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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mann-ly Casts: 10 Michael Mann Movies & Their Key Players


This Friday sees the release of a new film from director Michael Mann.  This upcoming feature is titled Blackhat and while it does not offer a whole lot that we have not seen before, both in terms of story and in what Michael Mann is capable of as a director, it does continue a trend that I love seeing in films from directors like Mann, who frequently commit to sprawling films that feature many speaking roles: the use of a ton of character actors.  Using the past few decades as an example, Mann fits with directors such as Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Steven Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese, among a number of others, as well as producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who have made films that not just have a lot of characters, but seem to fill all the roles with character actors and familiar faces that were either in the early stages of their careers or are just reliably good.  With that in mind (and an understanding that I have now set myself up to revisit this topic with other directors in the future), I wanted to have a little fun spotlighting some key performances in all of Michael Mann's films (minus The Keep, as I just do not have a way to see it and Mann disowns it, so...).  In particular, it would be fun to go into the real minor roles, but I'll see how I do, given how I had only so much time to revisit Mann's filmography.  Anyway, let's see how this goes, as I wanted to do something different than just rank Mann's movies.

So before getting underway, it is interesting to look at some of the recurring motifs in these Mann films, regardless of how many characters are featured.  In all of these films, Mann may have a number of actors playing different parts, but the lead characters are rarely developed in a deeply satisfying manner when it comes to backstory.  Really, Mann’s films tend to be about the ‘now’ of the story being told.  We may find out things about these characters here and there, but really delving into what made these characters who they are is a rarity compared to knowing what these characters currently are.

Generally, the leads are handled with an acknowledgement of a few key ideas: Understanding where these characters fall between the law and the criminal world; having a certain set up principles, regardless of which side of the line that character falls on, and knowing how to maintain alliances when it comes to bridging the gaps between the two worlds, whether that alliance is favorable or antagonistic (which basically means mutual respect is a hot commodity). 

With that in mind, I am putting together this post because I feel Mann’s films have so much to offer in terms of how effective the casting tends to be, while working largely with just these themes.  The deeper understanding of the various individuals presented is less important in a lot of ways, but many of the actors shine, based on the actions we see on screen and what we can take from how they are emoting in the moment.  I have heard a lot about how Man tends to have his actors do various forms of research for their parts, even if the character will only be featured for a limited amount of time.  In my mind, given how I love seeing so many familiar faces in Mann’s films throughout the years, I felt it was time to spotlight a lot of what I like seeing, regardless of how good the various films are (for the record, I am a fan of most of these).


Thief (1981)

Mann's debut film features one of James Caan's best performances as a jewel thief looking to get out of the game.  The film features several famous cast members all making their debut film appearances, including Dennis Farina and William Peterson (who will both star in an upcoming Mann film), along with James Belushi and Robert Prosky.  Willie Nelson pops up as well, which is one of the roles I want to point out, as his performance as Okla, the imprisoned master thief who trained Caan's character and serves as a father-figure of sorts.  We only get to spend a little time with this character, but it is still impressive that Nelson, of all people, leaves such a great impression.  The understanding is that Okla is dying and does not want to die in jail.  The movie does what it can with this subplot, but the conversations between he and Caan do a lot to enhance the world of the film, given who these characters are.  With that in mind, Caan is pretty great in the type of role that will become common throughout Mann's filmography.  This was one of the last films before Caan took a long break from acting, but while we have been able to see other good Caan performances since, Thief still stands high among what he has brought to the screen.

Highlight Performances: James Caan, Willie Nelson


Manhunter (1986)

Mann returns to the crime world for his adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon.  The film is notable for a number of things, specifically with casting, as this is the first cinematic appearance of Hannibal Lecter (spelled as Lecktor in this film).  Brian Cox fills the shoes of the infamous serial killer and while he does not make the character iconic in the same way Anthony Hopkins was able to do in later Harris film adaptations, his part is certainly memorable, given the power that he is supposed to convey within a minimal amount of time and based in a fairly bland setting, compared to what we see in the rest of the film, no less.  Speaking of creepy murderers, Tom Noonan does tremendous work as Francis Dollayhyde, which is of no surprise, given his ways of preparing for roles.  Stephen Lang also pops in as the rat-faced reporter Freddy Lounds, who makes it hard to believe that he would later play the muscle-bound Colonel Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar.  Lastly, our lead man of the whole show, William Peterson provides a terrific turn as Will Graham, the retired FBI profiler drawn back in at the behest of Dennis Farina’s Jack Crawford character.  Peterson, who was happy to star in both Mann films and the films from his “rival”, William Friedkin, completely commits to playing a disturbed individual with intentions of catching a killer, despite the challenge of his own mental state.  Given the nature of the cat and mouse in question, having Peterson and Noonan at the center was certainly a job well done.

