Michael Mann as a director has produced many well critiqued films, almost enough that ranking them is more a matter of preference than looking at critical praise or box office success. While Michael Mann is mostly known for his films within the crime genre, occasionally he has stepped outside into other categories applying similar techniques and themes that sometimes miss the mark. Here is a list of Michael Mann's best films from the bottom to the top.
Michael Mann Television Films
The Jericho Mile
Centering around a gifted runner who happens to be behind bars, The Jericho Mile was Michael Mann's first film (non-documentary) and combines the crime and sports genres that Mann later would make his mark with. The Jericho Mile is an excellent film whether it was made for TV or released theatrically. But, because this was made for TV, Mann's trademark cinematography is not present, as budget constraints, and the 4:3 format weren't conducive to that style at the time.
L.A. Takedown is essentially a truncated and much less polished version of Heat. Not nearly as layered as Heat, L.A. Takedown is the bones without the meat. L.A. Takedown is less of a television film and more of a TV pilot with a long running time. Only those interested in Heat's origins should check this movie out, otherwise there isn't much here worth noting.
Not the Best Michael Mann Films
Michael Mann's first attempt at a high budget (relatively so), non-crime related film, The Keep is only interesting because it is so unlike Mann. The Keep is a fantasy-horror film that really does nothing well. Aside from some interesting special effects, the story and the cinematography are ho-hum. Released in 1983, Mann must've quickly realized this genre was not for him as he's yet to attempt a return to anything close to it.
It's hard to argue this is is not Michael Mann's worst film.
Mann's most recent film is also one of his worse. Not as bad as critics made it out to be (34% on Rotten Tomatoes), but still poor compared to Mann's other work. The concept is alright, but having a hacker who has advanced combat skills without any back story to explain it is one of many missteps (maybe it's that they're in the matrix?). Mann's trademark gritty cinematography is still here in this globetrotting, digital espionage tale but it's just not interesting enough to provoke any thoughts outside of what is being presented.
Mixed Bag Michael Mann Films
If Miami Vice had been called anything else it may have had more success. The charm of the television series is nowhere to be seen in this adaptation. Only the title, character names and locale are shared here. Outside of that there is no reason this is the Miami Vice so popular in the 80s. The cash-in on the name is really a disservice to what is a solid crime drama about the lack of a "real" life outside of undercover work, the blurred line of too deep, good vs. bad and the real risks involved with all of it.
Playing off of the Robin Hood mentality, Public Enemies does a good job of making the audience sympathetic towards John Dillinger. Public Enemies biggest flaw is that there isn't a great sense of the time period. There isn't enough time spent exploring the economical landscape of the setting which would have even furthered sympathetic themes. You can't help but be reminded of Road to Perdition and how much better that film relays the time period, albeit more romantically. That said, Johnny Depp and his crew far outshine the "antagonists" of law enforcement. As with many Mann movies there are several standout scenes including a prison break and a forest shootout, the former a verbatim explanation of the event while the other is a combined retelling of two separate events but thrilling nonetheless. The entire film is a great retelling of a specific period in Dillinger's life but is neither a biopic or a complete story.
A Forgotten Michael Mann Film
Many forget that this was actually Hannibal Lecter's first presence on the big screen. Later remade/readapted from the source material in Brett Ratner's above average Red Dragon, the story follows that of former FBI profiler Will Graham brought back into service. Lecter's screen time is limited as he was a former acquaintance of Graham's and only advises on this new case. Unlike Red Dragon where Lecter plays a large role, Manhunter is entirely focused on Will Graham and his struggle with the profiler mindset and "The Red Dragon." It's something that's been seen many times since and Manhunter presents it in a serious and gritty manner.
Best of the Genre Michael Mann Films
The Last of the Mohicans
Unlike other films about a "foreign" culture that enlightens the white man, and is then led by that white man into prosperity of some kind, The Last of the Mohicans treats the whites as observers or as a silent collaborator while not only treating the tribes with respect but portraying them as people with good and bad traits all the same without much of the stereotypical Hollywood mysticism that is so often the case. It's more about these two conjoining worlds interacting with one another and the outcomes of particular action.
It has to be said that there is one particular scene that is beautifully shot with Trevor Jones' score highlighting it that might be the best scene in any of Michael Mann's films.
Thief is the first feature film that Michael Mann directed and it's a terrific example of the tone, theme and cinematography seen in his later films. It's very industrial in look and feel, not necessarily the glamorization and suaveness of the thieves that are usually depicted (think Ocean's 11). Thief looks past the stereotypes; thieves aren't rich, they struggle to make end's meet from job to job and are always at risk of being double-crossed. It's entirely unglamourous and honor among thieves is definitely not a sticking point. It's in no way epic in story, and even the conflict is personal, there is nothing at stake other than personal survival. The isolated story allows the characters to push the film, rather than the plot and that's what makes Thief a thrilling film.
Will Smith should have won an Oscar for his portrayal of Muhammad Ali, and the film, while only focusing on a sliver of Ali's actual life, enables Smith's powerful performance. Ali is a biopic but unlike so many, the focus isn't on the subject itself but the way in which the subject influenced the world around them. Yes, you'll learn some of the intricacies of Ali's life and yes the boxing scenes are choreographed historically but from perspectives never seen before and they all fit within a timeline of civil rights, anti-war sentiments, organized religion and unprecedented boxing prowess.
Besides The Keep, Collateral is the most far-fetched plot in Michael Mann's filmography and that's exactly the reason it is so fun. Far-fetched in this instance does not mean unrealistic, but the plot is not highly plausible, it is a movie after all. Both actors, Jaime Foxx and Tom Cruise, stand out with against-type performances. Even with an obvious protagonist, it's hard not to root for the antagonist through their complex night together. Just as in Heat, Los Angeles is filmed beautifully with a back drop of eclectic and varied music. The only complaints that can be made have to do with the ending, but that is more preference than anything.
The Insider creates tension where it really has no business being. The portrayals of real-life people by the actors are subdued and effective which lends itself well to the fact-based story. Nothing here is over the top. Unlike Collateral, there are no popcorn moments in The Insider. What you do have is a tremendously crafted, perfectly paced thriller. Reading the plot of this movie would not lend itself to develop any suspense but somehow achieves this feat. The movie also does a good job of leaving the decision of whether what was done, was done is righteousness or selfishness which avoids being preachy like other films of the genre.
The Best Michael Mann Film
Heat is not only Michael Mann's best film, but one of the best films ever made. Much hype was made of the first shared screen time (literally at the same time) of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and while the couple of scenes they do share are tremendous, it's their yin and yang relationship that is the spine of the film. Neither of them are what they are, without the other, essentially; there are no cops without the robbers and vice versa. Outside of the terrific performances and simple but effective plot, all of the Michael Mann auteurist trappings are present; beautiful cinematography of an otherwise drab industrial setting, a modern crime story (without the mafia) and several standout scenes including the best shootout ever filmed. There is no music, only the echoes of gun shots ringing throughout downtown Los Angeles.
Heat is a masterpiece and the pinnacle of Michael Mann's over 30 year career.