Technology with attitude

Viewer Blues, or: Why Director Michael Mann Needs to Make Good Movies Again


From 1981 through 1999, filmmaker Michael Mann was the heir apparent to the great French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville.  Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider.  All of these evince the same discipline: shifting moral/thematic landscapes within tightly controlled visual aesthetics and narrative structures.  Think James Caan in Thief destroying his life to gain personal freedom, or The Last of the Mohicans‘ elegiac final battle between Magua and Chingachgook, or Russell Crowe’s third-act meltdown in The Insider, a last-ditch effort to reconcile the reality of his post-whistleblowing life with his intended reality.  These moments crystallize the indefinable—the ambiguity at the cop/criminal divide, colonialism’s effect on racial divisions, the ethics of truth-telling—into story momentum; I defy you to find a wasted moment or unnecessary character in the aforementioned films.

2001 saw Ali; ostensibly a docudrama of boxer Muhammad Ali’s rise and fall, Mann eschewed biopic conventions for something more impressionistic.  Mann began experimenting with digital camerawork, resulting in a harsher, less composed aesthetic than his previous films.  The film only spans ten years, from Ali’s 1964 bout against Sonny Liston through the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman in 1974.  Furthermore, Ali (Will Smith) is less the focus of the film than the focal point for examining Mann’s main interest—America in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.

However, these unconventional filmmaking choices crater alongside the lack of narrative thrust.  Mann never gives us anything to latch onto—we think limiting the time frame might allow greater insight into how Ali prepared himself to become the greatest boxer in the world, except that with the exception of the Liston and Foreman scenes, Mann doesn’t emphasize the personal significance of Ali’s fights all that much.  We think maybe we’ll see Ali Warts-and-All, except that the behind-the-scenes interest runs subordinate to lavish recreations of Famous Moments in Ali Television History.  We even toy with the idea that Mann will show how the politics of the era affected Ali, and we get that for about forty-five minutes through Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X, but then Malcolm dies, and what we’re left with is a collection of well acted, well shot scenes that never become a movie, scenes centering around a protagonist who remains as enigmatic at the end of the film as he was at the beginning.

Unfortunately, this template has applied to Mann’s post-Ali creative phase.  Both Miami Vice and Public Enemies find Mann pushing his Ali experiments to almost-unbearable extremes.  I understand that Mann might not want to rehash the Miami Vice areas that overlap with Heat—we’re back to the thin line between good and evil—but where’s the drive here?  The movie kinda starts (the theatrical cut plops the viewer into an undercover operation well underway), plods along for a while with the occasional burst of graphic violence or gorgeous backdrop to maintain interest, crescendos in a shootout that, thanks to the fuzzy digital photography, looks like an episode of “Cops,” and then just stops. Naturally charismatic leads Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx barely register with their sub-mumblecore underplaying, and any salient points about the lifestyle germane to an undercover police operation get muddied alongside an FBI mole subplot that goes nowhere, two underwhelming love stories, and a sea of great character actors that have nothing to do and get less on-screen dialogue than Buster Keaton had in The General (Barry Shabaka Henley, Domenick Lombardozzi, Justin Theroux, John Hawkes, Ciarán Hinds, Eddie Marsan, and Isaach de Bankolé, I’m looking at you).

At least Miami Vice has a Sort-of Structure—you can sort-of see where the beginning, middle, and end should be, even if they don’t register strongly.  In a just world, Universal Studios would have titled Public Enemies, “Public Enemies: So That Happened.”  Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger breaks some friends (who we never get to know in any detail) out of prison.  They rob some banks.  Dillinger meets a girl (Marion Cotillard).  They get separated.  An incompetent federal agent (Christian Bale) infrequently trades gunfire with Dillinger.  Dillinger goes to the movies.  Dillinger dies.  We learn nothing about him (other than some adrenaline junkie subtext), or his girl, or Bale’s Melvin Purvis—these characters just drift their way towards a violent conclusion.  Public Enemies doesn’t even look good; the camerawork is so sloppy and pixilated that actual scenes from the movie look no different from the unpolished BTS footage on the Blu-ray.

If there’s any hope for Michael Mann, it lives with Collateral.  The lone masterpiece made during an otherwise colossally disappointing nine years, Collateral works because it has a strong script.  On the commentary track, Mann places the film in the same plotless context as Ali or Miami Vice or Public Enemies, calling it the third act of a longer story.  He’s right, and he’s wrong.  It is the third act for Tom Cruise’s ruthless assassin, and Mann chooses to elide many clarifying details from those imaginary first two acts…

…but the missing bits don’t matter because Cruise isn’t the star.  Jamie Foxx is, and screenwriter Stuart Beattie gives Foxx’s character a classical three-act build (Cruise takes Foxx’s meek cabbie hostage, and Foxx has to negotiate his own escape while trying to save the people on Cruise’s hit list) with a fully realized character arc (Foxx has been coasting through life, and the hostage experience provides the impetus for personal growth).  Beattie even throws in brief yet richly textured parts for the likes of Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem, Bruce McGill, and Mark Ruffalo.  Yes, there’s digital camerawork, but it doesn’t look fake the way Public Enemies does, and Mann dials way back on the amount of rough, shaky-cam footage.

Ultimately, the script saves this one from any questionable aesthetic choices—its form keeps Mann on-point and reaffirms his ability as one of our finest auteurs.  We critics denounce traditional narrative so often that we forget what results when we get no narrative.  Late-period Michael Mann, there’s your cautionary tale.

Let’s hope he gets tired of telling it.