Michael Mann’s 11th feature film, Blackhat, opens Friday. To celebrate, Chris Ryan and Sean Witzke take a look back at the last 20 years — since the release of his masterpiece, Heat — of one of the most provocative, stylish, thrilling, and frustrating filmmakers of his generation.
I Do What I Do Best, I Take Scores
Sean Witzke: I think, because of how ubiquitous and popular Heat is, we try to downplay how much we love it. Heat has probably aired on cable once a week for the past 20 years. It introduced a lot of people to Mann’s hallmarks: violent professionals, existential masculinity, a no-earth-tones palette, parallel narratives that collide, long running times, an ensemble of great actors dialed in super tight, the theme of work — it’s all in there. As Mann fans, we act like it’s played out, but it isn’t. Like Fight Club with David Fincher, at some point it became too big, and maybe a little too obvious. Maybe it’s because there’s a Dane Cook routine about Heat? That’s the only tangible uncool thing I can relate to the movie, actually.
It’s a monumental achievement for Mann, who took six years to take it from a decent TV movie — L.A. Takedown — to career-defining epic. Also, it’s a kind of swan song for Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as guys who could be a force in an action or a dramatic context. I love The Insider, I love Ronin, but within five years of Heat, both of them have completely changed. What do you think Heat’s legacy is for Mann?
Chris Ryan: It’s one of my top two or three favorite movies ever made. Probably one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater, and it has one of the greatest set pieces ever filmed. I remember it also as a reprieve from some of the more postmodern tendencies a lot of genre movies had adopted after Reservoir Dogs. There is no bluffing happening in this movie.
Visually, it’s peak Mann. It’s right when he turns the corner from the meticulously composed, painterly stuff he was doing with Manhunter and The Last of the Mohicans into the handheld digital stuff that would really manifest itself in Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies.
You’re absolutely right about it being the last great tough-guy Pacino–De Niro performances. It has some of my favorite weird moments in Mann’s entire filmography: Tom Noonan talking about the Internet, Val Kilmer asking a bunch of guys playing pickup ball where he can buy some bread, Pacino throwing Henry Rollins through a screen door, and, of course, “The action is the juice.”
It also serves as a template for most of Mann’s subsequent work, thematically. He is obviously fascinated with binary relationships between two central characters. With the possible exception of Ali, all of Mann’s films that follow are examinations of such duos. God. I cannot believe this movie is 20 years old. It feels like it could be in theaters today.
I See a Rhetorical Question on the Horizon
Ryan: Do you remember The Insider as fondly?
Witzke: It’s impossible to remember The Insider that fondly. It’s a movie about whistle-blowing and 60 Minutes. Through Mann’s eyes, these subjects take on amazing dramatic weight, but it’s not a bank robbery. It’s never De Niro and Pacino at the table.
Ryan: All Michael Mann films are essentially two-hour excuses to get two guys sitting across from one another at a table. Maybe he should just remake My Dinner with Andre.
Witzke: Early on, Mann takes the time to present the similarities between Pacino’s Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand, rather than the differences, as in his other films. We see them with their wives, their kids, how they’re confrontational with their superiors at work. It’s not a loner/family-man dichotomy. It’s two different presentations of integrity and compromise. Bergman has compromised, in ways, and preserves his integrity. Wigand wants integrity now, after years of compromise.
Pacino plays it so much smaller than he does in Heat — he’s so perfect for the role, just a little de-powered. Crowe kind of turns in his first big showy Method performance, all tightened jaw and shoulders. It became shticky, and I’m glad he stopped doing it … but right here in this film? He’s the show.
The Insider has some of the best “actors tensely delivering dialogue” scenes in all of the Mann filmography for me. Bruce McGill is immortal for “WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR FACE,” but I didn’t realize before how much I loved the exchange in which Crowe asks Pacino, “Ever bounce a check?” I hadn’t seen this film in five years, but I knew every word as if it were a Theater 101 monologue. Eric Roth hasn’t written anything else I’ve liked, but he might get into heaven for how intense the conversations get without ever getting silly. Did you lie about being on the American judo team, Chris?
Ryan: No, but I do stand to gain financially when CBS is sold to Westinghouse!
The room is practically vibrating in this scene. First of all, you’ve got Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall, and Stephen Tobolowsky. I love Hall, as 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, losing his shit and calling Bergman an anarchist. The scene is all Pacino, though. You can read it as an anthology of all the little tics and gestures and moves — the hands, the shifting volume on his voice — that he accumulated through those great ’90s performances. There’s bits of Ricky Roma, Carlito Brigante, and Vincent Hanna in there, but, like you said, there’s something weak — like he’s Wile E. Coyote and he’s just run off the cliff. The moment when Wallace says, “I’m with Don on this” is such a gut-punch.
