Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Over 30 years of testosterone bottled up and studied under a fine lens...

Ranking Michael Mann
Michael Mann

Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of The Mann.

Watch enough Michael Mann films and you’re likely to become a professional of something. The Chicago filmmaker has long been a perfectionist fascinated with the lives of safecrackers, bank robbers, profilers, undercover cops, hitmen, and producers. Ever the scholar, he’s also studied the divine historical legacy of Ali, Dillinger, and the French and Indian War. It’s just his thing.

Simply put, Mann tells the stories he wants told. Which is possibly why the majority of his films are all distributed by different studios and companies. His strict conviction is something he shares with his own male protagonists, those tortured souls who act on their own accord despite the consequences that may be waiting for them.

Yet those risks explain why he’s cited as one of the greatest directors in American cinema and why his style and techniques are so often imitated. Christopher Nolan? David Fincher? Young auteurs like Nicholas Winding Refn? Most of their visual motifs (and even many of their aural cues) share a DNA with Mann’s long line of work.

Today is the 25th anniversary of his magnum opus Heat. In celebration, we’ve rounded up all of his feature-length films*, dissected ’em, and ranked each one for your leisure. It’s just you and me now, sport. And I’m going to teach you, goddamn it.

–Michael Roffman

*Know that we ultimately decided to avoid his television work, which means you won’t see his landmark small-screen wins like The Jericho Mile, Crime Story, or Miami Vice. Though, you should certainly seek it all out at some point in the future.

11. The Keep (1983)

the keep 1983 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 1 hr. 36 min. (Theatrical); 1 hr. 31 min. (VHS); 3 hr. 30 min. (Director’s Cut)

Press Release: It’s 1942, and a troupe of Nazis are sent to a storybook Romanian pass to guard an ancient, ominous, trapezoidal, and totally rad-looking fortress known solely as “The Keep.” After a lil’ Nazi awakens a mysterious force in the fortress, SS heads start exploding. So what’s a befuddled Nazi leader to do? He enlists the help of a crippled, old Jewish historian to decipher some demonic mumbo-jumbo carved on the walls. But when the old man and the monster meet, they form an alliance to get the creature out of The Keep and kill all the Nazis. Oh, and there’s a Christ-ish alien out to kill the monster, and he’s weird in bed.

Cast: Scott Glenn, Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Ian McKellen

Soundtrack: Tangerine Dream creaming all over the place. They’re billed right after Ian McKellan.

Location, Location, Location: Gunpowder gray and gorgeous Wales substituting for Romania, but most of the action is in The Keep itself, a truly stunning set built upon an abandoned quarry that Mann described as “a black monumental structure that might have been built by a medieval Albert Speer.” And it looks really cool filled with smoke, glowing silver semi-crucifixes, and pastel lasers. Plus there’s a grand finale filmed in Llechwedd Slate Caverns where smart framing and a few fans and floodlights trump all the CGI in the world.

The Brooding Man: There’s a fake-out earlier in the film, in which a brooding Jürgen Prochnow broods like William Petersen, and you think he’s gonna be the star of the film. But McKellan’s the true lead here, and he’s got a helluva crisis of conscious. If he helps the monster, he gets to be young and pretty again and all the Nazis get to be exploded. But it’ll probably lead to the end of the world. Tough call.

Sharpest Portrait:

the keep screenshot Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip: Since none of the clips of exploding Nazi heads are available online, enjoy the tease of the moody, Tangerine Dreamy opening scene…

Director’s Cut: I wish.

Analysis: It’s a feast for the eyes, but it’s hard to watch … literally. Mann disowned his follow-up to Thief after the studio chopped 10 reels out of it, and it’s the only part of his oeuvre that’s never been on DVD. The VHS, and from what I’ve been told, the recently removed Netflix stream, are worthless pan-and-scan hatchet jobs stripped of the score. Finding it in its 2.35:1 wide-screen Tangerine glory is a task (there’s an online rip of a Laserdisc, and that’s as good as it gets), but it’s worth it and shouldn’t be disowned.

It’s got everything you want from the Mann. Mood and brood in spades. Trademark visual and sonic tones that came to fruition the very next year on TV’s Miami Vice. Every shot is smothered in Mann’s ‘80s, pre-digital style. The lines between good and evil are always blurred. And the smoke monster looks awesome and probably asphyxiated the crew.

But its anguishing thinking about what the longer cut could have been. You can see how much work went into the savagely abridged and jarringly disjointed curio. What remains is a hypnotic and atmospheric monster picture that makes you wish Mann would make another horror movie.

–Roy Ivy

10. Blackhat (2015)

blackhat poster Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr. 13 min.

Press Release: Thor’s Chris Hemsworth stars as ultimate hunk Nicholas Hathaway, a furloughed convict who’s working with the Americans and the Chinese to track down a nefarious hacker who’s operating like a modern day Bond villain.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom

Soundtrack: Composer Harry Gregson-Williams called out Mann on Facebook for “slicing and dicing” his original works, concluding: “I can say nothing for certain except that I was not the author of most of what is now in the movie.” That’s nothing new, though; after all, Mann chopped the hell out of James Newton Howard’s score for Collateral, stringing it together with other compositions, and it proved worthy of the film. The same can be said here of Blackhat, which brilliantly pieces together Gregson-Williams’ works with those by Academy Award-winner Atticus Ross, who collaborated with his brother Leopold Ross and The Haxan Cloak.

