"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Mann Week: The Last of the Mohicans

Hollywood’s depiction of the American West being domesticated during the Classic period is rife with stereotypes. Native Americans in John Ford films, for example, were often portrayed in two ways: as noble savages or ferocious red devils. Until recently, they were often played by white actors with their language reduced to garbled, simple, child-like speak. Not until the 1990s has their authentic languages been used in films. Most films portrayed them as vicious instead of also victims (which is what they really were in many cases) to justify the narrative that usually involved their extermination.

Coming off a cinematic hiatus of six years since Manhunter (1986) was released, Michael Mann returned with a vengeance with his robust, muscular take on The Last of the Mohicans (1992). On the surface, it seemed like a radical departure for a filmmaker known for urban crime dramas like Thief (1981), Miami Vice, and Crime Story but thematically it fits right in with his no-nonsense protagonists who are the best at what they do and are faced with a decision between their profession and the ones they love.

The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757 during the third year of the war between England and France. Dialogueless footage of three men running through a lush, green forest plays during the opening credits. Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Chingachook (Russell Means) are hunting a large elk which Hawkeye subsequently shoots and kills with deadly accuracy. This brief sequence establishes him as a man of action and an efficient hunter. Like other Mann protagonists Hawkeye is his own man, preferring to do things on his own terms and is fiercely loyal to his family and friends.

The three men stop by a settler’s cabin that night and learn that the French army with Native Indian support is encroaching on their land. Like his settler friends, Hawkeye does not seem interested in the conflict. It is not his fight. He reinforces this belief two scenes later when a British officer (Jared Harris) tries to recruit him. Hawkeye replies, “You do what you want with your own scalp and I’ll be tellin’ us what we ought to do with ours.” This scene is significant in that we see the dynamic between Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachook. The latter is the father of the other two men and they are clearly close to each other by the way they act towards one another. This is evident in the opening scene when they worked as a team to hunt the elk and now in this social setting. This scene is also one of domestic bliss, something that is always treasured in a Mann film and one that is also fleeting. Mohicans is no different. Hawkeye and his friends laugh and talk over dinner with a warm, inviting fire in the background. It is an intimate setting, one of safety and familiarity. It will also be the last time they will all enjoy this kind of atmosphere.

Mann’s trademark color palette is muted in Mohicans with green being the only one with any prominence. He uses the green of the forest, that Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice Munro (Jodhi May) travel through on the way to be reunited with their father, Colonel Munro (Maurice Roeves) at Fort William Henry, to foreshadow the impending danger of the Indian sneak attack that will decimate the complement of soldiers protecting them and bring them in contact with Hawkeye for the first time.

The ambush shows the foolishness of the British military tactics. They take their time to form a line giving the attacking Indians ample time to take cover and then counter-attack. In a matter of moments almost all of the British troops have been killed until Hawkeye and his crew arrives and swiftly deals with these marauders with same kind of deadly efficiency. Hawkeye and Magua (Wes Studi) meet face to face for the first time in this scene as Magua narrowly misses Hawkeye with his rifle and then disappears into the forest before he can get a good shot at him. This almost unnatural exit sets up Magua as an unstoppable force of nature, like Hawkeye but only on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. The ambush establishes the quick, brutal nature of combat in the film as Mann moves away from the overtly stylish action in Thief and Manhunter towards a more realistic depiction with truly harrowing scenes of men getting scalped, stabbed and slashed. Every subsequent film Mann would make after Mohicans would depict violence in a jarring, realistic nature.

The character of Magua is fleshed out and given a chance to explain the motivation for his ruthless hatred of the English: his village was burned down, his children killed, he was taken as a slave and his wife thought he was dead and remarried. He delivers a powerful monologue to his French co-conspirator, “In time, Magua became blood brother to the Mohawk, to become free but always in his heart he’s Huron. His heart will be whole again when the day the Gray Hair and all his seed are dead.” Wes Studi delivers this speech with scary intensity that is indicative of his incredible performance throughout the film. He portrays Magua as a ferociously driven man who believes in what he is doing as much as Hawkeye does. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Studi’s performance is very physical and he commands the screen with his intense presence due in large to his piercing eyes.

Mann is clearly sympathetic to the settlers’ plight and their decision to protect their homes instead of helping defend Fort Henry against the French, which falls to them anyway. However, it is the love story between Cora and Hawkeye that lies at the heart of this film. Aside from a few meaningful, longing looks at each other, their sudden consummation is not believable because no foundation for it has been properly established. Cora is another, strong female Mann character, like Jesse in Thief. She stands up for Hawkeye to her father when he is caught for helping some militia men desert so that they can go defend their homes. She argues Hawkeye’s case and even speaks seditious ideas in front of him. Yet, she spends a lot of the film as a damsel in distress having to be rescued by Hawkeye on at least two occasions.

Mann only betrays the realistic battle scenes once with a stylistic indulgence. When Munro and his men are ambushed by Magua’s war party. Cora is attacked and about to have her throat slashed. Hawkeye spots her and runs towards her, killing several men along the way in slow motion for what seems to take forever and reaches her long after she surely would have been actually killed. However, he gets to her just in time and dispatches her attacker. Studi remembers that during the filming of this scene there being a lot of racial tension between the actors playing the British troops and the Indian actors which also added to the intensity of the scene.

One of the most striking aspects of Mohicans is Dante Spinotti’s stunning cinematography. Mann constantly punctuates scenes with picturesque shots of the countryside: early morning fog gently rolling off a mountain range, a raging waterfall and fields of tall grass. Browns and mostly greens dominate the color scheme of this film. For the look of Mohicans, the director started with 19th century landscape painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, chiaroscuro lighting, and 18th century portraits. It was Bierstadt's paintings that influenced the look of the film "in terms both of compositions and of what the place looked like," Mann has said. As he progressed, however, he realized that "objective reality outstripped me, and I brought it back to a more conservative palette. If you were an American Indian and grew up in the forest, so all you saw were brown and green."

