The Mann Who Would Be King: a look at the career of Michael Mann (part two)

The Mann Who Would Be King: a look at the career of Michael Mann (part two)

Michael Mann started the 90s in top form – and somehow got better.

Picking up from where we left off, Mann had just secured a second Emmy and had directed a bona-fide Oscar-winning hit in the shape of ‘The Last Of The Mohicians’, but there was always one project that Mann wanted to return to.

In 1989, he directed a television movie called ‘LA Takedown’ which we briefly touched upon last time, and this TV movie of course became the basis for ‘Heat’.

‘LA Takedown’ is very much the first draft of ‘Heat’, but there are the bones of something truly special in this modest TV movie.

The famous diner showdown is pretty much 1:1 in the TV movie and final film, with the only difference being the actors in the movie happen to be Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

Mann was given his biggest budget to date for ‘Heat’, and no stone was left unturned in the production process to make his film the ultimate crime saga.

Taking a cue from Friedkin, ‘Heat’ would be almost documentary-like in its presentation and realism, which involved the cast undergoing military-style training under the guidance of former SAS man Andy McNab.

It shows on screen, and it helps transform ‘Heat’ from a mere cops-and-robbers tail from idle boyhood fantasy to a flat-out cinematic masterpiece.

As Vincent Hanna himself would say, “this crew is good”.

Drop of a hat, these guys will rock and roll

There is nothing we can say about ‘Heat’ that hasn’t been said a million times before.

‘Heat’ is the favourite film of pretty much any film fan, and occupies a similar slot in the culture as ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ as a film that everyone agrees on as being great.

The film is an encapsulation of what Mann does best – taking the cops and robbers tropes and garnishing them with an incredible level of depth and realism.

The big pull of ‘Heat’ is the appeal of seeing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro face off, as the pair had never shared a scene together up until that point.

‘Heat’ is Mann giving a clinic in character building, drama and establishing the stakes, so by the time Pacino and De Niro stop to grab a coffee together, you are on the edge of your seat.

The diner scene is the finest bit of writing in Mann’s career, and while Mann gets a lot of credit for being an incredibly good director of action, his writing chops are equally as good.

Mann’s writing exists somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Paddy Chayefsky, where the minor details of the crime life are embellished with deep ruminations on the human condition.

‘Heat’ was sizeable hit upon release, but bizarrely failed to gain any Oscar nominations.

The 1995 Oscars saw a face-off between ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Braveheart’ in Best Picture with ‘Babe’ also sneaking in as the underdog, but again, ‘Heat’ received ZERO Oscar nominations.

In a year where ‘Batman Forever’ got Oscar nominations in the Sound and Cinematography categories, the omission of ‘Heat’ in those categories is even more baffling.

‘Heat’ was put out by Warner Brothers, and they positioned it as a film they could release around Christmas and let it run in cinemas in the weeks leading up to nominations and Oscar voting.

This trick worked for ‘JFK’ in 1991, securing 8 Oscar nominations and 2 wins in the process, but ‘Heat’ was merely a modest box office hit at the time and reviews were not overwhelmingly positive.

Indeed, it would be the advent of DVD and repeated TV viewings that helped elevate ‘Heat’ into the “beloved film” category, just like ‘Shawshank Redemption’ before it.

The DVD era helped bring the cinema closer to home than ever before, and anyone who has ever watched ‘Heat’ on a Saturday night in their living room with the sound turned up can attest to the shootout scene as being the best workout you can give your TV speakers.

For the famous shootout scene in downtown LA, Mann put on a technical masterclass, dropping microphones all over the set instead of dubbing it in post-production.

The shootout scene in ‘Heat’ is as loud and visceral as Godzilla slamming their car door, and to this day, it is still the film we use to test out headphones.

It can be argued that the cultural acceptance of ‘Heat’ was a factor in ‘The Departed’ taking home the Oscar for Best Picture in 2007 was a sign that the crime film with genre elements had become malleable to Oscar voters in a way that ‘Heat’ wasn’t back in 1995.

On the Oscar front, it is difficult to tell if ‘Heat’ being snubbed by the Oscars stung Mann, but it may well have been a factor in him dropping the crime elements for his next movie – a taut thriller about whistleblowing in the tobacco industry.