Location, Location, Location: Mann gone global! The shooting itinerary reads like a goddamn James Bond flick with stops in Los Angeles, California; Hong Kong; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and at Lapangan Banteng in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Brooding Man: Simply put, Hathaway is a superhero — no different than Hemsworth’s regular 9-5 over at Marvel. He’s not only a demigod at the computer, but also in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, and medicine. Granted, that would be fine if that was his character. But Hathaway isn’t bred like Bourne or carved from years of training like Bond. Mann wants us to believe he’s another one of his Average Joes, no different than his underdog leads in Thief, Manhunter, or Heat. “I conceived of Hathaway as a guy from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago,” Mann explained to Collider. That’s great, Michael, but you wound up designing a cyborg.

Sharpest Portrait: From a visual standpoint, Mann’s decision to go fully digital is a wise move. The look of the film in daylight or late night, lit by festival candlelight or natural light, is gorgeous, an adjective long associated with a Michael Mann film. He may have lost his voice, but Mann hasn’t lost his eye for filmmaking. Case in point…

blackhat14 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Blackhat (Universal)

Essential Clip: Mann can still orchestrate a proper action scene — and there are several in Blackhat, The early morning raid sequence in Hong Kong is incredible, but who could forget the candlelit climax in Jakarta. Just gorgeous.

What Computers? “Technobabble” is one of the film’s few strengths, thanks to Mann’s exhaustive research of the culture. Read enough interviews and you’ll quickly learn that the director stuck to his principles by working with professionals in the field, specifically top heads in Washington, D.C. and notorious code writers. The problem is in the execution, in the way it hearkens back to Kevin Mack’s visual effects for Fight Club, what with all its microscopic journeys into the wiring and mainframes of each computer. As an opening shot, it was okay, but to use that as your source of tension … well, it’s not 1999 anymore.

Director’s Cut: There is one! Back in 2016, Mann premiered a re-edited 136 minute director’s cut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. What’s new? He dropped the opening nuclear reactor attack sequence to the middle of the film as he originally intended.

Analysis: Blackhat isn’t interested in being a Michael Mann film. Instead, it’s a serviceable crime thriller with the confused aspirations of wanting to be the next Jason Bourne vehicle. It’s sleek, it’s sexy, yet it’s incredibly hollow. The problem is that the film’s lead, its premise, and its supporting cast clash heavily with Mann’s trademark verisimilitude. The veteran filmmaker has made a career on crafting gritty, realistic crime dramas with tangible characters, and Blackhat may be his grandest departure yet.

–Michael Roffman and Justin Gerber

09. Public Enemies (2009)

public enemies 2009 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr. 23 min.

Press Release: Bank robberies are all the rage in the 1930s, and leading the pack is the suave John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). Hot on his trail is the relentless Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the leader of J. Edgar Hoover’s new task force. Let the bullets fly.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Billy Crudup, Stephen Lang, Stephen Dorff, and a whole lot more who will be receiving special notice below.

Location, Location, Location: Though Dillinger’s gang rampages throughout the Midwest, the majority of the movie takes place in Chicago and is filmed at many of the actual spots certain events took place. For example, the Biograph Theater was redressed to match how it looked 75 years earlier for the film’s big climax.

Soundtrack: Arguably the least memorable score in a Michael Mann film. I just watched it recently and couldn’t hum one note for you, which is disappointing considering the source. Elliot Goldenthal has had proven success with the main Mann (Heat), but his score is overshadowed here by the recurring use of the song “Bye, Bye Blackbird”. The song is performed live in the film by modern-day singer/pianist Diana Krall.

The Brooding Man: Dillinger doesn’t brood, but Bale’s play on FBI Special Agent Purvis sure does. Purvis doesn’t smile throughout the film due to the intense pressure he puts upon himself (and is put upon him by Hoover) to track down and apprehend Dillinger. Unfortunately for Bale, the character is so underwritten it begs to be asked why he agreed to do the film in the first place.

Sharpest Portrait:


Essential Clip:

No Small Parts, Only Small Actors:: Heat’s ensemble is hard to top, and they definitely win in terms of performance. However, the number of established actors with bit parts in Public Enemies is worth noting: Rory Cochrane, Matt Craven, Emilie de Ravin (Lost), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire’s Al Capone), Shawn Hatosy, Domenick Lombardozzi (The Wire), Carey Mulligan (also unknown at the time), John Ortiz (Mann’s TV Series Luck and the upcoming Blackhat), Giovanni Ribisi, James Russo, Leelee Sobieski, Channing Tatum (an unknown at the time), and Lili Taylor.

White Heat: There are so many similarities between Public Enemies and Heat that it’s distracting. Both follow men on flip sides of the coin with one a bank robber and the other a member of law enforcement. Both have big shootouts at the halfway point of the film that conclude with the death of a major villain by the hands of the film’s main officer. Both have a lead criminal fall in love with a woman who ends up complicating their lives (this argument can be made for several of Mann’s films including Thief and Manhunter). Both feature a Goldenthal score. The problem here is that the characters and events of Public Enemies don’t stick around after the credits role. The movie comes across as a pastiche of Mann’s earlier triumphs, which leads us to…

Analysis: Public Enemies is the last film Mann has made and his worst in 25 years. Although every actor gives it his or her all (especially Cotillard as Billie, Dillinger’s main squeeze), they can only rise above the source script so much. More importantly, Mann’s decision to shoot it entirely in “gritty” digital HD does not mesh well with the clean Hollywood-ready screenplay. The characters don’t connect, the story (though based on true events) never pull us in, and the action feels staged. Hopefully Blackhat will make amends.

–Justin Gerber

08. Miami Vice (2006)

miami vice 2006 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr. 14 min. (Theatrical); 2 hr. 20 min. (Unfortunate Director’s Cut)

Press Release: Remember the TV show? It doesn’t matter. Here’s a movie nobody was asking for that was better than they deserved. This time Crockett and Tubbs go deep undercover to thwart a big, bad drug lord. Crockett shouldn’t get involved with the wife of that drug lord, but that’s our Crockett. This mission is probably gonna endanger Tubbs’ girlfriend, too. Undercover cops should stay single.

