I like Michael Mann a great deal. I became an admirer of his even before realizing that one of my favorite movies in high school — which I discovered in video and then watched over and over (MANHUNTER), the way you reread and rewatch things when you’re a kid — was also a Mann film.* He’s a compelling storyteller but he’s also a smart, thoughtful storyteller, and there are always those small, well-written moments in his movies that are — at least to me — just as interesting (if not more so) than the big shoot-outs his genre demands. (Although that shoot-out in HEAT that takes place in downtown LA? Masterful, and it reveals a lot about the characters even as it kills off quite a few of them.)
MIAMI VICE isn’t his best film, as the critics are quick to point out, but a merely ‘good’ Mann movie is easily superior to ninety percent of the stuff alongside it, and it will still end up being one of the better movies of 2006.
Two of the moments that struck me as examples of good writing (slight spoilers):
1. There’s a scene when things heat up, plans change and the stakes have just gotten a whole lot higher, when Jamie Foxx’s character confronts Colin Farrell’s about a seemingly questionable choice the latter has made, involving a ruthless druglord and a stunningly beautiful woman (who wears some truly great clothes in the movie, but that’s beside the point). “There’s undercover,” Foxx tells him, “and there’s not knowing which way is up.” Farrell responds with something like, “You think I’m in so deep I don’t know that?”
They stop walking, and Foxx looks at him with that fierce direct gaze that makes you forget that Foxx is also and originally a comic actor (I rather love this man, but that’s also beside the point). This is the moment when you expect exactly what a lesser writer would have done: a few lines that directly address Farrell’s situation, some heated argument, where Foxx asks him what the hell are you doing she’s not worth it and you’re endangering the operation, yadda yadda yadda.
Instead, Mann cuts against that — since it’s been already implied — and Foxx says, “I would never doubt you.”
So it’s a rich, loaded, rounded moment, that conveys not only Foxx’s deep apprehensions about what his partner is doing but also the relationship between the two men — it implies the trust and loyalty there, and gestures at an offscreen past that has built that trust and loyalty — as well as setting up a crucial decision Foxx himself makes much later in the film.
All in a moment or two of screentime, a few lines of dialogue.
2. There’s a point in the movie when the major bad guy gets some very bad news that you know is going to shape the rest of the film and endanger the characters. One of those powerful, turning moments of the movie.
And, while this revelation is happening, Mann doesn’t even show the bad guy’s face. He shows the back of the guy, the back of his head, bringing the camera in a little closer while the guy doesn’t move and we the audience just sit there and contemplate him…and his lethal fury. No theatrics, no dialogue, not even a facial expression. Just…that frozen body language, and the audience’s own sense of everything that moment holds, the anticipation of what’s to come. Particularly in a movie — and a genre — where things tend to get loud, it’s a great example of less-is-more…and how to use the contrast of quiet.
A screenwriter once taught me that in the first five minutes of any well-written film, one of the characters — usually but not always the main one — will state the central theme or essential question of the movie. It will be done in a subtle way, so casual that as a viewer you’ll often ride right past it, but it’s there. Now, when I like a movie enough to go back and see it for a second time, it’s the moment I look out for. Example: in THE INSIDE MAN, our first glimpse of Denzel Washington is when he’s chatting to a colleague about his girlfriend who’s putting pressure on him to propose. He says something like, “How much does a diamond ring cost, anyway?” What we the audience don’t realize yet (unless we’ve read extensively about the movie beforehand) is that the whole rest of the film is going to address that question in surprising and unexpected ways.
In MIAMI VICE, that telling line of dialogue comes from a minor character who interrupts what the other characters are doing and swings the action in a new direction. He says something like, “They’ve got her”: meaning, the bad guys have his woman. Although he (and his woman) aren’t in the movie for long, they set up a story which really does revolve around the woman you love being on the wrong side — “they’ve got her” — and the cost of that, how it forces your hand. I was actually pretty surprised at how romantic I found this movie to be. Which is what I like about Mann. You get the feeling, even though he describes these macho worlds in this macho genre, he genuinely likes women, for one thing — sure, the women are babes (although so are the men) but they’re smart, tough people involved in lives of their own and no big deal is made about it, it’s just presented as a matter of course. Plus, strip away the genre trappings, and Mann is always going for what Freud presented as the ruling things in our lives, the key elements needed for any possibility of happiness: love and work. In Mann’s films, the one complicates and conflicts with the other in a way that goes beyond mere plot lip service. (This is why a Mann film engages and moves you in a way a Bruckheimer film never does.) It’s never about the deaths and explosions and shoot-outs. It’s about what’s going on underneath that, what drives towards all those things in the first place.
And thank dog the guy refuses to bow down to the studio/box office and make PG-13 films. He makes them specifically for adults. Yay.
*Kind of like when I saw the movie HACKERS when it first came out and thought it sucked overall, except the female lead in it was really striking and cool. About a decade or so later, after she became a huge star, I came across the movie again and realized that that had been my first glimpse of Angelina Jolie. Charisma tends to show itself early.