Inside Job

The cliches about journalists are true – we love movies about our job being done well.

Movies like ‘Spotlight’ and ‘All The Presidents Men’ paint our job as a ‘Rocky’ style struggle where we triumph.

‘The Insider’ is perhaps the very best journalism movie because it shows another part of the coin – sometimes, journalism is an incredibly messy job that doesn’t end once you hit publish or finish the edit.

The movie tells the true story of Jeffery Wigand, a whistle-blower on his old tobacco company Brown & Williamson, and how his life unravels as the story goes under the spotlight.

Russell Crowe secured his first Oscar nomination for his role as Wigand, and in stark contrast to his Oscar-winning role just one year later in ‘Gladiator’, Crowe is a sensitive soul that is wrestling with his demons.

Wigand knows that by putting the story out there and by going on the record he is risking his reputation.

Most journalism movies treat the source as a literal deus ex machina and are forgotten about so it can give journalists their heroic moment, but ‘The Insider’ makes the source the star of the story.

Al Pacino reunited with Mann for ‘The Insider’, and it ranks among his very best performances.

Pacino is the steely-eyed and determined producer for the television show ’60 Minutes’ (think the American version of ‘Prime Time’) who has been has made it his personal business to make sure Wigand’s story is told.

‘The Insider’ is an impeccably directed, written, acted and edited drama that ranks among Mann’s very best work.

The film is the polar opposite of ‘Heat’ in a lot of ways – there are no guns or exciting car chases – and the most tense sequence comes early on in the film where Pacino and Crowe are sending faxes back and forth.

Mann shoots the sequence with all the intensity and urgency of ‘The Battle Of Algiers’, and only Michael Mann could make two people standing over fax machines incredibly tense and exciting to watch.

The closest the film has to an action set-piece is a courtroom showdown in Mississippi where acclaimed character actor Bruce McGill chews out a lawyer who dared to object one too many times.

It is rather telling that Mann had to drop the “cops and robbers” style of storytelling and adapt a real-life story to receive attention from the Academy, but it paid off.

While the film was a flop at the box office (as a hilarious side note, the film was put out by Disney of all companies, meaning that Jeffery Wigand can and should show up in the next ‘Avengers’ film) but the film secured 7 Oscar nominations, including 3 for Mann.

Mann secured 3 personal nominations, including a nomination for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Any awards season hound will know that the 1999 Oscars were among the most competitive ever, and ‘The Insider’ went home empty-handed as ‘American Beauty’ was the big winner of the night.

‘The Insider’ went 0 for 7 on Oscar night, and indeed this would be the last time Mann ever got close to the directing or screenplay categories.

Mann would receive a nomination at the 2004 Oscars for producing ‘The Aviator’, a film he was set to direct before making way for Martin Scorsese, but Mann hasn’t troubled the Oscars since.

‘The Insider’ was Mann’s best shot of an Oscar, and while we hope ‘Ferrari’ gets him a late-career nomination, it is a shame the film had to lose to ‘American Beauty’ of all films.


Just two years later, Mann was back with ‘Ali’, and helped anoint Will Smith as a major movie star.

Smith secured his first Oscar nomination for his performance as the iconic boxer Muhammad Ali, and ‘Ali’ is a sight more interesting than other sporting biopics of the time.

Making a Muhammad Ali biopic would be a lay-up for any director, and it would be incredibly easy for someone to make the ‘Walk Hard’ style biopic about how he came to be the greatest sporting athlete of all time, but Mann takes a different approach with ‘Ali’.

Mann delves into the political and cultural aspects of what made Ali such a seismic figure in culture, showing how he used poetry and rhymes to throw off his opponents, and most crucially, how Ali became a figurehead of the anti-war movement in 1960s America.

There was a furious battle between Spike Lee and Michael Mann to tell the story of Ali, with Mann winning out, and the finished product is unquestionably Mann.

Will Smith secured his first Oscar nomination for 'Ali'

Lee, justifiably, believed that a black filmmaker should have been the one to tell the story, but Mann was more interested in telling the story of Ali the man more than Ali the fighter.

In a 2002 piece with The Guardian, Mann said “I make films for myself. I have total creative control over what I do. I don't have a history of trying to please people."