Highlight Performances: William Peterson, Tom Noonan, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen


The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

As I put together a post like this, regardless of the reception for each of these films, it is interesting to see such an outlier in Mann’s filmography.  The Last of the Mohicans is a romantic period adventure film set during the French and Indian War.  Adding to the strangeness of having a film like this under the direction of Mann, it has acclaimed method actor Daniel Day-Lewis as the romantic lead and action star.  It is of little surprise that Day-Lewis completely delivers in his role as Nathaniel.  That in mind, this film also has a solid set of supporting players.  I will address the role of female characters in Mann films with the next film, but Madeleine Stowe is actually one of the better female characters in all of Mann’s films, given what she is able to accomplish with the minor amount of characterization for many involved (I should note an initial version of the film was 3 hours, which can also explain the minimal role by Stowe’s character’s sister, played by Jodhi May, in the various cuts of the film that exist).  The most impressive work comes from Wes Studi’s role as Magua, the villain of sorts, but really just a man taking the wrong sort of actions, based on the tragic circumstances that have shaped his life.  Sure, he is the antagonist of the film that must be dealt with, but seeing in his eyes the way he reacts to something like Jodhi May’s character’s death is the kind of thing one really looks for, when inspecting the quality of work by the actors in films by Mann that have less to overtly say about who these characters are.

Highlight Performances: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeline Stowe, Wes Studi, Russell Means


Heat (1995)

The Los Angeles crime saga known as, Heat, has a tremendous cast, no matter which way you look at it.  From the top, you already have Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a film together.  Something of a big deal at the time, the two are both terrific, but there is so much more to go into here, so I will just let those two be.  Val Kilmer is basically at his peak stardom in this film, as he had already played Batman earlier that year, but gets plenty to do in this film as De Niro’s right hand.  The same can actually be said for Tom Sizemore, though I guess his series of war films (Ryan, Hawk, and Harbor) could be construed as such a peak for him as well.  John Voight actually gets a head start on his career-defining work in Anaconda, by getting the silliest wig possible for his part as a fence.

As far as the smaller roles go, it is hard to have a go-to performance, as they are all so good, but Dennis Haysbert’s part as a recently paroled man working a crappy job at a restaurant is this kind of mini-story that has a tragic, yet definitive end, fitting well into this jam-packed, yet incredibly efficient story.  Another incredibly small part belongs to Xander Berkeley, as Ralph, the man Pacino finds his wife (Diane Venora) having an affair with.  It is not that Berkeley has a ton to do, but he was featured in Mann’s L.A. Takedown, which was an earlier version of the same story.  In that TV movie, Berkeley played Waingro, who is menacingly played here by Kevin Gage.  Less menacing and on the side of good, the trio of Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson, and Wes Studi (now in a regular suit) is perfectly suited for this film as well.  And then you get to the fun casting, with William Fichtner’s worm of character lead the way to the list of performers that includes Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Tone Loc, Danny Trejo, and even Jeremy Piven (with a moustache) credited as Dr. Bob.

The last thing I want to point out about Heat are the female characters.  I have not gone into the female characters in Mann’s films very much so far, mainly due to the fact that Mann films are very much driven by their masculinity, even when they feature well-developed roles for women.  Heat has a few key roles and all the actresses do their part.  Diane Venora and Amy Brenneman are fine as differing kinds of love interests for both leads.  Ashley Judd has a key role to play in regards to Kilmer’s character and I always love the way that plot wraps itself up.  Lastly, a young Natalie Portman does plenty with her role as Pacino’s daughter-in-law.  While there is plenty of runtime to make for a film with strong character types and a decent amount of development, it just seems a bit more notable for time to be taken to add the female element, without having it seem too contrived in what many consider to be Mann’s best film.

Highlight Performances: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Kevin Gage, Diane Venora


The Insider (1999)

It was amazing to revisit this film and see just how great it continues to be.  Essentially Mann’s All the President’s Men, this drama focuses on the true story of a 60 Minutes segment about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand played by Russell Crowe in one of his best performances.  Al Pacino returns to the world of Mann as well, as producer Lowell Bergman.  Both leads are great here, but again, this is about all the wonderful support and The Insider has plenty of great character actors, along with one key supporting role played by Christopher Plummer.  Plummer is Mike Wallace in this film, which is not something one necessarily recalls when thinking of Plummer’s legacy, but he really does make the role his own.  As far as the other parts are concerned, there are some fine performances on display, but I am not sure if any of these smaller parts are more effective than Bruce McGill as attorney Ron Motley, who conducts a deposition with Wigand and gets a real time to shine, as he is pestered by a tobacco lawyer.  The dynamic duo that is Stephen Tobolowsky and Gina Gershon is also a fun thing to point out, but really, The Insider is a terrific film all-around, which more than likely would face challenges in being made the same way today, so I am very glad to see that it exists and holds up so well.