I love how, during this period, Mann is jumping from microgenre to microgenre — cops-and-robbers (Heat), newspaper and courtroom drama (The Insider), sports biopic (Ali) — and just blowing them up and putting them back together. I can totally imagine Roth’s script on the same pile as, like, A Civil Action, which came out the preceding year. This is a totally fine movie in the hands of, say, Sydney Pollack — a totally safe pair of hands. In Mann’s hands, you have hotel room walls melting away and visions of suburban utopia appearing. Anecdotally, I remember people really disliking this scene.
But I still adore it, if only for Pacino wandering around the Florida coastline with the world’s first mobile phone.
The hotel scene is such a break from the usual hyperrealistic filmmaking we expect from Mann. There are flourishes like this in Manhunter, but I don’t recall him doing anything else like that since.
Witzke: There are the surreal moments in the later movies, but that’s the biggest break from realism. Everything else is like the coyote in Collateral — jarring, but still the real world. I remember people hating the hotel scene, too, but I love it.
The weirdest element of The Insider is Christopher Plummer playing Mike Wallace. It’s pretty rare that a real movie has a famous actor playing a living person. You suspend disbelief by the time Plummer is yelling at Gina Gershon (“WHERE’S THE REST OF IT?”), but it’s super weird. I don’t really feel that way about Jon Voight in Ali, but his Howard Cosell is the closest thing to a caricature in any other Mann film. Even Will Smith’s version of Ali.
Free Ain’t Easy. Free Is Real.
So when you’re talking about microgenre-era Mann, do you think Ali ranks along with the best? The closest other thing to it in his filmography is Thief. It’s about a single character, as he struggles to define himself against all of these people who are using him as a symbol, or a weapon. Mann’s period pieces are weird, but the sections of this movie in which Ali is in Africa are so beautiful — the dialogue drops away, and you just see the locations and the people. Everything is through Ali’s eyes, for a little while. Those are the places where Ali becomes less like American Gangster or The Hurricane and becomes a Michael Mann movie.
Ryan: I like it because it feels like Mann saying, “All right, motherfuckers, you want to make a historical biopic? Let’s make a historical biopic.” The opening 10 minutes of this movie feature Will Smith training as Ali while Ron Silver’s Angelo Dundee shouts about jumping rope, introduce Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles!), have that amazing Bundini Brown moment (you know Jamie Foxx owns this movie as soon as he starts peeling the orange in the boxing gym), reference Emmett Till’s murder, and are set to a live performance of “You Send Me”/“Bring It on Home” by Sam Cooke. Jesus! This whole movie is just like a giant sign telling Ron Howard to put the camera down.
Witzke: Did Mann invent 24/7 with Ali? With all of these movies, watching them back-to-back, you really learn to love Jamie Foxx and Mann as collaborators. I want the two of them to work together again on something huge, in which Foxx isn’t cast in such a supporting role.
Ryan: The getting-off-the-plane scene in Africa is one of the most striking things Mann’s ever filmed. You’re just speechless when that’s happening. Aside from the obvious bank robbery in Heat, what are some of your favorite Mann moments? I was always partial to the ambush in The Last of the Mohicans (NSFW).
That’s a textbook lesson on how to build tension and explain where things are in space. Also, it’s a moving landscape painting.
Witzke: One of my favorite sequences — outside of Heat and The Insider — is the bars not moving in Manhunter:
I also love the opening club sequence in the theatrical Miami Vice, where you keep getting thrown into the deep end, before you’re told anything, and the scene in Collateral, after the shootout in the club, when Tom Cruise starts off idly looking for tails and giving Foxx shit. The way Mann slowly … s l o w l y has him get very scared about how Foxx is acting, and pushes in tighter on his face …
Mann can do amazing action, like that scene in Mohicans, but what sticks for me most is when a performance is tied to a strong visual. Do you have any others?
Ryan: I know this is really random, and it’s not a set piece per se, but I really love the scene in Heat in which Pacino and Mykelti Williamson brace Ricky Harris at the stolen car lot.
This is such a Mann moment — so immersed in the world in which it’s set, dropping you out of a plane with no parachute. The shot that opens it, with everyone scattering and Harris eating takeout food, and the way Pacino and Williamson do the total cop thing where they approach from different angles, covering more territory. Then there’s the marrow of the scene itself. Who is this guy? What’s their previous relationship to him? He has a meth problem? Mann is such an adult filmmaker. He doesn’t coddle at all. We’re just expected to catch up.
Incidentally, it is my mission in my Los Angeles life to tell someone to meet me at B.J.’s, on Alvarado, at 2 a.m.
