Michael Mann is fascinated by obsessives who work on opposite sides of the law. In fact, when you go over his filmography, it’s filled with them: loners who are hardened by choice and keep others at a constant arm’s-length, indulging in their skills instead.
Starting in 1981, Mann made his first feature, Thief, about a professional safe-cracker who finds his way under the thumb of the mob. Frank (James Caan) wants what everyone else has, but can’t have it because his profession effectively keeps him on the outskirts of society.
Mann’s works always tend to lend a sympathetic eye to those perceived as criminals. Sure they break the law, yet they possess a strong value system and always abide by their respective codes. These men don’t waver, circumstances merely fail them and they adapt. It’s what makes them consummate professionals. Sure there is a thrill in watching these protagonists hone their craft, but there is more compulsion than pleasure in these acts.
And it isn’t just criminals that take their conduct seriously; Mann regularly features men on the right side of the law who don’t know when to say when. Manhunter focuses on perhaps the most obsessive lead of the director’s career in Will Graham. In what could be described as an insane level of empathy, Graham recreates entire crime scenes in his mind, placing himself in the killer’s shoes to flesh out their motives. Graham was the man to finally catch Hannibal Lecter, but it ultimately cost him his sanity in the process.
Michael Mann doesn’t care for drama for its own sake, what makes him tick is the drive of those with special skills. The careerists without the safety net of retirement and a fat 401K. Take Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) from Heat. A meticulous bank thief who sees 10 steps ahead of everyone else, Neil lives his life knowing that at any moment he could leave it all behind in 30 seconds once the “heat” is near.
Neil ultimately does not see his 30 second rule realized as he nearly leaves Los Angeles, but his oath to a “professional’s code” leads him to come back to kill off the members of his crew who failed him and put them all at risk. A philosophy of his own making, yet one that he ultimately cannot abide by because of his need to punish those who break his rules.
Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), handles his personal relationships not unlike McCauley. He puts his job first and it does not go unnoticed by Vincent’s wife, who levies this against him “You don’t live with me, you live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That’s the only thing you’re committed to.” The only difference between the two men is one is loyal to his crew, the other is loyal to the law.
Perhaps what men like McCauley, Hanna and Graham know that other characters don’t is this: people don’t leave their comfort zones. Their jobs will likely see them killed — or worse — but they won’t quit because it’s all they know. In a way it’s reflective of Mann’s own fascination with the crime genre.
Getting financing for his projects has become more difficult over the last decade, but he has remained steadfast in his choice to make adult-friendly films. Michael Mann doesn’t make Oscar-bait and he isn’t going to start anytime soon. Cops and criminals are what Mann knows in his bones, and just the like the characters that populate his films, he’s not going to stop now.