“Part of the discipline of making a motion picture is to stay on-message. It would be catastrophic to divert into every interesting story. Everything this guy does is fascinating. I could have made an entire movie about Ali's relations with women. Music, Cadillac convertibles and women. It would have been great."

Mann honing in on Ali the political figure is what elevates the film above other sporting biopics.

This approach didn’t necessarily please audiences, with the film failing to recoup its $110 million dollar budget at the box office, but it did secure Oscar nominations for stars Will Smith and Jon Voight.

With ‘The Insider’ and ‘Ali’ costing a combined $200 million to make and neither film turning a profit, Mann set about to make a film that could be an unambiguous blockbuster.

Collateral Damage

By the mid-2000’s, Dreamworks had established itself as something of a safe haven for auteurs who otherwise couldn’t get a film made elsewhere.

The studio was undone by in-fighting and differing ideologies between founders David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg, but was still able to attract major directors to work for them.

As documented in Nicole Laporte’s 2010 book ‘The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks’, Dreamworks was falling apart at the seams by the time ‘Collateral’ was being made.

‘Collateral’ and ‘Red Eye’ represent the kind of film ‘Dreamworks’ were the best at making: two legendary genre directors in the form of Michael Mann and Wes Craven directed scripts by someone else and delivered straight-down-the-middle thrillers aimed at the Friday night cinema crowd.

‘Collateral’ is notable as being one of the only films of Mann’s career that he also didn’t write, yet the film is undoubtedly a Michael Mann film in terms of tone and character beats.

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx were chosen to anchor the film, after the initial two choices of Russell Crowe and Adam Sandler fell through.

Indeed, it was Crowe’s near-casting in the film that got Mann on board, with Mann intrigued by the premise.

‘Collateral’ is notable alongside ’28 Days Later’ as being one of the earliest Hollywood films to be shot on digital cameras as opposed to film.

Digital cinematography is now commonplace in Hollywood, but the cinematography in ‘Collateral’ is cutting-edge for the time.

Mann was an early proponent of shooting on digital, and seeing as all of the action of ‘Collateral’ takes place at night, Mann figured that digital was the best way to capture the light of Los Angeles.

‘Collateral’ represents Mann’s boldest stride as a filmmaker, and considering how Mann practically made neon a character in his directorial debut ‘Thief’ and in the ‘Miami Vice’ TV series, ‘Collateral’ was Mann showing he was still willing to experiment as he entered his 4th decade as a director.

Despite not being scripted by Mann, all the major thematic Mann elements are there.

Two men who are diametrically opposed to each other on a fundamental level form an uneasy alliance which later falls apart.

Mann is able to conjure up tension based on two people talking, and remains among the best directors who can change the temperature of a scene on a whim.

Tom Cruise is at his movie star best in ‘Collateral’ as Vincent, the Terminator-style hitman with an affinity for jazz music.

Cruise speaks in riddles for the movie and looks incredible while doing it.

In 2004, Tom Cruise was at the height of his fame, and was so happy with how he looked in the film he got his passport photo renewed dressed as his ‘Collateral’ character.

Cruise Control: The star is at his best in 'Collateral'

The films co-lead Jamie Foxx had a miracle 2004, taking home an Oscar for his role in ‘Ray’ and secured a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Max.

Cruise and Foxx make for a fantastic on-screen duo, but like all Mann films, the strength in the films lies in the bench.

Stars like Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem and Jada Pinkett Smith make up the films supporting cast, with great character actors like Bruce McGill, Barry Shabaka Henley and Emilio Rivera helping flesh out the world.

At the turn of the century, Mann assembled an army of tremendous actors to work for him.

Stars like Jeffrey Wright, Ron Silver, Joe Morton and Giancarlo Esposito are among the supporting cast in ‘Ali’, ‘The Insider’ had great character actors like Phillip Baker Hall, Stephen Tobolowsky, Rip Torn, Michael Gambon, Gina Gershon and Debi Mazar fill out the ranks.

There are many factors that make a Mann film, but one of the key signs is the cast being made up of actors you vaguely recognise.

Christopher Nolan is an avowed fan of Michael Mann, and his casting of the likes of Eric Roberts and Jeffery Donovan in his films feels like a tip of the hat to Mann - casting a character actor we've seen in dozens of other movies or TV show to help get the viewer onside.