We’re talking about Foxx, we’re talking about L.A. Let’s talk about Collateral.
Lady Macbeth. Leave the Seats. The Light’s Green. We’re Sitting Here.
When Mann did some press for the 20th anniversary of The Last of the Mohicans, he talked about how a piece of folk music he used in the film was arranged to blatantly rip off Arvo Pärt’s “Perpetuum Mobile.” He admired the Pärt piece because it never resolved back into its own time.
I don’t know what that means, musically, but something about it makes sense for Mann and Collateral. That movie never really resolves back into its own time. It’s so unique. The script makes sense only superficially. There are like nine different films in here — and the most interesting one might be the story of Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg’s cops. Ultimately, though — with all due respect to Javier Bardem and Pedro el Negro — this is a two-hander, with two of the most interesting performances in either Cruise’s or Foxx’s filmography. It also marks the point at which Mann went fully Bobby Digital.
Witzke: Out of all the Mann movies, it’s a tie between Manhunter and Collateral for me. Really, it’s probably Collateral. Right at the beginning of the DVD director’s commentary, Mann says he was trying to make a movie that was only the third act of one of his previous movies.
Ryan: That’s interesting. I would say Ali begins where most sports movies end.
Witzke: Collateral is more of a “crazy night” movie, or a hit man movie. Or something like The Terminator and The Driver — “desperate people, on the street, at night in L.A.” movies. I love those movies. You’re right that it’s nine different narratives, but that never hurts the movie or makes it feel bloated. The soundtrack, too, it’s all over the map — the Paul Oakenfold song in Korean, James Newton Howard, the long detour into Miles Davis (which is clearly where Mann’s heart is), all the radio stuff in the opening …
Ryan: The Groove Armada song when Jamie and Jada are in the cab!
Witzke: And Audioslave, which is the one thing that has aged the movie, I think.
Ryan: You think!? That is basically a cinematic ejector-seat button. Don’t get me wrong — I love this movie. It’s a road movie, but they are just going in a giant circle around Los Angeles. They start downtown, go all over the city, and end up downtown. (Foxx actually flips his cab right outside of the Grantland offices.)
As a side note, the music in Mann movies is one of those fuck-or-walk propositions. You either buy into the experience or it can be really jarring. Interestingly enough, it sounds like it’s pretty crappy to work for him as a composer. Check this out, from the guy credited for the Blackhat score. I genuinely hate to hear about any wasted labor or hurt feelings on the part of a film composer. That being said, when Mann swings for the fences, musically — like when he drops Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” in Heat — it’s not just a home run. It’s a religious experience.
Witzke: Because of Audioslave, and almost all the music in Miami Vice that isn’t “One of These Mornings” or “Auto Rock,” people forget stuff like “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” (AND BRIAN ENO’S “FORCE MARKER,” jee-zus).
Making music for Mann does sound miserable, though. Music must be like locations for him, where he’s talking to a Dictaphone one night, and suddenly the production is moving to Colombia the next day, and you just have to find the money.
Back to Collateral: Cruise has played the villain only one other time, and it was in a comedy. Lions for Lambs doesn’t count.
Ryan: “Yo, homie. Is that my briefcase?”
Witzke: “Lady Macbeth. Leave the seats. The light’s green.”
We haven’t talked about Mann’s punishing 50-takes-per-scene approach, which people take David Fincher to task for all the time.
Ryan: The stuff with Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of Mohicans was legendary. Mann remade Day-Lewis’s body. And it wasn’t just the actors. He had the crew transporting equipment up the sides of mountains, in North Carolina, in the middle of the summer. It sounded like Fitzcarraldo or something.
Witzke: Maybe he gets off the hook because there’s a certain amount of improvisation in the filmmaking, especially from Collateral forward. In this film, he’s always moving, he’s gone to play with Tony Scott, he’s using multiple cameras at all times. More than that, you can see the level of performance he gets from actors. What he brings out of Cruise is right up there with Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia. He is a movie star, but it’s all turned inside and poisoned. I mean, his frustrated “I DO THIS FOR A LIVING” is the perfect distillation of Mann. Professionalism as lifestyle, as weapon.
So do you think the shift to digital was a good thing for Mann?
Ryan: It has certainly paid diminishing dividends, right? Collateral is some kind of weird masterpiece. It is almost entirely a nocturnal movie, and I don’t know how he could’ve made it any other way. But as we go on — and this is one of the hardest things I’ve tried to articulate — he just kind of loses … his narrative fastball? I don’t think I’ve been more excited for a film in my adult life than I was for Miami Vice. It plays a lot better now, but I just remember being on the verge of tears during the Gong Li dance sequence. Not in a good way.
