Every Michael Mann Movie Ranked Worst To Best

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Michael Mann is a perfectionist. Many geniuses are. Decades after the release of his masterpiece, "Heat," he was still tinkering with the lighting scheme. Meanwhile, he was also re-editing "Ali' and even trying to salvage his least-loved film, "Blackhat."

Mann's exacting standards and willingness to do anything to get the shot have led to explosive confrontations on set. Mann and Jamie Foxx clashed intensely during 2006's "Miami Vice." The breaking point came while filming in a notorious neighborhood in the Dominican Republic. A rogue gunman opened fire on set and was shot down by the crew's security. Foxx packed up and left the movie. He came back, but Mann had to rewrite the ending in safer environs to smooth things over.

Mann burst onto the scene in 1984 with his iconic TV version of "Miami Vice." It was an often cinema-quality series two decades before peak TV. Mann's interest has always been in creating a realistic simulation of cops and robbers. When you layer on top his eye for American pop art visuals — like buddy cops who drive Ferraris and wear pastel tees under white linen suits — you have the Mann oeuvre. It's cinéma vérité meets auteur expressionism. Mann changed Hollywood as a writer-director and editor by seamlessly blending seemingly irreconcilable methodologies: realism and hypnotic stylishness. Films like "The Dark Knight" do not exist without "Heat" as the template for operatic urban fables. These are all the movies that this auteur of the underworld has directed, ranked worst to best.

12. Blackhat

It makes some sense that crime auteur Michael Mann would eventually probe the world of hackers. Unfortunately, "Blackhat" from 2015 lacks all the procedural realism of the director's heist films and feels more like a collage of bad action movie tropes. This is not so much a Mann film but a movie product, designed by committee to perform internationally. In reality, it appealed to almost no one.

Chris Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker serving a long sentence for cybercrimes. When a rogue coder causes a meltdown at a Chinese nuclear plant, a team of Chinese and American spooks spring Hathaway and start a globetrotting manhunt to track down the culprit. If Hathaway succeeds, he wins his freedom.

Mann isn't responsible for this abominable script, and it shows. Hathaway and his CCP handler, Chen Lien (Tang Wei), abruptly fall in love and have about as much synergy as Windows 95 on a Macbook. Of his years in prison, Hathaway laments this cliche to Lien, "I was doing the time. The time wasn't doing me." Hemsworth is hilarious and perfectly cast as the god of thunder, but if "Blackhat" was actually interested in computer culture, a Jessie Eisenberg type would make more sense here. This film also features multiple pointless animated tours of the inside of computer chips. "Blackhat" is a pastiche of tired tech tropes and not really a Michael Mann film. That's really the best defense of this tedious techno-thriller.

11. L.A. Takedown

For fans of Michael Mann's seminal heist classic, "Heat," "L.A. Takedown" is an irresistible curiosity. It's the same script, almost word for word, but as produced on a TV-movie budget for NBC in 1989.

The oddest part of watching this movie is hearing mostly unknown actors try to pull off lines made iconic by Hollywood legends. Alex McArthur (who?) plays the Robert De Niro role of Neil McCauley (though his name is changed here to Patrick McLaren for some reason). He's the master thief, taking down major scores in Los Angeles and determined never to go back to prison. Scott Plank plays the Al Pacino role as the major crimes detective, Vincent Hannah, the manic cop hot on McLaren's heels.

"L.A. Takedown" is bad in all the ways you'd expect of an 80s TV movie, but it does demonstrate the power of a trial run. Many great movies were short films before they were features, but "Heat" is really the only masterpiece that was made twice in its entirety by the same filmmaker. This first attempt is a horrendously acted movie-of-the-week, but even in standard definition, Mann's fantastically sprawling script and eye for geometrically interesting Los Angeles locations that would eventually bring his vision fully to life are evident. But if you ever doubted that movie stars matter, watch these films back-to-back. Pacino and De Niro are national treasures, and Mann casing the joint where he'd eventually pull off his masterpiece is the smoking gun.

10. Ali

"Ali" is like a Muhamad Ali sizzle reel as directed by Michel Mann but notably not written by the auteur. The overly sweeping script is the film's flaw. Mann's work is solid, but the fight scenes lack drama, and Will Smith as "The Greatest" doesn't have the dimensions or athleticism to convincingly imitate boxing's most revered figure.