‘Collateral’ is still Michael Mann’s biggest hit adjusted for inflation, and it helped dispel the belief that Mann made films that couldn’t turn a profit.

With this momentum, Mann went home.

I’m A Fiend For Mojitos

At the premiere of ‘Ali’ in 2001, Jamie Foxx approached Michael Mann and pitched him on the premise of doing a ‘Miami Vice’ remake with him as Tubbs.

With a newly-minted Oscar star in tow, and an interest in 80s culture spurred by the success of ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’ at play, it seemed like a sound financial decision to give Michael Mann a $140 million dollar budget to make a film version of ‘Miami Vice’.

Add in Colin Farrell into the mix as Crockett and presumably, studio heads could hear the cash registers ringing.

The production of ‘Miami Vice’ has gone down in film history as a production as tortured and arduous as 'Apocalypse Now’, but in truth, it was closer to ‘Aguirre, Wrath Of God’ with the star and director having an epic falling out.

In this instance, Jamie Foxx was Klaus Kinski and Michael Mann was Werner Herzog.

Jamie Foxx demanded top billing and a $12 million dollar payday in light of his Oscar win, to which his co-star Colin Farrell graciously suggested taking a pay cut and ceding top billing to Foxx.

Foxx later stormed off set and failed to play ball with Mann (which is odd as Foxx was the person who championed the film to begin with) but the problems didn't stop with Foxx.

By 2006, Colin Farrell was in the middle of his auteur streak, working with such legends like Terence Malick, Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg as he became one of the most in-demand leading men in Hollywood.

In a 2010 interview with Total Film, Farrell admits that he wasn’t too fond of the finished product calling it “style over substance” and felt the film should have been more of a ‘Lethal Weapon’ style buddy comedy.

Farrell has been open about his addictions over the years, telling Ryan Tubridy in 2013 that ‘Miami Vice’ was the tipping point for him to go to rehab.

“I was at the premiere and didn’t know what was happening next. But it was strange because I was in it.

“The movie was Miami Vice. The second it was finished I was put on a plane and sent to rehab as everyone else was going to the wrap party.”

He separately told the Irish Independent in 2017 "I had just had it, man. I was done. For a long time I put the brakes on. For a long time. I could go mad for three, six months, and then I could pull back for a few months to try to re-enter the atmosphere. I couldn't find the handbrake."

Along with these issues with the stars, the filming was no picnic either.

Owing to Mann’s affinity for realism, the film was shot in real-life hostile environments, which resulted in a gunfight near the set of the film in the Dominican Republic.

Per a report from the time by The Guardian, “the unnamed soldier, part of a team assigned to provide security for the Jamie Foxx- and Colin Farrell-starring movie, was standing guard outside the hotel when he was approached by Mario Torres, 44, who pulled out a pistol and fired several shots. The soldier responded with one shot, which hit Torres in the side. Torres is in stable condition at a Santo Domingo hospital.”

The incident was so serious the government of the Dominican Republic had to get involved.

"The Dominican Republic is being put on the world map with future film shoots and this type of act affects our image," culture minister Jose Rafael Lantigua said at the time.

A dramatic mountain top finale that was planned to be shot in Paraguay was canned because star Jamie Foxx walked off the set, which forced Mann to come up with a new ending on the fly.

One of the very best pieces of film journalism is Kim Masters’ 2006 Slate article “Fleeing The Scene” which features Mann going on the record about the difficulties the production faced.

One of the major difficulties the production faced was Hurricane Wilma hitting Florida just before filming started, which forced Mann to use his production expertise to smooth over any potential problems.

"Michael was able to regroup in a week and restage the entire finale. … Any other director would just have to sit and figure it out, - but for Michael’s indomitable bullheadedness, it would have been much worse," an executive is quoted as saying in the piece.

With all the problems the film faced, it’s a minor miracle the film was even released at all.

The film split critics and audiences, with a strong opening weekend followed by a strong drop-off.

‘Miami Vice’ is the most polarising film in the Mann catalogue, with some hailing it as Mann’s masterpiece, while others calling it a self-indulgent mess that makes no sense.