Even more so than The Keep (1983), Mohicans feels the most un-Mann-like of any of his films. His usual iconography is subdued or non-existent. Mohicans tries to counter many of the Native American stereotypes in Hollywood films. Hawkeye is completely aligned with the Native Americans while falling in love with Cora, a white woman. Initially, the racial distinction is blurred as Hawkeye is not given priority at the beginning of the film. They are all equal for a little while. Of course, being the star, Hawkeye does become the central focus of the story. This is where Mann’s film stops being progressive and reverts back to the old stereotypes with good and bad Native Americans. While he does up the ante in terms of realistic battle scenes, his story is very middle of the road and one that typifies a big-budget Hollywood film.

Mann had long been fascinated by the period of history that Mohicans is set in but his interest in the project can be traced all the way back to his childhood. He saw the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye when he was four or five-years-old at a church in his neighborhood that would show 16mm films in their basement. Mann remembered “the corollary tragedy of Uncas and Alice at the end, plus I remember the fearsomeness of Magua, and the uniqueness of the period.”

Mann first acquired the rights to Philip Dunne's 1936 screenplay of The Last of the Mohicans and wrote a story outline based on it, the Smithsonian’s 30-volume North American Indian Handbook, a diary by Bouganville, Montcalm’s aide, and Simon Schama’s essay The Many Deaths of General Wolfe in 1988. He walked into the offices of Joe Roth, then Chairman of 20th Century Fox, and Roger Birnbaum, then President of Worldwide Production, and pitched a realistic take on Mohicans. They liked the idea and green-lit the project. Marketing surveys for 20th Century Fox revealed that few moviegoers had read Cooper’s novel but were familiar with the title.

As always, Mann did a lot of research on this period of history. He realized how “revisionist James Fenimore Cooper was in 1826 when he was revising [the perception of American Indians] into noble savages [who had] their life, their culture, their territory, their commerce, who [did not] need more sophisticated folks (like Cooper and his family), to look after their interests and their land. So, it was eye-opening to do the research on the Mohicans and get to the true dimensionality of that society.” From there, Mann constructed the outer frame of the film and established “the scale of a geopolitical conflict – the ethnic and religious conflicts, the struggle of white imperialism on a grassroots level, the condition of the struggle for survival of the colonial population, and the struggle between the Euramerican and European powers and the American Indian population.” Mann studied the history of the American frontier, read diaries from the time period and consulted with historians. For the director, “the details make this movie ring true. Audiences today are more visually sophisticated. They know the real deal, and they know when they’ve been shortchanged.”

Mann was interested in developing the epic scale of the story and proceeded to juxtapose these elements with an intimate love story between Hawkeye and Cora Munro. It is this coupling that illustrates where Mann deviates from Cooper's book in specific areas. Cora was originally a mulatto and Colonel Munro wanted Heyward to marry Cora but he preferred Alice. Mann switched it so that Hawkeye and Cora fall in love and had sex. Originally, Hawkeye’s name was Natty Bumppo but Mann felt that it was “kind of a silly name” and changed it to Nathaniel Poe. He also based Major Heyward on Cooper himself.
Mann wanted acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis to play Hawkeye, which the studio was less than thrilled about. Mann remembers, “The choice I got the weirdest reaction to was when I said Daniel Day-Lewis was going to be Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans. Because American studios didn’t know him. They said, ‘You mean that skinny guy? That short, skinny guy in a wheelchair?’ Because all he had done was My Left Foot.” His co-star Madeleine Stowe remembers that prior to doing the film Day-Lewis had just played Hamlet at the National Theatre in London and ran from the stage crying, convinced that he was talking to the ghost of his own dead father. She felt a lot of uncertainty from him until he got into the physicality of his character, then he appeared to be very confident. According to Mann, physicality is one of the important ways Day-Lewis arrived at his character’s emotional state. Day-Lewis is good as a no-nonsense Mann protagonist but, at times, his alpha male bravado veers dangerously close to John Wayne territory. He certainly looks the part with his impressive lean, muscular physique – a radical change from his role in My Left Foot (1989) – and is more than up to the task for film’s demanding action sequences.

Stowe’s agent got her to read the script for Mohicans but the actress thought that, “it was a nice action picture, I didn’t feel any particular affinity for either Cora nor the story.” Her initial reluctance to the material was based on her dissatisfaction with action films. “I was fed up with them and I initially thought that the script was just another action film dressed up as a period piece.” Stowe’s agent kept after her and she read it two more times before meeting with Mann. They talked about the film and he told her his vision of it. A week later, Stowe met with Mann again and read with Day-Lewis and Steven Waddington. That day she found out that it was Day-Lewis who had suggested to Mann that she play Cora.

Casting director Bonnie Timmerman called Russell Means and asked him if he would be interested in trying out for a major role in a major film. However, the day they wanted him to audition, he was going to a political convention in Monterrey. They worked it out so that Means could do both. However, on the day he ended up missing the audition. He got another call from Mann who asked Means to audition for a role in the film. Means remembers that Mann “had been a documentary filmmaker during the 60's and 70's and he remembered the American Indian Movement, and Dennis Banks and myself as leaders.” After four auditions, Means was cast as Chingachook.

Mann brought in Colonel David Webster, who was in charge of the Many Hawks Special Operations Camp out of Fort Bragg in Columbus, Ohio, to train the cast for a month. In addition, Day-Lewis did an extraordinary amount of research and preparation for his role. Mann sent him on a six-month course of body building and weapons training at an anti-terrorist camp followed by several weeks in the wild learning how to survive with very little. He learned to track and skin animals, build canoes, fight with tomahawks, and fire and reload twelve pound flintlocks on the run. He spent five times a week for six months training to build up his stamina and upper body. Mann and Day-Lewis actually lived in the forests of North Carolina – Mann for a week, Day-Lewis for a month. The actor spent most of his time with experts on the lives and skills of American Indians.