This biopic covers Ali's conversion to Islam, civil rights, the assassination of his spiritual mentor Malcolm X by the Muslim Brotherhood, his conscientious objection to Vietnam, his marriages, infidelity, and his playful and touching relationship with broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). Ali's life is epic, and this film wants to be, but "Ali" the movie is fighting above its weight. Even with the nearly three-hour runtime, the passage of over a decade is edited like a succession of days, and it all starts to feel like a well-shot Wikipedia entry.

The film's strongest section covers the "Rumble In The Jungle," Ali's legendary 1974 bout with George Foreman in Zaire. Ali was aging and a heavy underdog, and the dramatic story is well-staged. However, the 1996 documentary, "When We Were Kings," covers this clash with a deeper sense of the pugilist's standing as a global icon of Black excellence. It also contains one of the most spiritual sporting moments ever captured: Following the fight, Ali is surrounded by adoring African children in the early dawn light. Ali was a warrior prophet, and I'd recommend witnessing the man himself.

9. Public Enemies

Michael Mann does a John Dillinger biopic!? This 2009 film sells itself, especially with Johnny Depp as the legendary Tommy-gun toting depression-era bank robber and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the ace FBI G-man hunting him down. But somehow, this movie is a ruddy-looking bore that lacks the engrossing connectivity of Mann's other great crime films.

"Public Enemies" opens strongly enough, with Dillinger orchestrating an elaborate jailbreak. The real Dillinger was a master of escape, and the scene largely works. Dillinger and his gang return to their run-and-gun lifestyle: Heist. Hole up. Repeat. But as Dillinger begins courting a beautiful young coat-check girl (Marion Cottilard), he loses just enough edge for Purvis and the newly formed F.B.I. to begin closing in.

"Public Enemies" is stylish. Sort of. Mann and his longtime director of photography Dante Spinotti blend digital video with film but this time utilizes one particular awful-looking Sony camera, the PMW EX1, commonly deployed for reality TV of the era. The camera doesn't imitate the film look like Arri cameras, which are also used here. Many of the shots suddenly resemble a grainy low-budget wedding video with highlights completely overexposed. It's a style choice that makes sense for Mann's modern-era films about high-tech adjacent crimes, but the gimmick is anachronistic in this story set in 1934. On the positive, unlike "Miami Vice" or "Collateral," Mann refrains from using Audioslave on the soundtrack. "Public Enemies" isn't unwatchable. It's just disappointing relative to its premise

8. The Keep

If you are old enough to remember going to video stores, you might recall a time when some beautifully creepy hand-drawn VHS cover art caught your eye. With no internet to consult, you take home this mystery movie to discover the movie is a total cheese-fest and suddenly realize why a clever cover-doodle was necessary to sell a live-action movie. "The Keep" from 1983 is (sort of) one of these films, but it's written and directed by Michael Mann, so it's also intermittently brilliant and daring, too.

The premise is unambiguously excellent. During World War II, a convoy of Nazis roll into a remote mountainous region of Romania and set up shop in a creepy medieval fortress. But soon, their presence awakens an evil force that begins taking them out one by one. One German soldier (Jürgen Prochnow of "Das Boot" fame) stands up for the locals, who are being blamed and executed by their Nazi overlords, and then enlists a local historian (Ian McKellen) to unravel the mystery.

"The Keep" is antifascist fan fiction not unlike "Inglourious Basterds" in which German soldiers are set up for a revisionist reckoning, but this movie is more interested in '80s-era fantasy than history. Mann's overuse of chintzy special effects dates the film, but not quite as much as the overbearing synthesizer score. There's the seedling of a visionary horror film here, though, and a remake by a Guillermo del Toro type would be interesting.

7. The Last of The Mohicans

Michael Mann's striking visual style is partly attributable to Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("Manhunter" and "Heat"). In "The Last of the Mohicans," the duo captures the 18th-century American wilderness with romantic chiaroscuro splendor in this gorgeous 1992 epic about the French and Indian War. This is a film to be viewed for its beauty foremost, but be warned, Spinotti prefers motivated lighting. Many scenes are shot as if illuminated by a single flickering candle or dimly glowing moonlight. If you don't have a television that can handle this scheme, you might be lost in the dark.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the titular last Mohican, Hawkeye. He's a half-native living peacefully alongside English colonialists until the daughters of a British officer are captured by a treacherous scout from a nearby tribe. When Hawkeye's village is conscripted, he rescues one of the women (Madeleine Stowe). They fall in love but are caught in the deadly crossfire of the larger conflict.