The Cast: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciarán Hinds

Soundtrack: John Murphy finding that sweet spot between Tangerine Dream, Moby, and Miami Sound Machine, with Mogwai bringing it all with the piano sturm und drang of “Auto Rock”.

Location, Location, Location: The rooftops, highways, fancy houses, beaches, industrial lots, docks, freight yards, waterways, and trailer parks of The Magic City. Much of the action also heads out to sea towards Uruguay and the Dominican Republic, too.

The Brooding Men: Crockett and Tubbs, because the life of an undercover vice cop is tough stuff. Sometimes you fall for the moll of an arms dealer and have to let her go. Sometimes the Aryan brotherhood straps a bomb to your girlfriend.

The Director’s Cut: Self-destructive. Derailing. Useless. Infuriating. The theatrical cut doesn’t dilly-dally. It kicks off in a busy nightclub as Crockett and Tubbs scope for baddies and moves with an immediacy that makes us happy to catch up with it. The director’s cut eases us in with four minutes of Crockett and Tubbs racing in cleverly named “Go-fast” boats. We didn’t need the foreplay. But the biggest sin of the director’s cut comes at the climactic shoot-out, and it’s a doozy. In the theatrical cut, this outstanding verite showdown plays out with little more than the sound of gutshots, emptied clips, and some caffeinated percussion. The director’s cut sends this beautiful blowout all to hell with the misguided, unbearable inclusion of Nonpoint’s shitty, shitty, shitty take of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. This nü metal earache not only wrecks the rhythm of the shootout and yanks you out of the movie; it even fucks up the drum solo. It’s one of the worst revisions a director has ever made, and if I didn’t love Mann so much, I’d summon the ghosts of the horses he’s killed to trample him.

Sharpest Portrait:

miami vice 20061 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip:

Analysis: It never feels like a rehash of the TV series. Besides the namesake location, it barely resembles its former incarnation at all and would have worked just fine with characters named Cloppett and Sluggs. More than anything else, Miami Vice is the mojito-fiending cousin of Heat and Collateral, sharing a gene pool of saturated blue slow burns, newfound digital palettes of hypnotic nighttime colors, and vulnerable ice-cold killers. There really aren’t many “action” scenes besides the boffo ending shoot-out, but Miami Vice maintains a steely tension throughout with a neon heart beating underneath all the cool. On top of that, there’s genuine attraction and true heartache between Ferrell and Li’s doomed lovers. I’m still waiting for a sequel.

–Roy Ivy

07. Ali (2001)

ali michael mann Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr. 37 min. (Theatrical); 2 hr. 45 min. (Director’s Cut)

Press Release: The most perilous decade of Muhammad Ali’s boxing career is on full display. After winning the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, the outspoken athlete goes toe-to-toe against the United States government, the Nation of Islam, and succeeding heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and George Foreman, all amidst the Vietnam War and the escalating Civil Rights Movement.

Cast: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson

Soundtrack: Considering they nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for 1999’s The Insider, Mann once more hired composers Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke. It was a smart move on his behalf as Gerrard returned to the red carpet the following year to win the same award alongside Hans Zimmer for their score to Gladiator. Using those award-winning pipes, Gerrard truly emphasizes Ali’s magnetism and reach over his opponents, critics, and followers. Paired with Bourke’s ethereal moods, the score injects a much-needed spiritualism in many of the film’s vital scenes, especially in the later shots across Zaire.

Mann also injects various compositions by cellist Martin Tillman and leans heavily on Moby’s heartbreaking B-side, “Memory Gospel”, for a number of pivotal sequences. To represent the times, there’s a handful of scenes featuring David Elliott performing as Sam Cooke, in addition to classic works by Aretha Franklin, The Pointer Sisters, afro-pop singer-songwriter Salif Keita, and Chicago blues guitarist Mighty Joe Young (who appeared in Mann’s theatrical debut, Thief). Furthermore, both Alicia Keys and R. Kelly contributed original songs to the film’s soundtrack with the latter’s “The World’s Greatest” eventually receiving a cover by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in 2007.

Location, Location, Location: He’s known to travel for each project, but Ali really forced Mann to go nuts with his frequent flyer miles. His crew hit up stateside cities like Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City, while also taking their talents overseas to Ghana and Mozambique.

The Brooding Man: The Champ himself, of course. Unlike the majority of Mann’s leading men, Ali isn’t exactly alone in his troubles. He’s ably surrounded by his lovers, his colleagues, and his family and crew. And it’s in these interactions that we see the Ali we’ve known about for years; he’s charming, hilarious, and overtly prideful. However, there’s an unshakeable pathos to this character that surfaces in the quieter moments, whether he’s jogging through the streets of wintry Chicago or showering alone before a fight. In these little snapshots, the humanity of Ali peeks its head out, enabling the viewer to understand that behind the myth and the legend, he’s still flesh and blood like us all.

One of the more emotional scenes surfaces earlier in the film, when Ali is driving and hears about the death of his close friend Malcolm X. Smith slowly lets his reaction bleed through, and it’s so organic yet also very jarring. Up until this point, we’ve only witnessed the Ali everyone knows about from the documentaries, the headlines, and the history books. So, to see the hulking Champ breakdown like this feels quite rare — and it is. Mann exhibits dubious restraint in keeping these moments of tranquility to short gasps, but to his credit, Smith capitalizes on these subtleties and they stick with the character in much of his body language.