Mohicans started with a budget of $24 million and a 250-member crew. Other articles reported that the budget was around $33 or $40 million. The principal photography was set for two-and-half months in the forests of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains during the Spring of 1991. Mohicans would continue Mann's uncompromising approach to controlling every aspect of the production. He leveled hills, cleared 38 acres of trees and hired 130 carpenters to build Fort Henry. To achieve the authenticity of the period everything had to be built from scratch, including designing and manufacturing the breechcloths of six different Indian peoples and building French and English ordinance.

The grueling grind of the production took its toll. The Unit Production Manager and the Transportation Director were fired. All the original department heads, with the exception of the head of sound, quit. In perhaps the most startling move, cinematographer Douglas Milsome was fired and Mann brought in his favorite director of photography, Dante Spinotti. According to Means, this angered people in the film industry and Mohicans paid for it at the Academy Awards. The non-Union crew wanted to be a Union one and went on strike a day before principal photography was supposed to start. The studio ultimately gave into their demands.

While filming at Lake James, all the American Indian extras organized themselves and went on strike because their living conditions were awful and, according to Stowe, were not being well fed. There was one bathroom for 400 extras. Actors Eric Schweig, Means, and Day-Lewis joined the extras on the picket line. Military advisor Dale Dye organized the men playing the Red Coats in the film with the intention of breaking through the strike line. As they approached Means punched the first Red Coat and knocked him down. The rest of them scattered. Dye was able to get them reorganized and then the producers stepped in and asked Means to mediate between the two sides. In Means' opinion, the awful living conditions for the American Indian extras were the fault of the assistant directors. "Michael Mann was so focused on his art that he didn't realize what his A.D.s were doing ... and what his A.D.s did was effectively demoralize everyone."

When asked about the film’s production problems Mann said, “What I will tell you, however, is that this was a really difficult picture. You warn people ahead of time that this is going to be a tough picture to do, and people say, "That's fine, I can handle that," and sometimes they can't.” The filmmaker made no apologies for his exacting attention to detail. "Everything impacts on an audience. Everything. And you can either pay attention to it or let it go and let technicians do it. To me that's wasteful." Mohicans was originally slotted for a July release but was pushed back to September to avoid stiff competition and for a better position for Academy Award nominations.

The studio marketing department promoted Mohicans as a love story in a war zone, but Mann felt that it was about human struggle, “where life is short and passion is where you can find it; you are part of a people who are disappearing and the world is changing around you.” Means was not happy with how 20th Century Fox handled the film. He had two problems with the studio. Firstly, he claims that the studio forced Mann to cut down his original version that ran two hours down to 108 minutes removing “some very pertinent scenes in there, and dialogue, that would have shown the Indians in an even better light then it already does.” Secondly, Means said that the studio targeted the over 35 crowd, selling it as a love story. “As you know, it was kind of gory and there was a lot of action. So, if they'd have pitched it to 20/35 crowd, as their primary audience, it not only would have made another 50 million off of that ... 20th Century Fox shot themselves in the foot over that film ... A classic like that and they messed around with it. It just goes to point up in Hollywood they don't know anything about Indians nor the audience that they purport to know everything about.”

According to Stowe, the studio “had huge doubts” about the film during the editing and audience test screenings who were put off by the film’s violence. She felt that Mann was under a lot of pressure from the studio to change the film. The actress saw a cut in July of 1992 and felt that the studio was wearing Mann down so she called Joe Roth and “told him how beautiful the film was, and that I was fully ready to support it, that Michael’s work was wonderful and I imagined that Daniel would feel the same. he listened quietly and read between the lines.” Mann met with the studio again and successfully fought for his cut of Mohicans.

The Last of the Mohicans was released on September 25, 1992 in 1,491 theaters grossing $10.9 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $75 million in North America, well over its $40 million budget. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert felt that Mann’s film was “not as authentic and uncompromised as it claims to be – more of a matinee fantasy than it wants to admit -- but it is probably more entertaining as a result.” Peter Travers, in his review for Rolling Stone, praised Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance: “The lithe Day-Lewis, more puckish than primitive despite the shoulder-length locks, is riveting. Luckily, he and the radiant Stowe can make the cornball credible – even a farewell scene at a waterfall where he vows to find her again, ‘no matter how long it takes, no matter how far.’” David Ansen also praised Day-Lewis’ performance in his review for Newsweek magazine: “This amazingly graceful actor builds his character out of body language ... He turns this 18th century action hero into a freshly imagined romantic icon ... Day-Lewis makes the most wildly heroic gesture seem natural.”

In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Whether there's a full-scale massacre of innocents, or a lover's kiss behind a raging waterfall, the movie is all expertly controlled sensation ... The battles are pyrotechnical displays of cannon fire and gleaming redcoats. Even the awesome landscape looks designed. Mann wasn't thinking story, he was thinking scheme. Keep the eyes and ears dazzled, he reasons, and the substance will follow.” Richard Schickel, in his review for Time magazine, wrote, “Above all Mann has seen to it that something spooky, suspenseful or just plain action packed happens every five minutes. In the process, he has eliminated the last traces of Cooper’s high-viscosity prose and sentiments.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “And Mann has created a great villain in Magua, the vengeful Huron. Wes Studi, who was in Dances With Wolves, has a glowering face, all scars and furrows, that seems to be imploding with rage. At the same time, he reveals that the furious Magua is actually a thoughtful, complex man; he sees what the Europeans are doing to his people, and he despises them for it.”

