HARDBARNED! The Blog

Being A Fan Of Mr. Mann (Despite The Vice)

I wasn't allowed to see Michael Mann's television series Miami Vice (1984-1990) as a kid, but I remember a few occasions when I managed to crawl out of the bedroom and hide behind the couch to catch a glimpse of his uber-stylized 1980s Miami, its fancy crooks and fancier cops, the pastel buildings, suits and skyline, the exotic cars, the big hair, the ubiquitous shoulder pads and cell phones the size of your head.

The violence seems pretty tame now but at the time was enough to make my folks ban the show. I can't say I ever saw enough of Miami Vice to become a fan or felt compelled to watch it years later, but there was something intriguing happening in there, between the Uzi sub-machine guns, the ballooning pleated trousers, the sockless loafers and the frosty feathered man-bangs.

A friend had an 80s-themed party last year, and I dressed like a Miami Vice villain. If a guy from ZZ Top happened to be a Miami Vice villain. Something along those lines.

I'm not sure if it was merely the temporary allure of a show I wasn't allowed to watch or the neato Ferraris that appealed most to me as a kid, but I preferred Magnum P.I.'s model 308 to Crockett's Testarossa. I took this photo of one when I was on a trip with my dad maybe 30 years ago.

For whatever reason, Miami Vice never got its hooks into me. Once I was old enough to watch it, it just seemed like another one of many mediocre cop shows that could easily slip into the wasteland of forgettable 80s TV, along with CHiPs and Hunter. A buddy of mine thought Miami Vice was the epitome of cool at the time, and maybe he still does, but then and even now, if we're resurrecting 80s TV, I'd rather revisit MacGyver or Magnum, but I'm reluctant to try either for fear that they actually suck.

Is it possible that I was missing something back then? Should put on a neon T-shirt, grab a sportcoat and some mirrored cop shades and give Crockett and Tubbs a chance to show me how cool they were?

Then again, why go back to the 80s for TV? There's so much more interesting television happening these days, but I'm not ready to embark on another series from A to Z just yet. I'm still recovering from The Wire, which was nothing less than the best television I've ever seen but continues to haunt me. Investing in a whole series like that is something I have to work up to, and I usually stick with a couple movies a week instead.

I haven't even started Breaking Bad yet, though I realize I must. I doubt I'll be adding the Miami Vice series to my out-of-control Netflix queue anytime soon. I'm still adding movies faster than I can watch them.

I didn't know who Michael Mann was until I saw his film The Last of The Mohicans in the theatre in 1992, when I was 16. I was surprised to see that it didn't even crack the top ten list of the most financially successful movies of the year, but I guess nothing could stop Disney's The Mighty Ducks that year. Really? The Mighty Ducks?

I thought Mohicans was a very good movie, though not without its share of manufactured romantic glossiness, and looking back, I guess Roger Ebert agreed. This movie was stunningly beautiful but seemed to unfold predictably. Like Ebert, I didn't care. I was swept into its exciting, cinematic ride.

I became an official fan of Mr. Mann when I saw his next movie, Heat (1995), in the theatre with my mom. Al Pacino was the main draw for mom, I think. I was impressed by the trailer and looked forward to Pacino's first ever screen pairing with Robert DeNiro, along with a great supporting cast. Though Mann, like Ridley Scott, has received his share of criticism for "style over substance," his characters in Heat are given room to breathe and time to develop.

You can criticize Mann for making a three-hour movie because a lot of people (including studio executives) don't like long movies--they are shown fewer times in a day and often sell fewer tickets as a result--but it is in these longer dramatic scenes, between several intense, well-executed action sequences, that we learn who the players really are and what makes them tick.

The script isn't steeped in cliched cop dialog; it feels real. Too many cop/robber/heist movies focus entirely on the action, but Heat is unique. Not only are its action scenes better than most, its drama is built on a foundation of characters whose motivations we understand and with whom we have more invested because we know them better.

Some years after Heat came along, a buddy of mine (who inexplicably does not share my appreciation for the film) gave me a DVD copy of an older Mann film I had never seen. Manhunter (1986) is the original Hannibal Lecter film, with Brian Cox in the role that Anthony Hopkins gleefully chewed on for three subsequent movies.

I found this film to be thoughtful, confident in its slow pacing, but inherently creepy and enveloping, an overlooked gem. After Heat, Mann directed several solid movies that I enjoyed quite a bit but wasn't as adamantly crazy about, including The Insider, Ali and Collateral. He even directed an updated film version of Miami Vice (2006) that I liked more than I expected to.

Recently Criterion had a rare half-off, free-shipping sale on their collection of extras-stocked, superior versions of noteworthy films, and I picked up a copy of Mann's first theatrical release, Thief (1981), another great little genre movie that I had somehow missed along the way. It's highly unusual for me to purchase a movie I haven't seen, but I had a feeling about this one, and I'm glad I grabbed it when I did.

Thief stars James Caan as an expert safe cracker who works alone and stumbles into a relationship with a mysterious fixer who offers to set him up with jobs, no strings attached, until Caan discovers the strings, and, well, you can probably figure out where things are headed.

Thief stands out though, for some of the same reasons that other Mann movies resonate. It's because the characters are credible, and even the bit players are memorable. Let's give credit where it is due: much of this depends on the talent of the actors involved, but Mann writes most of his movies too, and his characters don't spout tired one-liners.

They speak like thoughtful, real people, sometimes waxing philosophically, even poetically summing up their ways of life and the often limiting circumstances that constrict them. The viewer is drawn into their worlds instead of chuckling at them from outside the realm of plausibility. 

And yes, Mann's films are shot with style. Few directors other than Scorsese know how to make a city come alive like Mann can. Helicopter shots of downtown lights at night, and creatively lit and filtered set pieces turn the architecture itself into imposing characters.

If you haven't seen much Michael Mann, I'd encourage you to have a look at what he's been up to for the last few decades. Just before heading to Miami to birth Vice, he followed Thief with a crazy, supernatural sci-fi-fantasty-WWII thriller about Nazis and demons called The Keep (1983), a little-seen flick that boasts an amazing cast but remains nearly impossible to find. It was almost completely panned but has since become an illusive cult classic that's worth seeing at least once if you can find it.

I still haven't gotten around to his Johnny Depp-led gangster picture, Public Enemies (2009), but I suppose I will soon, now that I've got Mr. Mann on the brain. I'm also curious about his 1989 TV movie, L.A. Takedown, which sounds like a sort of B or C-movie rough draft version of what became Heat.

I'll probably need to check it out too, along with The Jericho Mile (1979), his first feature-length film, also made for television, if I can ever find a copy of that one. Mann's newest project, currently in post-production, Cyber (2015) stars Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis (one of my favorite actors) and is about an international heist and computer hacking, but that's about all I know. I'll keep an eye out. 

One parting thought on Miami Vice: the show featured Eddie Olmos, who is always awesome (Blade Runner, Battlestar Gallactica, or Portlandia, anyone)? And how about that Jan Hammer? Hell, maybe I should just watch it. It's only 111 episodes.