In fact, when he’s not shooting the shit with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, in a fantastic performance) or mouthing off to the press with a volley of jokes or a brick of statements, Smith exudes an understated fear and a resilient anger that only the viewers can see; it’s in his eyes, his lips, or his jawline. Both Mann and Smith work off this mutual understanding with the audience that goes beyond dialogue and relies more on intimate shots, calculated angles, and even particular lighting. This is a style that Mann’s admittedly applied for years, though each sequential film post-Ali — with the exception of 2004’s incredibly vocal Collateral — has placed a stronger emphasis on this polarizing medium.

Sharpest Portrait:

ali 2001 sharp Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip:

The Director’s Cut: Following its theatrical release, Mann revisited the film and pieced together a lengthier director’s cut that stripped away several minutes from the original film and replaced them with about 14 minutes of new footage. It’s not all essential stuff — nothing that expands the storyline beyond the strict timeline of 1964 to 1974 — though they do offer some rewarding context to certain conflicts and scenarios that surface later in the film. Specifically, there’s a number of scenes and extended minutes involving the ensuing problems of Ali’s family, the curious surveillance of both Malcolm X and Ali, and the relationship between Ali and Cosell. One more intriguing addition is a two-minute sequence that includes both a snippet of a new fight and a post-win discussion about Frazier’s recent loss to Foreman. It adds a little more gravity to the situation, which is what essentially this particular cut does to the entire film. Ideally, you’ll want to pick this one up.

Keep Your Eyes Open: Blink and you’ll miss a number of historical figures in the film, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr. (LeVar Burton), Maya Angelou (Martha Edgerton), American sports journalist Robert Lipsyte (David Cubitt), and even Sam Cooke (David Elliott). Since it’s a biopic of one of the most notorious athletes of all time, during arguably one of the most important moments in American history, Ali is stocked with bold names all supported with remarkable performances. Mario Van Peebles seizes the inner turmoil of Malcolm X, cleverly stepping away from the intense Academy Award-winning shadow left by Denzel Washington less than a decade prior, while the ever-reliable Mykelti Williamson brings a young Don King to life in his handful of minutes. Each particular addition helped expand the world of the ’60s and ’70s in Mann’s sophomore period piece.

Analysis: Similar to The Last of the Mohicans, Ali pushed Michael Mann out of his comfort zone and found him resorting to new tricks, which explains the liberal use of the Viper FilmStream High-Definition Camera and an expanded number of shooting locations. The problem with the film is the same conundrum that every biopic encounters: scope. There’s just not enough time for any feature-length film to encapsulate all of the struggles and details paramount to a luminary as magnificent and vast as Ali. But Ali isn’t at all interested in any part of the boxer’s life outside of what happened between 1964 and 1974, and to that effect, the film succeeds. Partly because the production isn’t just about its titular character, but the idea of perseverance and how a figure like Ali could rise above any challenge and inspire the entire world to do the same. By that accord, Mann knocked out audiences with two fists in the air.

–Michael Roffman

06. Collateral (2004)

Collateral 2004 poster

Runtime: 2 hr.

Press Release: Los Angeles cab driver Max Durocher just picked up the worst fare of his life: a sharp, fast-talking hitman named Vincent who must kill five victims before the night’s end.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill

Soundtrack: A decade before he lit up Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, composer James Newton Howard prowled those same city streets in Collateral, soaking up the midnight thriller with haunting bass, lingering tones, and his trademark strings. Although he recorded over an hour of compositions, Mann only used about 17 minutes, tailoring his score into the film’s various chase scenes. This was the first and only time Howard has worked with Mann.

Preceding Howard’s work, however, are additional compositions by Antonio Pinto and a wide array of popular music, including The Roots’ hit single “The Seed (2.0)”, Groove Armada’s pleasant “Hands of Time”, Calexico’s tropical “Guero Canelo”, and Paul Oakenfold’s hectic club number “Ready Steady Go (Korean style)”. Once more, Mann cherry picks one song to revisit throughout the film, and the winner here is Audioslave’s “Shadow on the Sun”, one of the more agreeable tracks off their 2002 debut.

collateral cruise Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Location, Location, Location: Nine years after Heat, Mann returned to the City of Angels, where he allowed the action to breathe freely across its dreary late-night streets. The flashy high-rises, the cluttered alleyways, the diverse club scene, and the lonely downtown sprawl were all game for Vincent’s deadly episodes, further magnetized by Mann’s Viper FilmStream High-Definition Camera. Working with cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, Mann vividly lensed the city’s promising yet villainous underbelly, a trait that would later resurface in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Dan Gilroy’s aforementioned Nightcrawler.

Of Wolf and Brooding Man: There are two mystery men in Collateral: Jamie Foxx’s meek cabbie Max Durocher and Tom Cruise’s forward-thinking hitman, Vincent. They’re both enabled and held hostage by their line of work; whereas Vincent sequesters his past, Max similarly couches his future. As the film surges forward, the two unravel one another in a daring game of cat and mouse. Vincent learns that Max lives “a monument” of lies, while Max calls out Vincent on his endless parade of “Twilight Zone” nihilism. This erratic symmetry elevates screenwriter Stuart Beattie’s intriguing pitch into a fascinating character study that demands further viewing.

But it’s really Vincent who’s worth studying. Max, in essence, is a rote passage of triumph, but there’s an element to Cruise’s portrayal of the surprisingly magnanimous hitman that’s still hypnotic over a decade later. He’s a perfectionist, after all, and yet he allows so many mistakes to seep through, which begs us to ask: Was that always his intention? Perhaps. There’s a moment late in the film, when the two are stopped by a coyote in the streets. It’s beautiful to Max, but sobering to Vincent, who realizes then and there that he’s no different than the animal: a wandering soul leading an empty, carnal existence. It’s something worth chewing on.