This isn't Mann's best directorial outing. James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel is dense, and this adaptation, though alluring, lacks the plot clarity and character development that the melodramatic screenplay demands. Both love and death feel abrupt in this uneven telling. Mann has released three very similar cuts of this film, which isn't a great sign, though he says his favorite is the "definitive" director's cut from 2010. The film won an Oscar for sound in 1993, and the visuals are on that level too. Mann's oddly muddled editing is the issue.

6. Miami Vice

"Miami Vice" is Michael Mann's most disastrous film, but it's also kind of awesome. The director's 1980s TV series has an aesthetic cool that outlived its actual popularity, and the premise was prime for a big-screen redux in 2006. Mann's fans were ecstatic given he'd matured into a crime noir genius, but the chaotic shoot resulted in a film that audiences rejected.

Jamie Foxx plays Tubbs and Colin Farrell plays Crockett — the same hotshot detectives from the show. They go undercover, infiltrating the operations of a ruthless cartel king. Meanwhile, Crockett seduces the drug lord's wife (Gong Li) in an ill-advised romance with absolutely no sizzle. This film ends in a generic shoot-out at the docks (not a factory, nice!), but that's only because Mann had to do an emergency rewrite when Foxx packed up and left the set. The actor had just won an Oscar for "Ray" and witnesses say his "diva" behavior derailed the film. He showed up with an entourage, refused to fly commercial, and even demanded some of Farrell's paycheck. The shoot was also dangerous, and Mann acted tyrannically and "humiliated" crew members, as he was plagued with indecision.

"Miami Vice" is nonetheless visually kinetic and hypnotic, as Mann utilizes early digital cameras in an edgy way that reimagines the show's pastel aesthetic with immediacy and grit. Farrell's tough-guy performance at the height of his matinee idol powers is also outstanding. This is a beautiful disaster with a monster budget. It's totally worth seeing.

5. Manhunter

"Manhunter" from 1986 was Hannibal Lecter's thrilling big-screen debut in this criminally underrated serial killer thriller. Here the cannibal psychiatrist is played by "Succession" star Brian Cox in Michael Mann's adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel. "Red Dragon." But notably, Lecter is not the focus here.

William Peterson plays F.B.I. profiler, Will Graham. He's in early retirement after taking a knife to the gut from "Lecktor" (spelled differently in this adaptation) years earlier. Hannibal was then a clinical psychiatrist and consulting for Graham — such a helpful guy! When Graham realizes the good doc is a killer, he becomes a victim, too. Graham is badly scarred, but his old F.B.I. boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), convinces him to help track down "The Tooth Fairy," a new serial killer murdering entire suburban families. To catch him, Graham must face Lecktor and his own demons.

"Manhunter" is Mann's most stylishly blue-hued film next to "Heat," thanks to the director's consummate collaborator, director of photography Dante Spinotti. The result is an expressionist masterpiece, as the auteur uses his gift for vivid imagery to take you inside the mind of a killer. Graham is a "super" empath. He can inhabit a serial killer's modus operandi and therefore recreate the crime in his mind's eye. But serial killers themselves have no empathy, so once Graham has modeled a monster, can he ever recover? The psychological elements are interesting but mostly add an eerie mood to this stylish detective story.

4. Thief

Michael Mann's early career is one long reconnaissance mission for his 1995 masterpiece, "Heat." "Thief" from 1981 is both the director's first feature and the best of these trial-run pictures. James Caan plays Frank, a high-level crook who bypasses alarms, cracks safes, and takes down major scores. This catches the attention of a fence named Leo (Robert Prosky) who wants Frank to work exclusively for him. When they team up, Frank delivers the jewels, but Leo cheats him, and the two go to war.

"Thief" is more character-driven than the sprawling "Heat." Caan gives the best performances of his career, channeling that seething Sonny Corleone spirit. We find out why he's so angry when he romances a young waitress and confesses a painful childhood spent in state institutions, followed by a horrifyingly long prison stint mostly for the crime of defending himself against a prison gang of sexual sadists. Frank has been hardened by life, and Caan leans into a heavy East Coast accent. He's very much a prototype of Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley. He's a brute, but he's been brutalized, and that makes sense of everything he does.

