Michael Mann, the auteur behind such classics as Heat, Ali, and Collateral, remains one of our finest directors. This is thanks to a bevy of motion pictures featuring dense plots, intricate characters, and an unmatched devotion to detail.
Mann’s phenomenal latest film, Ferrari, centers ex-racer Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver). It sped into theaters this week, earning (mostly) positive reviews that prove the iconic director hasn’t lost his golden touch. Where does Ferrari rank among his films? Read on to find out!
12) The Keep (1983)
Mann flexed his commercial muscles with The Keep, a bizarre misfire that nonetheless boasts strong production values—including a gnarly-looing baddie and a terrific score by Tangerine Dream—and plenty of the director’s visual flourishes. The film features a stellar cast, namely Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne, and Ian McKellen, and remains a watchable piece of horror. Unfortunately, as is customary with most of Mann’s productions, post-production issues removed a huge chunk of footage from the narrative, resulting in a 90-minute mess begging for a director’s cut.
11) Public Enemies (2009)
The powerful one-two punch of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale isn’t enough to lift this curiously limp biopic about renowned criminal John Dillinger off the ground. Public Enemies has the look and feel of a genuine classic but can’t overcome its fractured narrative, muddled performances, or awkward assembly. Again, it’s not a bad film. My views on Public Enemies have increased favorably on multiple rewatches. The positives outweigh the negatives, but it’s still only a good film when it should have been great.
10) Blackhat – Director’s Cut (2015)
Mann’s films often require multiple rewatches to grasp, mainly due to their dense plotting and the director’s slavish devotion to realism. Mann likes his characters raw and presents a gritty and unfiltered portrayal of his subject matter, resulting in action thrillers that often leave general audiences in the dust. Case in point — Blackhat, a cybercrime thriller starring Chris Hemsworth as a renowned hacker chasing a high-level cybercrime network. Ripe with complex computer jargon and a labyrinth plot, the action thriller left audiences cold in 2015 despite an all-star cast and some of Mann’s best action sequences.
The recently released collector’s edition, which features three versions of the film, including Mann’s intended cut, likely won’t win any suitors. However, I was drawn into the story on this go-round and fascinated with this unique world of laptops and cybercriminals. Blackhat is far from Mann’s best work, but there’s plenty here to enjoy should you give it a chance.
9) Ferrari (2023)
Ferrari fits snugly into 2023, the year of the character drama, and eschews big thrills and emotions for a straightforward examination of a flawed but captivating individual. As he did with Ali, Mann wisely focuses on one point of Enzo Ferrari’s life, capturing a period of turmoil during the summer of 1957 when Ferrari faced bankruptcy, a disgruntled wife, and the looming Mille Miglia race across Italy.
As typical, Mann doesn’t hold back on the grisly details, painting Ferrari as a troubled soul still reeling from the death of his son and seeking whatever form of emotional support he can grab. His company remains his last hope for success—losing it would likely drive him deeper into anguish and despair. He bids everything on the Mille Miglia. We watch as he grapples with this decision while navigating his troubled marriage and relationship with his mistress, Lina, and their son.
Mann doesn’t judge Ferrari’s actions. He shows us the man and steps back. Ferrari didn’t care what people thought of him, lived large, slept around, and maintained a rigid focus on the finish line.
8) Miami Vice (2006)
Directing a movie like Heat is a double-edged sword, as all the work after that will be compared to the classic crime drama. Indeed, Miami Vice is no Heat, but it’s not trying to be. Nor is it trying to mimic Mann’s popular Miami Vice TV series from the 1980s. Instead, this iteration of Miami Vice reimagines the concept as a dark and gritty thriller, seeped with sex and violence and bursting at the seams with style. Jamie Foxx and Colin Ferrell star as Ricardo Tubbs and James Crockett, undercover detectives who get caught up with drug trafficking in the neon-lit Florida scene. Matters get worse when Crockett falls for a drug dealer’s wife, leading to plenty of high-stakes drama and impressive set pieces that get the adrenaline pumping.
Miami Vice remains one of Mann’s messiest thrillers. Still, it’s also a gripping yarn with solid performances—particularly from Foxx—and enough testosterone-fueled action to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
7) Manhunter (1986)
I really like Manhunter, though it’s probably my least-watched Mann flick behind The Keep. An adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, a prequel to Silence of the Lambs, the thriller about Will Graham’s pursuit of a serial killer known as “Tooth Fairy,” is appropriately dark, stylish, and atmospheric. Mann leans heavily on psychology and conjures a thought-provoking, cerebral journey that remains with viewers long after the credits roll.