Do I like the digital stuff? I like that he’s making a choice, and not just dabbling so that he can have an endless amount of takes. This is definitely the way he wants to show the world. It’s how he sees. It’s like when you talk about latter-period Paul Thomas Anderson. Do I like that he went widescreen? Well, I like that he made There Will Be Blood; the widescreen is the way he chose to tell the story. With Mann, I wish the stylistic detour (is it even a detour anymore? Isn’t this just what he does?) came with films as satisfying as Manhunter, Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral.
You Cannot Negotiate with Gravity
Talk to me about whatever inherent value there is in Vice.
Witzke: I remember seeing Miami Vice for the first time and just feeling like I didn’t understand it, or any of the decisions in it. A lot of that is Colin Farrell. He’s really there in only two or three scenes, just coasting through the rest of the movie. It is a movie that sucks if you’re expecting this:
It’s a different thing. It’s crazy to see how the film has gone from something everyone dismissed to ground-floor cinephilia for people my age. You screen-cap Zodiac on Tumblr, and you love the theatrical cut of Miami Vice — those are prerequisites, before you can have an opinion about Godard, these days.
Ryan: That is kind of delightfully shocking to hear.
Witzke: It’s the only movie that uses digital photography that way, because the technology was in its infancy. They don’t make cameras that do those things anymore. Collateral looks like other movies; Miami Vice looks like nothing else. Antonioni’s Red Desert, maybe? Strange Days? Neither of those are close enough. Those huge purple skies hanging over the character’s heads? The enormous tree in the cartel boss’s window? You can’t discount the beauty.
Jamie Foxx, too — I know he was a big problem on the set, because he had just won the Oscar and wouldn’t get on boats, or fire a gun, or whatever. But I love him in it. Farrell and Gong Li doesn’t always work, but when it matters? In that last 10 minutes? They have me. The two of them at dawn, the shot of that tree through the window in the empty bungalow gives me chills.
You might be on to something with the style overtaking the strength of the stories, because Miami Vice even at its best is barely a story. Public Enemies … I don’t know. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. It definitely isn’t a movie that grabs you with its story, is it?
You Wanna Know If We’re Armed? We’re Armed.
Ryan: No, certainly not. The music gets really distracting in this — the Kid Rock shit that plays when Christian Bale is hunting down Channing Tatum just totally rips you right out of the moment. Not everything needs to be “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” but it’s hard to stomach some karaoke Shooter Jennings track when you’re actually buying into this beautiful, unique, jittery, digital vision of this world.
There are so many extraordinary visual moments — like the telephone exchange scene, in which Bale and Rory Cochrane are listening to a prewar version of the wiretap and all the lights are flashing — but the script is just a disaster. It’s just all exposition, except for the John Dillinger–Billie Frechette relationship. The romantic couplings in Mann movies are distractions for me, usually. The Johnny Depp–Marion Cotillard partnership never takes off, and they get a lot of clock in this movie. Public Enemies literally has EVERY ACTOR IN IT — Tatum, Carey Mulligan, Stephen Dorff, Jason Clarke, Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi — and there’s hardly a highlight worth putting on SportsCenter from any of them. Something blanketed this whole movie. There’s just no spark to it.
Witzke: Yeah, Public Enemies is Mann doing a digital, handheld take on traditional material. It’s John Milius’s Dillinger, with movie stars. The music never clicks, except for the Elliot Goldenthal tracks. I love Cotillard’s scenes without Depp, and she’s in a better movie, in some scenes. Depp is game, but the script doesn’t service him, and I don’t think he’s at his Ed Wood level, after a decade or so of coasting. I imagine Depp decided to work with Mann because he saw himself as Pacino in ’95, but there’s no weight behind his actions.
Mann might have had some idea on his mind about the death of a certain kind of freedom, and the sectioning off of people’s lives as information — both Frank Nitti’s big chalkboards and the FBI’s operator’s terminal are symbolic of the Internet — but he never pushes past that.
It looks amazing, and the stuff in the woods, where it’s Dante Spinotti restaging Vittorio Storaro’s shots from The Conformist, only at night … that’s the juice.
You have to think that Mann, at this point in his life, is more like Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis than Depp’s Dillinger. He’s doing what he has to, getting on the phone with his superiors and saying, “These men won’t do the job.” The ending plays Dillinger’s death as tragedy, and undercuts the birth of celebrity culture by showing a title card about Purvis’s suicide. He doesn’t even show it on camera; he just dumps it there. I’m hoping going into Blackhat, he attacks the networks-are-traps theme harder. I’m optimistic. It looks like a meathead Boarding Gate.
Ryan: Well, hell. Now you got me excited.
Sean Witzke (@switzke) is a writer and cohost of the Travis Bickle on the Riviera movie podcast.