Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Cool Guy Swagger of the Michael Mann Film

The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #20: Michael Mann.

Michael Mann is what one would call a mano y mano kind of director. Whether it be William Peterson's FBI profiler vs. Brian Cox' Hannibal Lektor in Manhunter or Tom Cruise's coolly psychotic killer vs. Jamie Foxx' intrepid cabbie in Collateral or Christian Bale's righteous G-man vs. Johnny Depp's charismatic Dillinger in Public Enemies or the equally iconic De Niro and Pacino going up against each other in Heat or, for that matter, Daniel Day Lewis' Hawkeye or Wil Smith's Muhammad Ali vs. just about everyone in The Last of the Mohicans and Ali respectively. Yes indeed, Mann is certainly (and the pun is very much intended) a man's man kind of director.

The director's filmic output (just ten films in thirty years) is probably the most macho since Peckinpah was drunkenly barking out directorial demands back in the 1960's and 70's, but even crazy old Sam allowed his female characters, on occasion, to become more than mere eye candy or gun moll or weepy wife to their male counterpart. The closest a Mann heroine has come to headlining, let alone being allowed to be heroic (at least heroic in the way Mann's macho men are allowed to be heroic) is Madeleine Stowe's rather thankless role in The Last of the Mohicans. And even she has to sit around and wait for her man to return as he promised he would.

Okay, perhaps some of that is a bit of an exaggeration (Stowe's Cora does more than her part as heroic figure and Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette is tough-as-nails under brutal interrogation in Public Enemies) but there is certainly no denying that the oeuvre of Michael Mann is the manliest of places. But then again, the filmmaker is far from misogynistic in his treatment of women - he, and his films just do not have much of a need for them is all. It is the tough guy personas of James Caan and Russell Crowe and Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx that make Mann's films so appropriately manly.

Then again, Mann's films, as macho man as they want to be, are more than mere hardboiled flapdoodle. They are creature creations of visceral, visual beauty. Filmed with a cool demeanor, both in story and in design, and with a slick eye for the inherent radiance of filmic space and cinematic place, Mann's slick oeuvre is more often than not, on par or close to being on par with the works of compatriots like Scorsese and Fincher.  His film's, even those about misfits (which incidentally is nearly all of them), have that all important (at least in the case of the film's subject matters) cool guy swagger to them.  As cocksure heroes and antiheroes like John Dillinger, Muhammad Ali, Lowell Bergman, Natty Bumppo, Crockett & Tubbs, and even a character such as Hannibal Lektor, strut about in their various cool guy ways, Mann's camera seems to do the very same swagger as they.

The two Mann films that best embody this aesthetic are Collateral and Miami Vice.  To prove that I have always thought this of Mr. Mann, I give you my original reviews of both films.

First, here is my original take on Collateral (originally published Summer 2004):

There is a moment in Collateral late into the film, where Tom Cruise as the silver-haired assassin and Jamie Foxx as his unwitting cab driver escort are driving toward what will become number four in an after hours execution binge of murdered witnesses-for-the-prosecution. The scene shows the tattered taxi and its two opposing occupants being stopped by a street-crossing pair of coyotes. At this point, Director Michael Mann slows down his camera and soundtrack musical number and we watch, along with the characters in the film, these predatory canines leisurely gait their way across the boulevard. It is at this exact moment, contrary to any plotline in the film, that we see Michael Mann do what he does better than almost any other American-Hollywood Filmmaker working today. Michael Mann is a late night urban existentialist with the electric neon eyes of a hyper-active meth-junkie who has just recently embraced the teachings of the Dhammapadda. Mann, who made the stylistic crime drama Heat and the moody Sixty Minutes docu-drama The Insider has brought his visual slickness, a combination of eighties TV cop-pop eye candy Miami Vice and a Travis Bickle-induced homage toward the opening sequence of Scorsese's Taxi Driver to the adaptation of screenwriter Stuart Beattie's slim and (somewhat) shallow screenplay.