The success of Mohicans not only established Mann with box office clout in the eyes of Hollywood, it also proved to be a hit with audiences and critics. More importantly, it paved the way for his next and even greater film, Heat (1995), a pet project that had been gestating for years.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Mann Week: Thief

Continuing on with Michael Mann Week here at Radiator Heaven, I am proud to host an excellent post about Thief, by Tommy Salami who runs the always entertaining and well-written blog, Pluck You, Too!!!

"I am the last guy in the world that you wanna fuck with."

The first movie by Michael Mann that I watched was Thief, starring James Caan. I was young and unsure of why I liked it; it's grittiness, the technical aspect of the safe-cracking and high-end burglaries. The spellbinding soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The complete lack of spoon-feeding or pandering to the audience.

The film opens with a man in listening to a police scanner in a parked car, while another in a jumpsuit hoists a huge drill to a safe and begins opening it. As the bit screws through the metal and reveals the workings inside, the camera zips in, and we watch the gears smashed to bits with a chisel. The cracker is masked with goggles, working diligently. He speaks to his quiet compatriots in quick staccato questions, utter minimalism. Another man works a bevy of volt meters on the security system. Quickly, diamonds are looted, they leave the scene with such precision that calling it "military" would seem insulting, and drive off in separate cars into the rain-puddled night streets.

With barely a word spoken, Mann has already gripped us. Audiences have always loved seeing criminals pull off a heist, and no frills are needed. With characteristic laconic style we're introduced to Frank the jewel thief's "normal life," owner of a car dealership. The perfect job for a criminal who sees civilians, those outside "the life," as marks and suckers. The entirety of the film is set in this shadow world, one we love to flirt with in the movies. And Mann, like Scorsese would in Goodfellas, perfectly portrays a world of villains who want to cobble together a life that mimics our boring suburban existence, while we go to movies to take a trip into theirs.

The film is partly based on the book The Home Invaders: The Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Chicago jewel thief Frank Hohimer. "Frank" was the pen name of real-life crook Jean Seybold, who served as a consultant on the set along with John Santucci, another thief who also played the crooked cop Urizzi. The book is set mostly in the '50s and '60s, so the movie modernized the criminal techniques, and changed Frank's modus operandi; instead of a home invader stealing rich women's jewelry collections, he seems to strike jewel distribution houses. This was a wise choice, for it anonymizes the victim and makes it easier for us to like Frank. In the book, he was often holding homeowners at gunpoint for the safe combinations, and the author was long suspected of taking part in the murder of Valerie Percy, daughter of an Illinois Senator. Not quite as glamorous. But the best parts of the book make it to the screen.

Their fence gets whacked by the mob before they get paid; this and continual police harassment by crooked cops wanting a bite of the take lead Frank to consider mobbing up with crime boss Leo, played by Robert Prosky. Like the real crime boss Leo Rugendorf, he doesn't look the part, but is a ruthless autocrat who uses people up and throws them away when he's done with them. Frank doesn't want to join, because he cares about nothing, and that makes him impossible to pressure or hurt. But soon, he will.

Michael Mann's films often figure on men with a personal code of ethics that leads to their downfall, and Thief is no different. Frank feels a great personal debt to his mentor Okie, based on a real jewel thief who taught Seybold the ropes in prison. He also wants to get back with his estranged girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and have children. His feelings for them lead him to break his stringent code of working freelance. Okie is played by Willie Nelson; Mann continues to use musicians in small roles, and this is one of the best. Okie urges Frank to tell Jessie about his real profession. Lifted right from the book, he tells him "Lie to no one. If there 's somebody close to you, you'll ruin it with a lie. If they're a stranger, who the fuck are they you gotta lie to them?"

Okie is dying, and wants to spend one day on the outside; it's Frank's desire to pay back his mentor, and save a child lost in the juvie system like he was, that leads him to join Leo's crew. In the diner scene with Weld, we learn everything we need to know about Frank. Caan is known for his anger in the Godfather, but his vulnerability in this scene is palpable. It sets the tone for the film's grand ending. He explains that you can only be fearless when you care about nothing. This would later transform into Neil McCauley's more Zen-like "when the heat's around the corner" ethos in the epic Heat. DeNiro would also take his Yojimbo-like simplicity of action and clear speech from Frank. His desire for a normal life. Frank's a tough as nails man; we've seen him stare down mobsters and pull his .45, but his weakness, his desire to have a family with his wife cuts through all that, and makes him seem almost like a young boy.