Highlight Performances: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Phillip Baker Hall, Diane Venora, Bruce McGill, Michael Gambon


Ali (2001)

While The Insider was only separated from current day by a few years, Michael Mann stepped a little further back in time for his biopic about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.  While not the definitive look at the character (the only person that can really play Ali is Ali himself, so check out When We Were Kings), Mann certainly had a very capable cast for this film, starting with the star performer, Will Smith.  This was certainly a big step for the Fresh Prince, but playing one of the most outspoken sports figures of all time certainly adds up, considering how Smith is one of the biggest and most charismatic movie stars in the world.  It all led to a terrific performance, with Smith combining both the public persona of Ali with some introspective elements of the character.  Moving on, I mentioned Jon Voight’s wig in Heat earlier.  That was something, but his decision to care in a movie is put to much better use in Ali, as a great job is done to place him in the role of Howard Cosell, leading to many of the best scenes in the film. 

Lots of supporting characters pop up here as well, including Mario Van Peebles as a pretty decent Malcolm X, Ron Silver, Joe Morton, Mykelti Williamson, Jeffrey Wright, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye, Barry Shabaka Henley, Bruce McGill, and Giancarlo Esposito, among many others.  Given some of the larger-than-life characters in a film like this (Williamson as Don King is a key example), you certainly have a lot to observe in a film that is far more subdued than it needs to be (a side-effect of Mann’s cinematic atmosphere matched against a character like Ali).  The last thing I will note, however, is what also provides light in this film, the first appearance of Jamie Foxx in a Michael Mann movie, as Drew Bundini Brown.  Foxx and Mann must have gotten along very well in this film, as he will move forward with him for the next few years, but in this film, Bundini Brown provides strong support to a man that always had a lot to say, but would work well with his cornerman responsible for some of Ali’s key speeches.

Highlight Performances: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Giancarlo Esposito, Mykelti Williamson, Ron Silver


Collateral (2004)

Given what I am trying to do with this post, Collateral may be the highlight in terms of what a strong cast of characters actors matching up to the leads has to offer in Mann’s filmography.  This is the sleek thriller set around one night, where a hitman forces a taxi driver to move him around Los Angeles to his various targets.  Collateral is so good with the casting that having Jason Statham merely appear for the first minute of the film is enough to convey exactly what is implied in his brief meeting with star Tom Cruise.  Let’s talk about Cruise.  For all the flack the man gets for supposedly playing himself, Collateral is one of the many he times he shows how good he can be.  With grey hair and an off-putting, yet disarmingly charming-at-times demeanor, Cruise shows how he can once again commit to a character and get across exactly what is required of him.  Some complain about how things end for his character in this film, but if you pay attention to how he conducts himself, one can exactly see why things end up the way they do, some minor story conveniences aside.  At the same time, Jamie Foxx is the moral center of this film and he brings a great counterbalance to the situation where he must drive around an assassin in his back seat.

Now we get to this excellent supporting cast.  Jada Pinkett Smith is back in the world of Mann and I was always intrigued by hearing how Mann had her interview various people for the part of a prosecutor, in a role that only allows for so much time to establish a personality mostly separate from her actual job.  Mark Ruffalo steps in as a detective with slicked back hair and a level of intelligence that makes him the most tragic character in this film, given that Peter Berg’s brief part as Ruffalo’s partner allows him to step away before it is too late, while Ruffalo gets taken out in a sad twist of affairs.  Bruce McGill turns up again and the scene I love with him is when he gets shot in the leg and basically makes a face suggesting he has been defeated; always nice to see a small character role in a film like this, where the character in question does not have to be killed to get him out of the way of everyone else.  Irma P. Hall has a brief scene that is mostly comic relief, but buried under the surface is a sense of concern that does not go unnoticed by me.  And lastly, Javier Bardem is in this film, which I am sure many forget.  His one-scene cameo as Felix, the man who hired Cruise’s Vincent, has a way of making the most out of using his accent to accentuate his deadpan, yet serious, dialogue delivery.  While Heat is a sprawling LA epic, Collateral is streamlined and really makes the most out of the characters who only have so much time in what is largely a two-man show.