Sharpest Portrait:

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 2.06.26 PM

Essential Clip:

Alternate Casting: Beattie came up with the story for Collateral when he was 17, riding a cab home from the Sydney airport. He was 32 years old when the film finally hit theaters. That’s how long this story dates back. Because of this, the film went through a number of hands. Early on, Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact) was attached to direct, eventually tossing the script off to Spielberg’s shiny windows cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. And according to IMDB, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Spielberg himself all passed on the film.

Eventually, Russell Crowe expressed interest in Vincent’s role, which led him to tap Mann’s shoulders post-The Insider. At the time, Mann was interested in Adam Sandler playing Max, while Beattie wanted Robert De Niro. Both obviously never panned out, Crowe had other commitments, and Cruise and Maxx entered the fold. Other names that circled the Vincent role include John Travolta, Colin Farrell, and Edward Norton. At one point, Val Kilmer was attached to play Detective Fanning, but the role went to Mark Ruffalo when Kilmer couldn’t juggle this and Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Ouch.

javier bardem Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Flip the Coin: The great Javier Bardem, four years removed from his excellent performance in Before Night Falls, makes a short appearance as the Mexican cartel drug lord Felix Reyes-Torrena. It’s a bit part about four minutes tops, but he shines in the quaint time he’s given, threatening Max with a Tarantino-esque parable involving Santa Claus and his helper Pedro el Negro. There’s a mythical prowess about his demeanor — the way he hardly raises his voice and sits rather composed — that eerily previews his Academy Award-winning performance as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. The key difference is that he’s not so spooky here, but actually quite charming.

Vincent’s Guide to Life: “…make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.” Write that down.

Analysis: After nearly a decade of celluloid epics, starting from 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans and ending with 2001’s Ali, the terse and locally-invested Collateral felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s a sleek, original neo-noir thriller that’s also smart, effective, and immediate. In other hands, it could have been a forgettable crime drama, but Mann layers the film with so much panache and substance that it’s impossible to dismiss. Some might even argue it’s Cruise’s last iconic role as he would follow this up a year later with War of the Worlds, which not only tipped off the whole TomKat madness but also a string of sequels and action vehicles that continue to smash on by today. Tragically, with the exception of two nominations by the Saturn and MTV Movie Awards, Cruise was virtually ignored come awards season. In fact, it was Foxx who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 77th Academy Awards, which he lost to Morgan Freeman. It’s okay, he won Best Actor that year for being the only good thing to come out of Taylor Hackford’s unremarkable biopic, Ray. To paraphrase Vincent, there are six billion people on the planet, and I’m getting bent out of shape over one award? Red light, Mike.

–Michael Roffman

05. The Insider (1999)

the insider 1999 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr. 37 min.

Press Release: Jeff Wigand, a research chemist for a Big Tobacco company, gets canned for getting all high and mighty about cigarette additives. When shrewd 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman persuades Wigand to spill the beans in an interview, all hell breaks loose as Big Tobacco conspires to bury the interview and wreck what’s left of Wigand’s life.

Cast: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Diane Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar

Soundtrack: Mann mainstay Pieter Bourke setting his keyboard to “paranoid”; ethereal Lisa Gerrard vocalizations that we now associate with dead hobbits; ambient menacing keys that make the act of faxing documents feel intense; rollicking Spanish guitar noodles played by Gustavo Santaolalla in the key of Dread; saxophones that make you ponder your integrity as a journalist.

Location, Location, Location: Kentucky, where everything goes down, minor stuff in L.A., NYC, Israel (all for an opening scene we didn’t really need), and the Bahamas, captured in Pantones 263–316.

The Brooding Men: Crowe, carrying the weight of the world on his new facial moles, has damn good reason to brood and brood. By trying to do something right, he loses his dignity, his job, his family, and his marbles. This is a private guy forced into the public eye, his every mistake in life now sensationalized for strangers. He’s always a second away from putting that bullet he found in his mailbox into his skull. You really wanna give the guy a cigarette. Pacino gets his brood on, too. Guilty brooding for inadvertently ruining Wigand’s life and not delivering on his word. Somber brooding for the emasculation of the press.

Sharpest Portrait:

insider crowe sharp Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip:

Ouch, Pacino: When the interview finally airs unexpunged, Sharon Tiller (Lindsay Crouse) says to Bergman, “You won.” Pacino answers back with “Yeah? What did I win?” It’s a delivery that summarizes his character’s fruitless quest for truth, and he says “what did I win” requires a form of punctuation that periods and question marks can’t convey.

Analysis: Man vs. undefeatable nicotine-delivery barons doesn’t sound compelling. You know Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man won’t be publicly executed. Hell, “vape” just made the dictionary. But The Insider isn’t an anti-smoking ad or courtroom drama. It’s a Mann film about MEN doing their god-damnest to stay honorable in a world where that trait gets your phone tapped. MEN who stick their necks out for each other. MEN of their word. MEN who never fold. As a fact-based politi-potboiler, it’s got double the paranoid heat of All the President’s Men. As an evisceration of journalistic paradoxes, its savvy salvos are sharper, and shorter, than anything on Aaron Sorkin’s coke mirror. But as a Michael Mann movie, it’s proof that he doesn’t need guns for a shoot-out. Just the white-hot intensity of Russell Crowe and Al Pacino at his most volatile and sincere.

–Roy Ivy

04. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

last of the mohicans Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.

Press Release: A man who lives among Native Americans must protect an American colonel’s daughters from the Huron during the French and Indian War. A story of betrayal, action, and love, actually.