As he plans the job for Leo, he begins to reap the benefits. A new house. Strings pulled to get his mentor Okla released due to his age and health. A baby adopted, despite his 10 year conviction. Frank's background as a juvenile delinquent makes him yearn to save an orphaned child from the same fate. He says, "I was state raised! You see 8 by 4 green walls long enough, you tell 'em "my life is yours!" Reminiscent of Andrew Vachss's Burke character, Caan embodies the hard-edged, serious ex-con who values every second of his time outside prison. Caan explains in the DVD commentary, "I don't use a single contraction in the entire film." This makes Frank feel like a man who doesn't say anything he doesn't mean to the core of his being. "If you don't use contractions, you are less likely to be misunderstood. You never have to repeat yourself."
It was filmed in Mann's hometown of Chicago and laden with its locations and jazz; many of the best jewel snatching crews of the time came from Chicago, specifically the Smith Park neighborhood called "the Patch." He used his connections to consult with real professional thieves and Chicago police; Dennis Farina was ex-Chicago PD, and though he barely says a word- something bizarre to imagine, for an actor who'd become so memorable for his outbursts- his presence helps add gritty realism to Mann's style. For example the attention to detail with the firearms- Frank uses an expensive custom long slide .45; Dennis Farina carries a rare HiStandard bullpup semi-auto shotgun, which really can fire as fast as it does. It's not quick cuts of a single shot, it's all 5 shells when he teaches Frank a lesson. James Caan was sent to Jeff Cooper's Gunsite Ranch for two days to go through combat pistol training; you can see it in his rigid isosceles shooting stance.
The centerpiece of the film is the West Coast heist, based on a real job pulled by consultant Joe Santucci. The planning takes weeks, beginning with procuring the "oxy lance" that will be used to cut a door in the front of the custom built safe. All the tools are real, and the first safe we see Caan crack was purchased for him to make his bones on. Even when they pull the cylinder out of a door lock, you can recognize the buster they use, if you've ever needed a locksmith. The oxygen lance is real as well, requiring fire extinguishing foam all over the set to keep the sparks from igniting everything. We get a welder's mask view of the door melting under its 6,000 degree barrage. It's oddly beautiful, a sparkle shower of diamonds, like the loot inside.
Santucci also plays Sgt. Urizzi, one of the crooked cops who shakes Frank down with a relish that only someone who's been on the other side of such a conversation can have. He's the guy Frank continually taunts, mistaking his Italian heritage for Puerto Rican.
You're a stand-up guy. You're a real stand-up guy. You got a mouth, you can take a trimming. You could make things easy for everybody. But no. You gotta be a goof. You're real good. No violence. Strictly professional. I'd probably like you. I'd like to go to the track, ball games. Stuff like that, you know? Frank, there's ways of doing things that round off the corners, make life easy for everybody. What's wrong with that? There's plenty to go around. We know what you take down. We know you got something major coming down soon. But no, you gotta come on like a stiff prick. Who the fuck do you think you are? What's the matter with you? You got something to say or are you waiting for me to ask you to dance?

Even James Belushi is good here, lacking his later smart-ass demeanor and sneer, playing it very cool. Then again, the comic actor is surrounded by tough guys- ex-cons and ex-cops, and James Caan in a role that makes his iconic appearance as Sonny in The Godfather seem warm and inviting. It was Belushi's first film, and the debuts of William Petersen, Dennis Farina, John Kapelos, and Robert Prosky; Farina would return in Mann's "Crime Story" TV series that made his career, and opened the door for "Miami Vice;" William Petersen would star in Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, Manhunter.

The excellent Tangerine Dream soundtrack is what drew me back to this film in the 90's after I saw Heat. I still have it on vinyl; it's some of their best work, and "Confrontation," which plays over the final gunfight and end credits, is an electronic blues lament for a man who threw it all away so he could destroy the man holding his chain. The film is dedicated to Chicago bluesmen Willie Dixon and Mighty Joe Young, and the film does have the fleeting joy and inevitable sadness of a blues song. Young appears in the club scene where we first meet Jessie.
Tuesday Weld's role is easily overlooked, but she perfectly captures the moll look and attitude. In a film about men, we're reminded of James Brown's pearl of wisdom, "It's a man's world, but he made that world for woman." As soon as Frank and Jessie- and I'm sure naming the characters after the James Gang was no accident- hook up, he calls Leo and says he'll do a job for him. But he wants to play by his rules, and doesn't realize that in a Faustian bargain, only one guy sets the rules in the end.
There are three ranting monologues that give Alec Baldwin's infamous Glengarry Glen Ross "watch" speech a run for its money. When Frank comes out as a criminal to Jessie; When the crooked detective pulls Urizzi off him and tells him why he has to pay up to the cops, and when Leo tells Frank that he owns him, at his plating factory. This last particular scene is quite brutal and Mann films Leo's face upside down, as Frank sees it, passing on his disorientation to us.
Look. I said fuckin' look at 'im! Look at what happened to ya friend 'cause you gotta go against the way the things go down. You treat what I try to do for you like shit? You don't wanna work for me, what's wrong with you? And then, you carry a piece, in my house! You one of those burned-out demolished wackos in the joint? You're scary, because you don't give a fuck. But don't come onto me now with your jailhouse bullshit 'cause you are not that guy, dont'chu get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family, n' I own the paper on ya whole fuckin' life. I'll put ya cunt wife on the street to be fucked in the ass by niggers and Puerto Ricans. Ya kids mine because I bought 'it. You got 'im on loan, he is leased, you are renting him. I'll whack out ya whole family. People'll be eatin' 'em in their lunch tomorrow in their Wimpyburgers and not know it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say, I run you, there is no discussion. I want, you work, until you are burned-out, you are busted, or you're dead... you get it? You got responsibilities - tighten up n' do it. Clean this mess up, get 'im outta here. Back to work, Frank.
And to punctuate things, they dump a body in the nitric acid tanks of the electroplating factory. Mann has since trimmed his dialogue down, but he's also made his stories a lot tighter. Thief is sometimes a bit too obvious, and too quick; as soon as Frank signs up with Leo, he's walking streets paved with gold. And while his grittiness is solidified, his style is not yet in full flower. Frank's immediate coldness as he disassembles everything he once cared about is almost too much to bear. The slow-motion explosions may lack panache, but the lack of dialogue as he destroys it all is perfect. The sequence is still one of the most memorable of the film, as Frank writes large his Zen koan about your possessions owning you in fire across the screen. When he confronts Leo at his home, he is a man with nothing; he has thrown Jessie out of his life, and burned everything he owns.
The final confrontation is as brutal and stylized as that of Taxi Driver, as Frank's singularity of purpose makes him a swift instrument of vengeance. We don't get a single word from him; he does what he must do, and Mann expertly shows and does not tell. There are little touches; Dennis Farina's character can't aim the bullpup shotgun after he's wounded; Frank wears a protective vest, and tears his shirt to take a look at how it worked. And when it's over, he walks silently into the night, down the lonely road he finds himself on again. Will he go back to Jessie and his son? We don't know. Yet we are curiously satisfied, as the Tangerine Dream guitar lament drones through the speakers.
Thief is a singular film that portrays the life of the high-end burglar like no other. By peopling the movie with real thieves, real cops, and local Chicago characters, Mann made the outlandish story utterly believable and gripping. Mann's style mirrors the blues- a man with nothing, who has something, has it taken away, and sacrifices everything to get it back. The screen is a black night canvas painted with neon, the flash of diamonds and the electric burn of a welder's torch, with only brief respites on the sunny beach of San Diego after the score. We visit a world of rocks glasses amber with bourbon, meet night people who come home as the sun rises, who steal riches while we sleep, and get to know an ice cold thief who knows the only way to survive on your own in that world is to have nothing.
Mann would go on to more epic tales, but would always return to the American archetype of the lone killer, the man with his code. Hawkeye; Marlowe; the Man with No Name. It's no mistake that Michael Mann would direct The Last of the Mohicans, which has a long shadow over American literature with the iconic character of Hawkeye. Frank was the mold from which Neil McCauley was made, but you'll see the same obsession in Will Graham, Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice, Mike Torello of Crime Story, and even in his biopic of Ali. Heat and Manhunter- and certainly Public Enemies with the Dillinger/Purvis face-off- show how similar cops and crooks are, but Thief is the one purely from the crook's point of view, where there are no good guys. His next film in development, Frankie Machine, is based on a novel by Don Winslow (full review) is a mob picture starring DeNiro as a retired hitter dragged back into the life, when he'd rather surf the morning waves and run his bait shop. Another perfect Mann protagonist, he has old school values and has to ram them through the throats of some new blood who won't let sleeping dogs lie. I'm pumped to see some '30s gangster action next weekend, but I wouldn't mind seeing DeNiro stop treading water and work with a director like Mann again.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Mann Week: Ali