Fair warning: the film is deliberately paced and bleak as hell, which might put off some expecting a more conventional and fast-paced thriller. Manhunter isn’t quite on par with Silence of the Lambs, but it remains one of Mann’s most compelling thrillers.
6) The Insider (1999)
Al Pacino and Russell Crowe headline this gripping drama about one man’s efforts to expose Big Tobacco. Mann weaves an intricate morality tale that skillfully balances suspense and drama and grips you throughout its admittedly lengthy running time. Not only does The Insider provide a view behind the curtain to one of the most powerful companies in the world — which lied about the addictive substances inside its products — but the film also gives us a look inside the media world where Pacino’s Lowell Bergman battles executives to put the whole truth on the air. The Insider should have swept the Oscars, but that’s a different conversation.
5) Ali (2001)
If anyone else directs Ali, it’s likely a personal best. For Mann, the powerful biopic about the outspoken boxer Muhammed Ali is just another walk in the park. Will Smith turns in the performance of his career and slips into Ali’s shoes inside and outside the ring. He captures the icon’s charisma, pain, and sorrow during a troubling period that saw his title belt stripped for political reasons.
Mann chronicles Ali’s attempts to take back the crown, crafting a series of incredible fight sequences that succinctly capture the ferocity of the sport. He also ensures you walk away from the biopic knowing Ali, the man behind the myth.
4) The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
My introduction to Mann came in the form of 1992’s epic The Last of the Mohicans, a film I watched often in my history classes and adored for its stunning cinematography, brutal action, and incredible score (by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman). Based on the classic novel by James Fenimore Cooper, this loose adaptation has it all: romance, drama, politics, and kickass action. It’s undoubtedly Mann’s most accessible film, unabashedly old-fashioned in its execution but appropriately authentic regarding historical accuracy.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye, the adopted white son of the Mohican tribe, tasked with guiding the daughters of Colonel Edmund Munro to Fort William Henry. Admittedly, the picture bites off a little more than it can chew, leading to a love story in dire need of a second act, but my minor quibbles aren’t enough to drop Mohicans out of Mann’s Top 5. It’s a glorious epic.
3) Collateral (2004)
Mann has yet to top his best efforts—Thief and Heat—but Collateral came close. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx are sensational in this crime thriller about a taxicab driver forced to drive a hitman around to his various murders. It’s a simple but ingenious setup that allows Mann to explore themes of moral ambiguity and relationships that often dominate his pictures. Foxx’s lowly cab driver, Max, dreams big but doesn’t dare to follow through with his plans; Cruise’s Vincent has made it to the top of his respective profession, in many ways living the kind of life Max can only dream. Together, they explore the consequences of their choices and reflect on the randomness of life. It’s a compelling character study wrapped in a thriller, replete with a Hitchcockian finale that’ll have you on the edge of your seat.
2) Thief (1981)
I love Thief. It’s one of my favorite movies. James Caan is remarkable as Frank, a professional thief trying to go straight. The plot chronicles his struggles to reconcile his past misdeeds with his current predicament. He dreamed of a glorious life in prison, fulfilling the American Dream. To achieve his vision, however, he must do what he does best: break the law.
Of course, we never believe Frank will reach the promised land — neither does he, to a certain extent — and his slow realization of where his life is headed makes for one helluva motion picture. Caan delivers the performance of a lifetime, while Mann’s sturdy direction and Tangerine Dream’s evocative score create an atmosphere ripe with tension and suspense — an incredible film.
1) Heat (1995)
So, why isn’t Thief number one? Well, because Heat is, to quote Vincent (Al Pacino), “Pretty f—ing great.” From its riveting cat-and-mouse plot to its complex characters, Heat pulls you in like few films do.
Mann explores two highly skilled individuals on opposing sides of the law. Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley is a professional thief who spends his days pulling scores, and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hannah is sent to stop him. Each struggles to exist in a world overrun by serial killers, corrupt businessmen, broken marriages, angry children, and short-tempered managers. Both cling to their respective careers to achieve something close to happiness.
If that’s not enough, Mann delivers the greatest shootout in cinema history — a colossal piece of sound design and frenetic action produced with the director’s signature gusto. If you haven’t seen Heat, stop what you’re doing and watch it now. You’re welcome.