing by its evocation of Neil McCauley’s chosen life of loneliness.

heatThe series is also a tribute to Mann’s collaborators, like the Italian-born cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot Manhunter (1986), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat, The Insider (1999) and Public Enemies (2009). It was with Dion Beebe that Mann made his startlingly elegant transition from celluloid to digital in Collateral and Miami Vice. The move allowed his action more fluidity and grit, though did no damage to his pictorial essence—the grainy cityscapes and interiors are now just differently lush. Spinotti didn’t sputter when he returned for the digitally shot Public Enemies, Mann’s moving John Dillinger epic, in which the grain and ease-of-movement of the imagery prove a perfect match with the Tommy Gun popping and Johnny Depp’s exit strategy-eyeing, doomed “dark currents” (in Mann’s words). The actor and Mann’s dueling perfectionism may or may not have produced mutual resentment and even lack of communication on set (depending on whom you ask), but Depp, to my mind, does by far his best work of the millennium here as the soft-spoken bank robber whose understandable Depression-era celebrity we mostly have to take for granted, as we’re mostly with him in close quarters and with girlfriend Billie (a sweetly naive Marion Cotillard).

miami-vice-2006Mann’s filmography is filled with such actorly career highlights, proving his sensitivity is equal here to his passion for the image. There are small roles like Tom Noonan’s unforgettable creep Dollarhyde in Manhunter, Russell Means and Jodhi May in Mohicans, Diane Venora’s neurotic Louise Brooks-cut Justine Hanna and priceless scumbag William Fichtner (and really the whole cast) in Heat, Gong Li’s sad Isabella in Miami Vice, Viola Davis in Blackhat, and many others. As for starring roles, as Hawkeye in Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis is a running vision of romantic integrity, with cascading locks and a warm smile to match his long-rifle lethality. Colin Farrell’s air of mulleted, mustachioed sleaze in Miami Vice is the ideal update of Don Johnson’s rolled-up blazer sleeves 80s slickness, and is in sync with the soundtrack’s scummier douche-rock. Despite the crutch of his reliance on eyeglasses always sliding down his nose, Russell Crowe has never been better than in The Insider, a gripping whistleblower thriller and surely the best ever film based on a Vanity Fair article (by Marie Brenner). The Insider succeeds because it starts small (the background of a 60 Minutes segment exposing tobacco industry malfeasance) and locates extreme drama and righteous anger as it meticulously fans out and zooms in. Ali (2001) is less potent because, with the boxer as its locus, Mann and his cowriters fall victim to the common temptation to address seemingly every aspect of those “turbulent times,” in this case the decade from 1964-1974. Yet Will Smith is gamely up for the challenge, matching the film’s ambition when anything less than a big performance would’ve been invisible. It’s as much Smith’s film as anyone’s.

Blackhat-CodeEven in Mann’s more-than-urban-noir body of work, which includes a boxer biopic and James Fenimore Cooper adaptation, The Keep (1983) is an outlier, tough to defend with auteurist loyalty. About a supernatural entity wreaking havoc from inside the confines of a World War II-era citadel in Romania, the film is a daffy mess not without its pleasures. Sadly (?), Mann’s purported 210-minute cut of The Keep is not on offer at BAM. To provide some flavor of Mann’s TV production work, there’s Band of the Hand (1986), which was directed by Paul Michael Glaser (The Running Man, Kazaam) with several scenes that feel distinctly Mann-helmed. Repeat Mann collaborator Stephen Lang stars as a Native American Vietnam War veteran who leads a sort of tough-love boot camp for juvenile delinquents in the Everglades, and then a Miami ghetto. The film’s schizophrenia likely derives from its intention as a television pilot produced during Miami Vice’s heyday, and it careens from one animal attack to another before it becomes a social drama about the drug trade, and includes a subplot about Lauren Holly becoming a kingpin’s plaything. Bob Dylan provides the lifeless theme song, which gets three spins. Questionable oddities like this and The Keep are welcome, and speak to Mann’s non-monolithic output. Whether you’re fortunate enough to be in Brooklyn or have to rely on home viewing, Mann’s art is in general so carefully considered, and of a vision so unique in major American filmmaking, that you won’t be led amiss no matter what you watch.

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