This post originally appeared at the Film for the Soul blog as part of The Year 2001 project.
Ever since Ali was released in 2001, I have felt that it has been one of Michael Mann’s most under-appreciated films. It received decidedly mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office. While Will Smith was praised for his impressive physical transformation into legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, the film itself was criticized for revealing nothing new about the man. Herein lies the problem that Mann faced: how do you shed new light on one of the most documented historical figures of the 20th century? His angle on the material was to look inwards.

Proposals for an Ali biopic had been around since the early 1990s when producer and one-time business partner of the boxer, Paul Ardaji, pitched the idea to the man on his 50th birthday. Ali gave the project his blessing and financing quickly fell into place. A number of scripts were written by the likes of Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (Nixon), but they all failed to please the powers that be. The project bounced around various studios for years as executives tried to decide who should make it, who should star in it, and would it even make a profit? In 1991, Oliver Stone met with Ali about making a film about his life but the collaboration ended when the director refused to share creative control. In 1992, Ali’s best friend and personal photographer Howard Bingham and Ali’s wife Lonnie got together with Ardaji. Gregory Allen Howard’s take on Ali was delivered in 1996. His angle was that the key to the boxer’s life was his relationship with his father, who ignored him.

When Will Smith met Ali in 1997, the boxer asked the actor to play him in the film. Smith was flattered but said no. He was not ready and too intimidated for such a demanding role. The actor almost did it when Barry Sonnenfeld agreed to direct. Both men had worked together on the Men in Black films and Wild Wild West (1999). Thankfully, their version never saw the light of day. After he turned 30, Smith realized that he had to make the decision about playing Ali. However, when no one could settle on a script, Sonnenfeld dropped out. There were several more rewrites and directors, including Curtis Hanson who expressed interest. Smith was ready to give up on the project.

It then came down to Spike Lee or Michael Mann to fill the director's chair left empty by Sonnenfeld. Sony Pictures, the studio bankrolling the film, was faced with a $100+ million budget and went with Mann who had just received several Academy Award nominations and all kinds of critical praise for The Insider (1999). Upset, Lee voiced his anger through a friend in The New York Post: "only a black man could do justice to the Cassius Clay story," he was reported as saying. Mann responded that he "wanted the film to come from the point of view of the main character, Muhammed Ali. I'm not interested in showing a white man's idea of how someone suffered racism. The perspective of the film has to be African-American." When asked why he did not pick a black director Ali said that he wanted the best qualified person regardless of color, and his wife said, “Muhammad didn’t want it to be a movie just for black audiences. He wanted it to be a movie for all cultures and all people.”

When Mann was approached to direct he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to tackle such challenging subject matter but was sure of one thing; he did not want to make a docudrama or idealize Ali's life. After meeting with Ali and his wife, they told him that they did not want “a teary Hallmark-greeting version of Muhammad Ali ... What they didn’t want I didn’t want,” Mann remembers. The director liked Rivele and Wilkinson’s screenplay but rejected their flashback structure and their use of Ali’s 1978 fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” as the present frame of the story. Mann felt that Ali’s 1974 fight in Zaire was more significant. He was also not interested in spelling things out for the audience: “I wanted to insert you into the stream of this man’s life, orient you without doing it in a blatant way with exposition.” Ironically, this is what would scare off a lot of people.

Smith's agent arranged a meeting with Mann that changed his attitude towards the film. According to the actor, it was "the clear picture he had of the road from Will Smith to Muhammed Ali. He explained it in a way that made it seem, in my mind at least, not so utterly impossible, just marginally improbable." Smith and Mann agreed that the film’s focus should be on ten turbulent years of Ali's life, from 1964 to 1974. The director set the film during these years because "that formation of everything by '74 is the beginning of what is now culturally in the United States." Mann identified Ali with the spirit of change that occurred in the 1960s. "He consistently defied the establishment and its conventions, and we loved him for it." Ali led such a colorful, eventful life that a focused story was crucial to the film. Mann said in an interview, “It would be catastrophic to divert into every interesting story. Everything this guy does is fascinating. I could have made an entire movie about Ali's relation to women. Music, Cadillac convertibles and women. It would have been great.”