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeline Stowe, Wes Studi

Location, Location, Location: A lot has changed in New York since 1757, but its substitute is beautiful. The mountains and waterfalls of North Carolina (a.k.a. North Cackalacky to all my Carolinians out there) do their best to transport us back to the 18th century, and as far as I can tell they succeed. Keep in mind, I’m not 265 years, so I can’t say for sure. Dante Spinotti, who went on to work with Mann on Heat, is responsible for the gawjus cinematography.

Soundtrack: Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman’s epic score was unlike any music Mann featured in his movies before Mohicans. The music is light years away from Mann’s Tangerine Dream-scapes of the ‘80s, but it nearly wasn’t. An electronic score was commissioned before Mann decided to go in another direction well into the production. It was a wise choice; the movie is centuries away from his most common work, and in addition to the obvious scenery, the score reflects that. Difference tone aside, the score sweeps and stirs as the tension mounts and the love grows (check out “The Kiss”, y’all). It’s one of the best to come out of the ‘90s.

The Brooding Man: Oh, yes. Nathaniel Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) is an adapted member of a Mohican family. While he plays the part of the good son, brother, and warrior, he can’t help but be drawn to Cora (Madeline Stowe), the eldest of British Col. Munro’s daughters. The smoldering heat between the two of them is palpable, so much so that I’m using the word “smoldering” to describe it (and “palpable”, to boot).

Sharpest Portrait:

last mohicans Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip:

Silence Is Golden: The climax of Last of the Mohicans is mostly dialogue-free. With the exceptions of certain characters crying out, it’s all music and action. This is another style that pops up throughout Mann’s films, but is arguably most effective here. There are no final words for a handful of the soon-to-be-departed, but why would there be? We don’t always have a chance to say goodbye. Mann’s choice to let the pictures tell the story comes across as not only a sound decision, but the only decision.

Analysis: The Last of the Mohicans proved that Mann could escape the big city and all the crime that comes with it. Seriously, with the exception of The Keep, who knew Mann could tell a story like this? Mohicans works on every level from music to performance (especially by Studi as the brutal Magua), cinematography to Best Sound at the Academy Awards (the film’s lone nomination proved victorious), and the amazing use of North Carolina’s best asset: the Blue Ridge Mountains (among others). This remains Mann’s lone venture outside of the 20th and 21st century. Hopefully he returns one day.

–Justin Gerber

03. Thief (1981)

thief 1981 poster Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr. 2 min.

Press Release: A professional safe cracker and ex-convict is one dangerous step away from his dreams of a normal life.

Cast: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky, Willie Nelson

Soundtrack: Four years after scoring William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Tangerine Dream returned to the silver screen to paint an aural glaze over Mann’s theatrical debut, Thief. Their industrial synths and unprecedented digital instrumentation produced a score that was quite felicitous to Mann’s gritty vision. Tracks like “Igneous” or “Scrap Yard” added a little weight to the film by inferring off-screen consequences and embracing the character’s shadowed anxieties whereas an iconic composition like “Beach Theme” tossed a dire scoop of romance into the mix. It would appear that Los Angeles film composer Craig Safan was a big fan of Pink Floyd — specifically, “Comfortably Numb” — as his climactic track, “Confrontation”, bears a strong resemblance on the guitar. No complaints there; the subtle ode only heightens the tension and emotional impact of the film’s final showdown.

This rewarding marriage of sound and film would become Mann’s most striking trademark and what would ultimately sell 1985’s Miami Vice to audiences across the world. Of course, not everyone was a fan. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote in his original review, “The music by Tangerine Dream sounds as if it wanted to have a life of its own, as if it were meant to be an album instead of a soundtrack score.” And in a recent commentary track for the Blu-Ray, Caan expressed his own disdain for the group, telling Mann: “Oh, you and Tangerine Dream. Oh, boy. Headache.” To Canby’s point, he’s not exactly wrong. He’s right that the score could exist without the film — and I’ve certainly listened to it on my own accord, separate from any viewings — but there’s little arguing that the score has a parasitic relationship to the film. Without it, the world of Thief simply cannot exist.

Location, Location, Location: Sweet home Chicago! Having grown up in the Windy City, Mann understands the area well, and that respect carries over into the film, whether it’s the random cross streets that Frank radios in, the early morning portrait of Lake Michigan, or the distant industrial wastelands juxtaposed against the jewel-striped skyline. He also doesn’t shy away from making the city look like a questionable place to live, what with the endless glossy streets, the sheets of rain, and the desolate neon-lit street corners. Many of the backseat shots inside the car highlight just how scummy the downtown area appeared during the early ’80s; it was like something out of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Despite a low-budget, Mann still managed to hit the skies and travel, as there’s also a brief visit to Los Angeles, though much of the action there is contained to The Bank of California and one lone beach scene — so, consider that a preview for his future epic, Heat.

The Brooding Man: James Caan’s Frank is the quintessential Michael Mann archetype. He’s an underdog, and not even the blue-collar type, who spent the majority of his life in jail. (“State-raised,” he says at one point.) Nihilistic and self-assured, he’s an island unto himself, unwilling to let anyone or anything get in his way, which factors into the rugged masculinity that Mann tends to embrace in each of his films. Despite his veiled emotionalism, Frank is a desperate man yearning to experience a dose of normalcy, and the only way he feels he can accomplish this is by doing what he knows best: safe cracking. As he pleads to Jessie, “I have run out of time. I have lost it all. So I can’t work fast enough to catch up. I can’t run fast enough to catch up. And the only thing that catches me up is doing my magic act.” It’s this torturous character trait that Mann wants his viewers to clench and study, and not just specifically Frank but perhaps like-minded criminals in general.