Highlight Performances: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Mark Ruffalo, Bruce McGill, Irma P. Hall, Javier Bardem


Miami Vice (2006)

In 2006, Michael Mann released a big cinematic version of the series he helped create.  Miami Vice is stripped of the 80s sheen, yet still has a blend of colorful costumes and vehicles with some hardboiled undercover cop work.  I am at a bit of a disadvantage here, as I honestly have not seen this film since it was in theaters.  I do remember enough to give some thoughts on the characters, but I do apologize to those looking for deeper insight on a mostly forgettable attempt to revamp the series in a big cinematic way (but the action is admittedly pretty great).  Chief among the problems had to be the key relationship between Crockett and Tubbs.  Jamie Foxx once again delivers, but while Farrell was a solid choice in casting, the mix of the tone Mann was going for with the somewhat aloof nature of Farrell’s performance did not result in a very memorable partnership.  That said, I do recall enjoying what Foxx and Naomie Harris brought to the screen together.  Reliable actors like John Ortiz, Ciaran Hinds, John Hawkes, and Eddie Marsan were also fully capable of making everything seem as on the level as needed, as far as gritty reboots of shows like Miami Vice go.  Perhaps I will revisit this film someday (I hear the director’s cut is worthwhile), but for now, I will have to settle for a film that I remember to have looked very cool, but is still not all that memorable.

Highlight Performances: Jamie Foxx, Naomie Harris, John Ortiz


Public Enemies (2009)

Speaking of unremarkable, one would seemingly think Michael Mann had a homerun on his hands in the form of a biopic/crime drama about John Dillinger, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.  Alas, despite best efforts and a unique approach to the cinematography in a period film, I imagine people generally even forget Mann put out this film.  That in mind, I did go ahead and revisit this film, as I was both putting this together and curious as to what hurt the film.  Unfortunately, that problem is Christian Bale’s side of the story and Bale himself, who, between this and Terminator Salvation, was having a bad year.  While Johnny Depp shines in a role that does not require funny costumes, Bale’s character is a rather nothing role for an actor that really tends to show his commitment.  I am sure he did plenty to prepare, but in the end, he basically keeps bogging down the film. 

Moving past this though, there are quite a few strong supporting turns.  Marion Cotillard can be added to the small list of notable, strong female characters in Mann films, as she delivers on what could have been an uncomplicated love interest role.  Stephen Graham would go on to make a bigger splash as Al Capone in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, but he gets in a good test run here as Baby Face Nelson.  Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover is more fun than the real Hoover would probably ever allow, but it works here.  The consistently great Jason Clarke gets some nice work as Dillinger’s close associate Red Hamilton, who is given some nice moments to expand upon what these men are doing and if they should keep going.  And then you have nice small turns from Stephen Lang, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum (yes!), Giovanni Ribisi, John Ortiz, and Carey Mulligan, among many others, to really show how much people wanted to be involved in what could have been a really interesting feature.  It is a shame, but I will go to bat for Johnny Depp in this film again, as he does plenty to put away the quirks and simply play a likable criminal, deservedly sought after by the police, but still coming away as another tragic figure, given the viewpoint of the film, which does not celebrate his actions, but still lets us see how the character goes about them with a certain set of morals.

Highlight Performances: Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Stephen Lang, Jason Clarke


Blackhat (2015)

And now we get to what is Michael Mann’s most recent effort, the cyber-thriller Blackhat, which features Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth as the world’s sexiest hacker.  The interesting thing about the performances in this film is how some of the key ones have almost nothing to say, with one big exception.  Key example: Holt McCallany (star of the great, but short-lived FX series “Lights Out”) functions as an FBI agent and handler for Hemsworth’s character, but rarely speaks.  He is more efficiently used as muscle and a good shot in a fight, which is the same that can be said for Ritchie Coster’s menacing Kassar.  On the other side of things, the best supporting presence comes from the always reliable Viola Davis.  In a film that has what basically amounts to a maniacal Bond villain; Davis comes along and provides exactly what is needed in her part, with some minor layering of what drives her character.  As for our main character, Chris Hemsworth does what he can, but it is not as if casting anyone else would make this role suddenly more interesting.  A handsome computer hacker with all sorts of fighting and McGuyver-like skills can only work so well in a film like Blackhat, so kudos for having Hemsworth at least try to branch out, even with a slippery American accent.

Highlight Performances: Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, Ritchie Coster, Leehom Wang


Bonus: Luck (2011)

With these last few films in mind, it does leave us on a very high note, so I wanted to bring up the HBO series Luck.  This was the drama series centered on characters tied to the horse-racing track, which was cancelled due to concern for the safety of the animals.  Mann directed the pilot episode, giving the series a visual stamp, much in the same way that David Fincher put his stamp on Netflix’s House of Cards.  Given the nature of this post, I am happy to point out this series as it does have a pretty tremendous cast, led by Dustin Hoffman as Ace Bernstein.  It is a performance perfectly fit for a Mann project and he is right at home interacting with Dennis Farina, amongst the other actors.  This series has a great number of characters actors, including John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, and Ian Hart.  There is also a very gravely-voiced Nick Nolte and some appearances from Michael Gambon as well.  It was not the most impressive of HBO’s original series’, but it certainly had a lot going for it, including another very capable cast fitting of a Michael Mann film. 

Highlight Performances: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Michael Gambon, Kerry Condon
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