By February 23, 2000, Mann signed on to the film and went to work transforming Will Smith into Ali. Smith remembers that Mann created the "Muhammad Ali Course Syllabus” that began with a study of the boxer’s physical attributes: “learning to run how he ran, to eat the food he ate, spar the way he sparred. Essentially creating the physical life and physical appearance of Muhammad Ali.” From there, Smith moved on to the mental and emotional aspects and finally the man’s spirituality. Boxer trainer-choreographer Darrell Foster spent a year training Smith. Foster was Sugar Ray Leonard's conditioning coach when the boxer turned pro. According to Foster, the key to becoming Ali was "looking for specific movements. Hand speed, ring generalship, how he made guys miss. Will had to become Ali, because you can't demonstrate those moves through choreography." Foster created a high-carb, high-protein diet for Smith and had him run in combat boots through snow in the thin air of Aspen, Colorado for ten months before the start of filming. His training schedule consisted of five miles of roadwork starting at 5:30 am, in the gym at 11:30 am, six days a week for three hours of ring work and weight training, watching fight films at 3 pm, and weight training in the evening. Smith put on 35 pounds of pure muscle in four months and went from bench-pressing 175 pounds to being able to press a very impressive 365 pounds. The finishing touch was being fitted with a hairpiece and a prosthetic nose.

For the fights, Foster started Smith on the basics: balance, footwork and defense. Then, he worked with the actor on the offensive aspects: a mix of overhand rights, hooks and upper cuts. Foster remembers that Smith "thought he knew how to fight because he had some street fights. But really, he couldn't fight at all." Smith worked on his hand and eye reflexes in order to perform eleven of Ali's signature moves. Smith spent days studying film of Ali, including early footage shot when he was an Olympic boxing champion to interviews with Howard Cosell. Much of the material, unseen for years, was supplied by Leon Gast, a documentary filmmaker who made When We Were Kings (1996), a celebrated and acclaimed documentary about Ali’s championship bout with George Foreman. Smith also took classes in Islamic studies at the University of California.

The focus on the years 1964 to 1974 are arguably the most fascinating ones of Ali’s life because they are so rife with dramatic possibilities. It was during this period that Ali became the World Boxing Champion after beating Sonny Liston, then lost it when he refused to serve as a foot soldier in the Vietnam War, and finally reclaimed the Championship Title after beating the odds-on favorite, George Foreman in Zaire. It was also a time of great social and political upheaval in the United States with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Finally, Ali also shows the man’s private side: his numerous wives and failed marriages, and his friendships with Malcolm X and Howard Cosell.

Mann immediately immerses the audience in the time period with a montage of footage that features Sam Cooke performing in front of a live audience juxtaposed with Ali jogging alone at night and being harassed briefly by the police. Mann then goes into a montage of Ali training and two boxers fighting with Ali watching. Mann fractures time by also intercutting footage of Ali as a child witnessing the brutality of racism and its effects as he sees a newspaper article about the vicious beating of Emmet Till. The film then cuts back to a mature Ali sitting in on a lecture by Malcolm X. The entire montage is masterfully edited to the beats of a medley of Sam Cooke songs. This opening sequence establishes the Impressionistic take that Mann is to going to have on Ali’s life. It is also one of his most complex, layered opening credits sequence because he shifts time frames and presents us with all of these apparently unconnected images without explaining them. This is done on purpose in order to establish a mood, give an impression of the look and feel of the film and to set up that we are seeing the world through Ali’s eyes.

The fight scenes are covered from every conceivable angle as Mann cuts back and forth from shots outside and inside the ring. The first shot we get of the ring is a close-up of the red ropes and in Mann’s films this color signifies danger. There is the potential for Ali to not just lose the fight but possibly his life. This is a risk every time a boxer steps into the ring. In the Liston fight, Mann alternates between camerawork inside the ring, with tight and close point-of-view angles so that we are right in the ring with the boxers, and shots just outside of the ring but still close to the fighters. This gives the fight scenes a real visceral impact and immediacy that has not been seen since Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). The Liston fight also shows how Ali could work a crowd of boxing fans just as well and in just the same way as the crowd of journalists before the fight.

Unlike most boxing films, Mann wanted to get inside the ring in order "to bring you inside the strategy and tactics, to bring you into the round as far as I could." To this end, Mann would often be in the ring with the fighters with a very small digital camera. To achieve the most realistic fight scenes possible, Mann really had Smith and the other boxers hit each other. The director recalled one such incident: “When James Toney as Joe Frazier knocks Will down, we did three takes of that — every single one of those left hooks he connected. When Will stands up on the one that's in the film, that wobble is not acting — you can tell how shaky he is.”

Mann also uses a cool, blue color to suggest intimacy and does so in the scene where Ali and Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), who would become his first wife, dance in a nightclub. They are close together, flirting with each other as Mann drenches the scene in blue much like he did with Neil McCauley entering his house in Heat (1995) and Will and Molly making love in Manhunter (1986). Ali is temporarily in an area of safety and love but this will change very soon.

After an interview with legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), Ali’s life takes a turn for the worse as he refuses to be inducted in the Army and is arrested. He then denounces the war in an interview and is subsequently labeled as being unpatriotic. He is stripped of his boxing title as Heavyweight Champion of the World, his boxing license and his passport. Like Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Ali is threatened by the powers that be for telling the truth and being his own man. It becomes obvious that this is a war of attrition in an effort to bleed Ali dry financially and threaten him with five years in jail. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the Temple of Islam suspends him just like they did to Malcolm X.