"Thief" is the neo-noir prototype. Its synth-driven soundtrack and neon cinematography were revolutionary for the era and inspired the neon renaissance of films like "Drive" in 2011. It's not a perfect film. Willie Nelson makes a very weirdly acted and unnecessary cameo as Frank's convict father. Still, this is a stylish and foundational pillar of the modern crime genre.

3. Collateral

"Collateral" from 2004 is so good that Michael Mann stans like me were back to trumpeting the director's infallibility. Mann's prior outing, "Ali," has major problems, but this is a violent, dark, and riveting return to form.

Tom Cruise plays against type as Vincent, a silver-haired jazz-loving hitman who shows up in Los Angeles to quite literally execute some business and forces cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) to chauffeur him around the city. As the bodies pile up, a woman Max fancies (Jada Pinkett Smith) becomes a target and this cabbie must find the courage to fight back.

In one of the best scenes, a pair of street-toughs approach a preoccupied Vincent and mistake this gray-haired gentleman for an easy mark. Vincent goes from meek to murdering both men in a split second. Max can only watch the brutal efficiency of this highly skilled psychopath. All this excellent action is captured with Mann's signature wide lens close-ups and intermittent digital grain. The frame rate of early digital cameras gives "Collateral" a lower budget "video" look in moments. It's an aesthetic choice that adds blots of hyperrealism but also helps capture L.A. at night in vivid and more illuminated way that film cameras can not. Mann, at his best, is a maestro of noir moodiness who uses his well-curated toolkit to hypnotize the audience with his gritty fantasies of hyper-competent criminal savants. This classic thriller is the urban crime auteur at his entertaining and stylish best.

2. The Insider

"The Insider" is Michael Mann's engrossing foray into white-collar crime. It's a largely true account of how the tobacco industry hid the dangers of smoking from the American public. This is Mann minus the shootouts. It's mostly about documents, chemistry, and legalese, and it's arguably the director's most absorbing film.

Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, a real '90s scientist flaming out of his high-paying job at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. That's when a veteran producer for "60 Minutes" (Al Pacino) starts courting Wigand, suspecting there are dirty secrets behind this mild-mannered man's sudden dismissal. As Wigand begins telling his story, the powers-that-be drag him into court and (allegedly) begin terrorizing his family.

This is another collaboration between Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti. The duo's wide lens close-ups and many hand-held shots add a documentary immediacy to this based-on-a-true-story tale, and both Mann and Spinotti were nominated for Oscars in 2000. Crowe picked up a nod, too. The actor's hair is dyed grey, and he packed on the pounds to portray this stressed-out suburban family man whose job engineering cigarettes to be more addictive and deadly has taken its toll. After filming wrapped, Crowe quickly dropped 40 pounds for "Gladiator." "The Insider" generally has the feel of total commitment. This is arguably the best boardroom drama ever made, as Mann's script (adapted from a Vanity Fair article) dredges the depths of both corporate malfeasance and corporate-media acquiescence.

1. Heat

Michael Mann's 1995 masterpiece, "Heat," is arguably the greatest crime film of all time. Robert De Niro plays master thief Neil McCauley, looting L.A. one elaborately planned heist at a time. He runs a tight crew that includes Val Kilmer, Danny Trejo, and Tom Sizemore. Things go sideways when he brings on a wildcard named Waingro (Kevin Gage) for an armored car robbery. Waingro needlessly executes a security guard, and that brings down the "Heat" in the form of the manic major crimes detective, Vincent Hannah (Al Pacino).

McCauley decides to take down one more score, an elaborate bank heist, but things get dire when Waingro drops a dime and Hannah closes in. The plot is far more sprawling than this summary, and there's little exposition. Everyone but Pacino's frantic flatfoot is laconic and deadly serious. It's both operatic and exacting, and it's all shot with cool blue precision.

Mann first wrote the screenplay in the 1970s, based on the real master thief Neil McCauley, who had a Chicago cop named Chuck Adamson hot on his heels. The two met at a Chicago diner, just like the De Niro-Pacino face-off in "Heat." As Mann explained to FSR, "They wound up having one of those intimate conversations you sometimes have with strangers. There was a real rapport between them, yet both men verbally recognized one would probably kill the other." Everything in "Heat" feels so much more authentic than any crime film before it —  because it is.