The film has attained a major online following in recent years, and it is easy to see why people have become drawn to it.

‘Miami Vice’ is chaotic and messy in a way that studio films aren’t anymore, and despite this, it is very clearly the work of an auteur with a singular vision.

The Dillinger Escape Plan

Following the chaos that was ‘Miami Vice’, Mann decided to play it relatively simple for his next film.

He would return to his hometown of Chicago to tell the story of one of the cities great characters, John Dillinger.

Dillinger is one of the most famous bank robbers in history, and a project like this seemed like a slam dunk for Mann.

A historical project, based in his hometown and starring a still-bankable Johnny Depp is a sure-fire project for any director, and it largely works on those grounds.

Depp is compelling as John Dillinger, helping bring one of the most infamous figures of American history to life, while Christian Bale is taking entire chunks out of the scenery as FBI agent Melvin Purvis.

Oscar winner Marion Cotillard was tapped to play Dillinger’s girlfriend Evelyn Frechette, but her agency and command of the English language was not the strongest.

Just one year later, she was able to pull off an American accent in ‘Inception’, but in ‘Public Enemies’, the French accent slips in and out, which drags the viewer out of the film.

The core cast is pretty solid, with Depp and Bale enjoying a Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in ‘The Fugitive’ style back-and-forth, but the biggest sin ‘Public Enemies’ commits is the film isn’t quite as compelling as the premise would have you believe.

The film explores Dillinger the man, which is a good approach if you want to make the audience familiar with the man behind the legend, but when the core appeal of seeing Dillinger do his thing is left on the table, interest tapers off quickly.

‘Public Enemies’ was a hit and turned a profit, but is perhaps the most forgettable of Mann’s big screen efforts.

A Hat On A Hat

Between 2009 and 2015, Mann returned to the world of television, playing a major hand in producing ‘Luck’, a series based on the world of horse racing.

With the show created by ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘Deadwood’ creator David Milch and boasting stars like Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in the cast, ‘Luck’ was a chance for Mann to reshape television just like he did all those years earlier.

The Mann-directed pilot is pretty solid, and the Milch script is just as biting and weighty as you’d expect.

The show wasn’t a hit by any metric, with low viewership and a tepid critical response, but controversy would soon overshadow ‘Luck’.

The 2010’s were an interesting time for HBO, who were scrambling to find a hit after ‘The Sopranos' went off the air and threw mountains of cash at major directors and writers in an attempt to become the next hit.

‘Luck’ represents the nadir of HBO’s pretensions, with the series cancelled after one season after multiple concerns were raised about the safety of horses on set.

Three horses died on the set of ‘Luck’, and the series has been all but forgotten in the annals of HBO history, as ‘Game Of Thrones’ quickly swept any negative publicity away with it’s blockbuster status.

As for Mann, his next film didn’t seem to have much luck either.

Blackhat’ is far and away the biggest box office bomb of Michael Mann’s career, and yet it boasts an appealing premise.

Chris Hemsworth plays a computer hacker tasked with stopping a series of hacking incidents that threaten to disrupt the public order, and if you think Michael Mann is not the right director to tackle a techno-thriller with hacking scenes, you would be 1000% right.

‘Blackhat’ has its charms, and the premise of Chris Hemsworth as an absurdly handsome computer hacker is a fun one, but ultimately the film is maybe the only film in Michael Mann’s career that could have been directed by anyone else.

Many of Mann’s films have been reclaimed over the years, with Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri a champion of the film, but ‘Blackhat’ is perhaps the film that will make general film fans take pause and say “Michael Mann directed that?”

The film made less than $20 million of its reported $70 million+ budget, and to date, the film remains Mann’s final film to be released in cinemas.

‘Blackhat’ served as Mann’s final directorial job for a number of years, only returning to the fold by directing episodes of the Apple TV series ‘Tokyo Vice’ earlier this year.

Mann is currently hard at work on a Ferrari biopic starring Adam Driver, and just this week, ‘Heat 2’ will hit Irish bookshelves.

In the pantheon of directors, Michael Mann will go down in film history as the director who brought realism, grit, and style to the crime genre.

He'll also be remembered as the director who opted to open his movie with 'Numb/Encore' by Linkin Park and Jay-Z.