Collateral, shot mainly on high-definition digital video, gives off a certain hue that makes the LA night time appear to be almost glowing with a wet fluorescent look, making you feel as if it's four a.m. and you are half falling asleep sitting at the all-night laundromat, wishing your clothes would hurry up and dry so you can go home and collapse in a tired ball of sleep deprevation atop your unkempt bed. The star of this film is not Tom Cruise and it is not Jamie Foxx and it is not even the neoned Taoist Autuer Mann. It is the spookily-vacant streets of LA that are the stars of Collateral - streets that are given to us by the visual etheralness of Michael Mann's smooth-operater filmmaking technique. Even the close-ups of Foxx and Cruise are set in a deep focus negativity of the larger-than-life neon jungle that surrounds them. The city is always there and Mann has, at least temporarily, become its master - unleashing it in a cold callous smooth ugliness that only adds to its characters moral predicaments.  Mann does the quiet cerebral moments with the artistic flair of a street-lighted Picasso and thus Collateral entices us in with the ghostly urban mood of a philosopher's gaze. Cruise, with his steely determined eyes of indifference is perfectly cast (especially for a Michael Mann film), as the sleek silver-suited gun-for-hire Vincent, set on his assignment to kill five Mob-related witnesses in one night. Granted, through all the glitz and glitter of the shimmering skyscrapers of after hours LA, there is not one single moment of surprise in Collateral, yet in Mann's hands the films luscious looks make it work as only a Michael Mann film can.

And here is my original take on Miami Vice (published in Summer 2006):

Considering the kitsch mentality of the original TV show - that played out as if a weekly hour long fashion show-cum-music video - it comes as somewhat of a surprise that its 2006 namesake is the least frivolous of all the Summer blockbusters. Edgy and intense - two adjectives that were most-likely never used to describe the eighties TV show (although as a naive typical teenager of the day, I probably did consider it just that at the time) - this newer, meaner Miami Vice - which only really holds the slightest of resemblances to its predecessor (a quick audial glimpse of the original theme song hidden behind tracks of a hip hop nightclub remix and the closing credit cover of Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight, are pretty much the only connective tissue here, outside of the iconic names Crockett and Tubbs) - goes infinitely deeper and darker than the show ever dared to go.  This, of course, has a lot to do with director Michael Mann - who incidentally was a co-creator of the original show - and his slick directorial style (auteurial style perhaps).

Always one to try to tip mainstream movie-making on its collective ass, Mann plays with the concept of Miami Vice as some sort of genre experiment that only he - the mad macho maestro that he is - can decipher and splay out as a near-perfect lubricious blend of Hollywood glitz and independently minded virility that it is. Full of bull perhaps, but that bull is exactly the kick in the ass that an idea like Miami Vice has needed all along, and Mann is just the kind of visually spectacular bullshitter that can do it - and has done it.  Going in with a less-than full-bodied expectation for the story (the TV show was the epitome of the eighties pretty-but-dumb mindset) I came out with what I am sure was a shocked look of awe upon my face. A total surprise on every level - and isn't that what we want from a motion picture? Isn't that lack of surprise what is so wrong about most Hollywood films these days? I am rather confidant that when the end of the year rolls around I will still be proclaiming Miami Vice one of the best films of 2006. 

No more need be said.  Let us allow the Cool Guy Swagger of the Michael Mann Film to speak for itself.


MP said...

Great piece Kevyn! I had difficulties entering into Mann's filmography at first. Now, I admire his subtle mise en scène and his mastery of storytelling! And yes Miami Vice is one heck of a film!

Kevyn Knox said...


Glad you enjoy Mann. He is an auteur who gets overlooked quite a bit.

The Taxi Driver said...

I love Mann as much as the next guy but feel he has yet to really make what I would consider a masterpiece. There is always something that just doesn't quite get it over that hill. Although maybe it is better to have directed a career fill of very good to great films (Ali excluded) than to be that filmmaker that makes one of 2 masterpieces and nothing else that can stand up against it.

Nick Prigge said...

First off, so glad to see you enjoyed "Miami Vice." That's such an under appreciated piece of work, and your thoughts on it here are just stellar.

While I totally agree he is a very macho man kind of director, I also have to respectfully disagree that he's entirely neglectful of women. Alice makes the most ballsy decision in all of "Last of the Mohicans" and Cora's pretty badass too. She tells off her dad. She plants a musket ball in the indian's face. She can hold her own.

And the baddest ass in all of "Miami Vice" is totally Elizabeth Rodriguez.

Anyway, great piece. Enjoyed it.

Kevyn Knox said...

@Mike - While Mann has yet to make a masterpiece (yes, I agree with that) he has more great films in his oeuvre than many a contemporary director. I count 6 of the director's 10 films as great. I would even put one at near-masterpiece (you can guess at which one that would be).

@Nick - Mohicans is actually my least favourite Mann (and yes, I have seen The Keep) so perhaps my memory on that one is a bit weak. I do think that is the only time that women come to the forefront of a Mann film. In Miami Vice, we do see some kickass dames (yeah, I said that!) and as I said, Cotillard is one brave dame (I said it again!) under interrogation in Public Enemies, but they are still overshadowed by the men. Mann has a macho beauty, even when these women take centerstage for however briefly.

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