Cosell and Ali meet up and the veteran broadcaster, conscious of how bad off his friend is but not acknowledging it publicly, puts him on television despite network pressure. Cosell allows Ali to speak his peace about his ban and dazzles everyone again with his showmanship. It really is a testimony to Cosell that he did this. When everyone else had abandoned Ali, the T.V. personality stuck by him and used his considerable clout to put him back in the public eye. This interview is the turning point for Ali who wins a fight. Only then does Herbert and the Temple of Islam come back to him but Ali makes it clear that they do not own him. His eyes have been opened and he now knows just how much he can trust them.

Ali culminates with the legendary Rumble in the Jungle where Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire. Ali was not the favorite going in as Foreman was younger, stronger and the Champ. Mann, again, hints at the potential danger of this opponent when we see Foreman training, pounding a punching bag with powerful hits all with a greenish filter, a sign of peril in a Mann film. Sure enough, during this period Ali drives away his second wife (Nona Gaye) who does not like his relationship with the Temple of Islam because she feels that they are exploiting him. While still married to her, Ali becomes interested in a female journalist (Michael Michele) from Los Angeles who is in Zaire doing a profile on the boxer. This relationship effectively ruins his second marriage and Mann does not gloss over this showing that Ali was clearly in the wrong.

This portion of the film was shot in Johannesburg, South Africa and from there, an hour journey to Maputo, Mozambique because Mann liked the architecture in Maputo. In 1974, the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" bout between Ali and George Foreman took place in Kinshasa, Zaire which had since become the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there was too much political unrest for Mann to shoot there in 2000. Associate producer Gusmano Gesaretti remembers that Mann fell in love with the architecture in Maputo. It was predominantly built by the Portuguese during the middle to later part of the century with buildings done in Art Deco-style curves and arches alongside others with straight lines in the block style of the 1960s. All were very aged and weather-beaten and looked very much the way Kinshasa was in the 1970s.

The "Rumble in the Jungle" was filmed over five weeks in Machava Stadium, five kilometers northwest of Maputo. The stadium was used to host large international soccer tournaments but had fallen into disrepair — there wasn't even any electricity. The production spent $100,000 repairing and upgrading the 64,000-seat capacity stadium. They structurally engineered and replicated a ring and canopy that was 40 feet high, 82 feet wide and weighed over 40 tons. Over 10,000 extras were needed for the scene where Ali makes his entrance into the stadium. Fliers were distributed in Maputo inviting people to watch the filming. The production also cast 2,000 extras that would be costumed and fill seats on the floor around the ring. On the night of the scene, over 30,000 people showed up.

Known mostly for mindless, yet entertaining action films like Bad Boys (1995) and Independence Day (1996), Will Smith was not exactly most people’s first choice to play Muhammad Ali. However, Smith shows that he has the capacity for more substantial work with Six Degrees of Separation (1993) but he had never attempted anything as challenging as this project. Smith captures Ali’s distinctive speech patterns, especially his flamboyant, larger-than-life public persona. Like Anthony Hopkins before him in Nixon (1995), Smith does not look exactly like the actual person he is playing. Instead, he manages to capture the essence and the spirit of the man. He also does a good job of conveying Ali’s conflict between his loyalty to Islam and to his family and friends. Smith peels back the layers to show that there was so much more than Ali’s flashy public side. For example, most people only saw Ali and Cosell as antagonists, but this was only for show. In fact, they were good friends and the sportscaster was willing to help him out in any way possible.

Did Mann meet with much studio interference? "Oh, I’m sure the studio would have wanted a different movie altogether. They'd have wanted it PG-13 as opposed to R-rated, which means you can't say 'motherfucker.' That would have added another $20m to the box office." Mann did have to worry about an escalating budget. Originally set at $100 million, it had risen into the neighborhood of $109 million. It made Sony so nervous that they shut down the production for a week in the autumn of 2000 until Mann and Smith agreed to trim some of the production costs and assume partial financial responsibility for budget overruns. The studio also brought in foreign investors who would distribute the film overseas.

Ali received decidedly mixed reviews. Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “It does not brutally impose itself on the audience as so many big, riskily expensive films do ... A thoughtful epic is both a rarity and an oxymoron. But that’s what Ali is, and you can’t help being drawn sympathetically into its hero’s struggle for mastery of himself and his era.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “The script has been developed to give Mr. Smith the opportunity to burrow inside Ali ... Mr. Smith captures Ali’s musicality, pausing in midsyllable while ranting and exhaling to punch things up and turn even a joke into something operatic.” In his review for the Daily News, Jack Mathews wrote, “More problematic is the tonal switch from public to private Ali. Smith lowers his voice to an occasionally inaudible level, and while attempting to show Ali drawing inside himself, the actor virtually disappears.”

Rick Groen, in his review for the Globe and Mail, wrote, “The fights scenes look as realistic as any ever staged for the camera, equal to and at times even better than Scorsese’s celebrated work in Raging Bull.” In his review for the Toronto Star, Geoff Pevere wrote, “Mann offers this defining decade in Ali’s life as series of almost musically composed fleeting impressions.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Yet for everything it gets right, Ali, following its superb first hour, begins to lose the vision, clarity, and structure necessary to bring its hero into full focus. Mann never quite comes to terms with the contradiction at the heart of Muhammad Ali – this regal narcissist who revels in his victories, his beauty, and his appetites yet who worships at the shrine of a religious sect that demands puritanical fealty.”

While Will Smith was praised for his impressive physical transformation into legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, the film itself was criticized for revealing nothing new about the man. Herein lies the problem that Mann and company faced: how do you shed new light on one of the most documented historical figures of the 20th Century? Ali eschews the traditional docudrama for a more impressionistic take on the man and life. Mann’s film may not say anything new about the famous boxer, but it does depict an exciting ten years of his life in a masterful and richly evocative fashion. It’s a surprisingly soulful take on Ali and an excellent addition to Mann’s impressive body of work.