Sharpest Portrait:

thief michael mann james caan Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip:

Strictly Professional: Based on the 1975 novel The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by real-life jewel thief John Seybold, Thief remained faithful to the book with its stylish procedurals, another essential hallmark of Mann. Everything looked real because it was real; the tools, the techniques, and the verbiage. Professionals were brought in as technical advisors — a practice Mann continues to champion even today — which included actual police officers (the late Dennis Farina) and recently paroled thieves (John Santucci, who appears in the film ironically as a corrupt cop). In the film’s commentary track, Mann explains that Chicago was once home to the most successful international jewel thieves across the world, while Caan insists that he worked with one of the best in the country at the time of filming.

A Stunning Prelude: Look around and you’ll recognize some familiar faces. John Belushi? Robert Prosky? Dennis Farina? These Average Joe-looking fellas all made their on-screen debuts in Thief, and most of them would go on to become regulars in Mann’s various productions –especially NBC’s Miami Vice. Aside from Willie Nelson, however, the most startling cameo by far is actor William Petersen, who plays a bouncer for a scant three seconds. It’s wild to think that he’d go on to headline Mann’s next crime thriller, 1986’s Manhunter, but hey, time’s a funny thing, right?

The Quieter Moments: One of the finest attributes of Mann’s earlier work was his patience behind the lens. So many of his wide angle shots were given generous amounts of time to breathe, allowing for a more meditative experience. Ever since he’s adopted the Viper FilmStream High-Definition Camera, he’s seemingly moved at a frantic pace that offers a sense of realism yet at a frantic pace. When revisiting Thief, or even Manhunter, it’s staggering to see how little he moves the camera at times, and there are multiple scenes composed with these tear-jerking portraits of utter magnificence. The most obvious instance is the aforementioned Lake Michigan shot, but other particular imprints include a serene moment when Frank and Jessie are sitting outside, basking in the glow of their outdoor fireplace, or when Frank’s sitting in his backyard as his wife is being escorted from their home. They may seem trivial, but in retrospect, these lengthy shots sting with emotional resonance. It’s a shame they’re sort of a thing of the past now.

thief fireplace Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Analysis: Few directors ever strike perfection on their first outing, and yet Thief remains one of Michael Mann’s strongest efforts to date. There’s a reason we’re talking about the director today, and it’s because most of his stylistic quirks have become commonplace in mainstream American cinema. Whether it’s the attention to detail, the sympathetic anti-heroes, the emotional musicality, the insistence on style, or the romanticized crime, Thief had it all and set a precedent for everything that was to come from the Chicago filmmaker. Though, much applause and credit is due to Caan, who continues to cite this as his second favorite work following The Godfather. Similar to his performance in 1974’s The Gambler, Caan’s swagger and no-bullshit attitude haunts you long after Thief’s neon blue credits dissolve into infinity. Hell, I feel like wearing a leather jacket just thinking about it.

–Michael Roffman

02. Manhunter (1986)

manhunter 1986 poster Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Runtime: 2 hr.

Press Release: Former FBI profiler Will Graham retired from the game. His gift of getting inside the heads of serial killers and grasping the thought processes of psychopaths almost sent him to the loony bin. But Jack Crawford brings him back to the game to catch the “Tooth Fairy,” a killer who strikes during full moons, offs entire families, and leaves bites (hence his media-bourne nickname, which he really doesn’t like). And during his manhunting, Graham seeks advice from a cannibalistic killer he once put away. In 1986, you hadn’t met that cannibal yet. He was way cooler in ‘86, just chewing people, not scenery.

Cast: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan

Location, Location, Location: The crew had plenty of chances to chase their biscuits and gravy with margaritas as Manhunter travels to Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, with swings into DC, St. Louis, Santa Cruz, and Chicago. But the only spots that matter: the white-and-blue drenched crimes scenes of the departed Leeds and Jacobi families, Will’s beachside home, Lecktor’s cell, and Francis Dollarhyde’s bitchin’ pad.

Soundtrack: Michel Rubini and Shriekback steering ferries of synthesizer swells across rivers of coagulated antifreeze and impending nervous breakdowns. It’s the sound of Will Graham’s brain churning. It’s the sound of a jealous Francis Dollarhyde gunning down a non-threat on his crush’s doorstep. It’s the only reason Iron Butterfly has a reason to exist. And then Red 7’s love-it-or-hate-it (but it’s in your head now, so sing it with us) “Heartbeat, heartbeat, listen to my heart beat.”

Roffman’s Addition: “Don’t forget about The Prime Movers. Never. Forget. The. Prime. Movers. #strongasiam


The Brooding Man: Take a look at this guy. You see that look in his eyes? That’s a guy who’s seen some shit. And he hasn’t just seen it all through the smoldering, laser-focused eyeballs cemented in his stoic skull. He’s seen it through the eyes of total maniacs, way post-mortem, because he’s the best fucking profiler that ever existed. He gets in the heads of killers and has a little trouble backing out once he’s got his mojo working. He’s earned the right to brood with the intensity of 1,000 James Deans.


You see that guy? He’s thinking pretty hard. And that Chicago hot dog behind him? He’s trying to make him do something he doesn’t wanna do. And that’s bad news. As you can see, the thinker’s married. And when he does stuff for that hot dog, it puts the thinker’s mental health, and his family, at risk of meeting the Tooth Fairy. Man, there’s a lot on his plate. Brood level: Brando, Burton, and Daniel Day-Lewis catching their mother cheating on God.

peterson3 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

The Manhunter is sure he’s got the Tooth Fairy. But it’s just a jogger and not the Tooth Fairy. Will played it smart, but he got outsmarted. Night joggers blow. Brood level: those rage babies from The Brood.

peterson4 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

We’ve reached Maximum Brooditude. And no matter how many times the chorus of “Heartbeat” repeats, we’ll never be safe. Sure, he made it out of this one alive, but he knows the evil that this world produces and ponders why anyone would have a wife and child there. Enjoy the breezes, the tranquilly of the waves, and whatever non-itchy bleach you use on all of your white garments for another “heartbeat” or two or thousand before the hot dog brings you another serial killer and you start hunting men again like the brooding manhunter you are. Brood Level: Michael Mann’s Manhunter.

