If it is true, as Jean Renoir said, that a director makes only one movie, then Michael Mann makes the one I don’t just want to watch, it’s the one I want to live in. Perhaps you have seen it: It is the story of the night and the city and the men who inhabit it — professionals to the core who operate on instinct, sometimes living inside the law, but more often indifferent to it. They will meet on rooftops or in desolate industrial expanses to suss out the terrain, plotting their next move, while the low rumble of an electric guitar sounds in the distance. Inevitably, there will come a woman, and with her the momentary illusion of a “normal” life. And just as inevitably, that hoped-for bliss will prove as out of reach as Proust’s dream of fair Albertine. This is not always the story, for Michael Mann has made a historical epic about the French and Indian War (The Last of the Mohicans), a supernatural fable set in the waning days of World War II (The Keep), and a fine, underrated biopic of Muhammad Ali. Yet even those films are finally portraits of solitary men on a mission, the last exponents of some dying way of life. This is as true of Hawkeye the Mohican as it is of the journalist Lowell Bergman, the subject of The Insider (1999), who is willing to sacrifice himself to protect his source. Surely, if Mann had lived at the time of his namesake, director Anthony Mann (no relation), he would have been a master of noirs and Westerns. Now he is the maker of such films reconceived as existential urban tragedies.
What I am describing here is not some adolescent when-men-were-men fantasy (on my part or Mann’s), but rather the sense of profound symbiosis between the content of a film, its form, and the personality of its maker. It’s the feeling that a movie isn’t just telling a story, but expressing a fully realized sensibility about the world and the motives of human behavior. This is the experience you get watching the movies of the directors Mann names as his influences — Dreyer, Murnau, Eisenstein — and of several others he does not mention but whose presence is nonetheless felt: Bresson, Peckinpah and Jean-Pierre Melville. And it is a feeling that courses through Mann’s own work. Few in American movies have delivered more consistently exciting picture shows over these past 25 years, or done so with such relative anonymity. Though he is their contemporary, Mann is not typically mentioned in the same breath as Coppola and Scorsese and the other enfants terriblesof the New American Cinema, in part because he did not make his first theatrical feature until 1981. He has only once been nominated for the directing Oscar (for The Insider). And he may be the only major American filmmaker whose greatest popular success thus far has been on television. I am referring, of course, to Miami Vice, the trendsetting 1984-89 series on which Mann served as executive producer and resident stylistic guru. Indeed, if you lived in South Florida in the 1980s, as I did, it was hard to tell whether the show was more influenced by its location or the other way around.
Now Miami Vice is a feature film written and directed by Mann, though a less reverent small-to-big-screen transfer can hardly be imagined. There are no pink flamingos or white linen suits to be found here, and the pastel picture-postcard vistas of the 1980s have given way to steely expanses that are like etchings on metallic plates. Even detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) have evolved, as they find themselves confronted with a new generation of kingpins who are to yesterday’s Pablo Escobar what Wal-Mart is to the mom-and-pop corner market. Says Mann: “In a postmodern globalized world, there is no criminal organization locked to a geographical place producing one commodity, like cocaine. Now, if you’re running a transnational criminal organization, you’re a master of tubing, down which anything can move: pirated software, frozen chickens out of Russia, Ecstasy from Holland.”
By Mann’s own admission, the dynamic between the old Vice and the new is “a profound connection and no relationship whatsoever, at one and the same time.” And that suits him just fine, for Michael Mann doesn’t like to repeat himself. “I like change. I don’t like being in the same room for too long,” he says in fast, clipped diction and a flat Chicago accent that’s been little dulled by three decades of living in Los Angeles. “That’s why a two-year period making a movie is perfect for me, and that’s why, after two years, I basically tried to substitute other folks for myself on Miami Vice [the TV show]. I said to myself: ‘I’m here trying to help folks making these little movies — why aren’t I directing?’ So I went off and made Manhunter (1986).”