By Sherrie Li
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In all of Mann's work, there's a tug between his pulp instincts and the sort of heroic individualism that can elevate pulp into something more, something beyond viscera and genre convention. For Mann, the apotheosis of these two propulsive impulses was The Last of the Mohicans, which blasted the dust off a 19th-century classic with breathtaking 20th-century force. Mann tried to locate something similarly heroic in Heat, in which Pacino's master cop faces down De Niro's master thief, wasting ammunition and talk along the way. But while there's plenty of pulp in this exercise in style, heroism -- and meaning -- is nowhere to be found, just beautiful, tough men and violence so charged with eroticism that a shootout doesn't feel simply dangerous, it feels like foreplay. In the end, Heatcollapses into a void of meaning, the kind that opens up when a director's talent outstrips his material. The Insider is a superior film, and in certain crucial scenes, it's also more thrilling -- Crowe and his character's metamorphosis alone give it reason for being. But in taking on an important topic, in finding a subject again worthy of his talents, Mann made the mistake of thinking that corporate greed and harnessed righteousness were enough excitement for one movie. He quieted his own excesses, and denied us the possibility of Michael Mann at his own extravagant best.
Which doesn't make the film a disappointment, only something short of a triumph. As far as the rest of it, The Insider has the glorious look and immaculate technique we expect from Mann, along with a wealth of superb secondary performances. Plummer's fiendish read on Wallace makes it hard to imagine ever looking at the newsman with a straight face again; there's an especially delicious moment when we catch the cathode celebrity transfixed by one of his own interviews, a self-indulgent smile clinging to his lips like powdered sugar. Colm Feore and Bruce McGill, as a pair of Southern lawyers, are terrific, as is Diane Venora, who as Wigand's wife gives substance to another one of Mann's anemic female characters. It's maddening, or maybe just a sign of his perversity, that a director as good at catching the rhythms of ordinary male-female intimacy would consistently fail to create roles for women as richly expressive as those he hews for men. At least Howard Hawks, the filmmaker to whom Mann seems most intuitively connected, in terms of both his sheer professionalism and his abiding interest in male relationships, could occasionally conjure up a female character who wasn't a shrew or, worse, didn't vaporize into triviality. It may be a Mann's world, but that's still no excuse.
THE INSIDER | Directed by MICHAEL MANN | Written by MARIE BRENNER, ERIC ROTH and MANN | Based on an article by BRENNER | Produced by PIETER JAN BRUGGE and MANN | Released by Buena Vista | At selected theaters
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