Sharpest Portrait:

manhunter 1986 Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip:

Suck it, Brett Ratner: Filmed under the novel’s original title of Red Dragon and changed at the last minute to Manhunter because Dino DeLaurentis was a horrible man, this first foray into Thomas Harris’ land of Lector is still the best. Even if you prefer Silence of the Lambs, there’s no denying that Mann’s film trumps Ridley Scott’s dreadful Hannibal and is light years better than Ratner’s ho-hum redux. Although the new Red Dragon has its perks with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lounds, Ed Norton as Graham, and Ralph Fiennes as a sympathetic Dollarhyde, they’re no match for Mann’s mood, Petersen’s virility, Noonan’s enchanting menace, and Iron Butterfly.

Analysis: For many, especially me, it’s the quintessential Michael Mann film. With his heavy hues and synthy cues, he transforms an enjoyably pulpy crime novel into cinematic poetry. When William Petersen gets inside the killer’s head, we tag along inside his tortured noggin too, and that “think like a killer to catch a killer” hook still works nearly 30 years later. When Petersen says, “You took off your gloves to touch her, didn’t you … you son of a bitch,” you’re down the hole with him sharing this angry revelation. When the typically great Edward Norton delivers those lines in Red Dragon, you can’t help but titter.

Despite the period clothing and “Heartbeat”, Manhunter exists somewhere outside of the ‘80s. It’s the ‘80s of Mann’s invention, a place where light, shadow, meticulous angles, omnipresent soundscapes, realistic violence, and even wallpaper elevates an American police procedural into an art film your dad can enjoy, even if he doesn’t know what a jump cut is. Watching it again makes you lament the day Mann found digital cameras (clinical camerawork suits these clinical characters, and Mann never killed a horse with 35mm), and Brian Cox plays Lector like a cold bassoon, which I still prefer to Hopkins’ trumpet solos. A good climax is hard to find, both in life and in film. But you get both when William Petersen emerges from the darkness to the swells of “In a Gadda Da Vida”’s organ solo and charges through that window.

–Roy Ivy

01. Heat (1995)


Runtime: 2 hr. 50 min.

Press Release: Vincent Hanna (Pacino) leads a team of robbery-homicide detectives as they attempt to take down veteran thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) and his crew of criminals. Heat is superb.

Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Dennis Haysbert, Jon Voight, Natalie Portman

Location, Location, Location: The sunny streets of Los Angeles, so bright every bad guy needs to wear sunglasses. Or is it because they’re too cool? Both?

Soundtrack: Elliot Goldenthal is technically the sole composer, but we’ll get into those logistics in a second. First off, Goldenthal must be applauded for a score that hits all the right notes when it comes to tragedy (Hanna consoling a dead prostitute’s mother during “Of Helplessness”). Even the incidental music played during the film’s opening and when McCauley makes his final decision syncs up perfectly with the moving picture. However, you can’t talk about the film’s music without mentioning Brian Eno, whose “Force Marker” plays during the big heist, and Moby, whose cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” plays as Hanna tracks down McCauley via helicopter, as well as his own “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” as the film concludes. Here is Goldenthal’s rejected score for that same scene:

The Brooding Man: It’s an emotional shoot-out between Hanna and McCauley, but McCauley wins by a goatee. The career criminal lives by a code that has kept him alive and out of jail his entire life, but it means a life of loneliness. Things get complicated when he meets and falls in love with Eady (Brenneman). Can he live a life with love alongside a life of crime? It’s one of a dozen subplots that work in Heat.

Sharpest Portrait:

heat final shot Ranking Michael Mann: Every Film from Worst to Best

Essential Clip: The post-bank robbery shoot-out is an all-time classic, but the scene that is the movie’s selling point to cinephiles around the world is the sit-down scene at the diner between Hanna and McCauley. This marked the first time Pacino and De Niro truly shared a scene together (not counting the fade-ins and outs in The Godfather Part II), and it was understandably a big deal. It’s just a conversation about life, their jobs, and ultimately similar threats, but watching these two old thespians going one on one still hits hard 20 years later.

Quoth the Hanna, “She’s got a great ass!”: “Whadda we got? Whadda we got?” “Bon voyage, motherfucker. You were good, you were good.” “Ralph, sit down!” “You wanna know what they’re looking at? Us. The L.A.P.D….po-lice department.” “’Who?’ ‘Who?’ What are you, a fucking owl?” “I had coffee with McCauley, half an hour ago!” “(singing) When she comes to Phoenix, she’ll be rising. She’ll probably leave a note, right on the door.” “Don’t waste my motherfucking time!”

Bonus Essential Clip:

Analysis: Heat earns every minute of its nearly three-hour runtime because you actually care about these characters. That includes everyone from its two leads on down to a paroled diner cook who’s truly trying to go straight (a relatively unknown Haysbert). This character doesn’t show up until a good chunk of the movie has passed, but we’re still interested. We’re also invested in all the side stories, including one involving more of an evil presence than a simple bad guy (Waingro) and even Hanna’s stepdaughter (Portman’s Lauren). Add these to the thrust of the story, the aforementioned action, drama, comedy, and memorable music and you have one of the greatest crime dramas of all time.

–Justin Gerber