Today’s topic: sizzling energy and on-screen entertainment. When you think of entertaining, fun movies to watch, what comes to your head? Star Wars, because of the galaxy battles? Die Hard, because of the flying bullets? Something along the lines of Hellboy or even Rocky? Entertainment is the reason why so many people watch movies nowadays. In fact, the “blockbusters”, the highest grossing films of the year, are mostly action packed fantasy films, where the audience can easily sit back and enjoy a 3-dimensional CGI show that at home, well, you just can’t. We want to be entertained, but do we even care about how good the material is? An entertaining movie doesn’t have to be good. Those are called guilty-pleasures, which we watch just for the pure fun of it, ignoring the plot and characters. Personally, when it comes to entertaining movies I choose the Red series or the Ocean’s Trilogy. Why? Because they have funny lines, likeable characters and they’re overall a simple popcorn watch. However, if I had to choose serious filmmaking entertainment, one during which the viewer must pay attention to details and actually have an eye for fine direction, then I’d say look at Michael Mann’s filmography.
Mann (Miami Vice, Public Enemies, Ali) can be unknown to a lot of you. He’s not a celebrity and he has the reputation of an exhausting director to work with. He was Oscar nominated for his fine work in The Insider and for co-producing The Aviator. That was a long time ago. Now, most movie critics blame him for switching from celluloid to digital filmmaking and yes, his recent movies haven’t been a success. Yet, in my mind, he stays as one of the most visually creative directors alive. His films are often centered around criminals, policemen, detectives, agents, gangsters. The streets are Mann’s territory. When writing his own screenplays, Mann – having gathered tons of research notes on law enforcement – uses police codes and street slang. His dialogue is fast and brutal, yet, somehow he manages to pack philosophical knowledge into his projects and still make it a fun ride for the viewer. Mann’s starting point was Thief (1981), a story centered around a highly skilled jewel thief who wants out of the business at all costs. It’s an impressive first feature, and if one’s familiar with Mann’s filmography, one can immediately catch the signature details. Mann loves filming during the night, it adds to the story and action. The shadows. The darkness. The neon lights. It’s a jungle of unpredictability, a maze of dangers and surprises. By night, life is a chess game. Take a wrong turn and you’re out of the game. Make a step forward and you’re busted. That’s the truth on the streets. That’s what the thief has to deal with every night, and Mann makes the picture vibrate every time there is a glimpse of action. City lights, fire, explosions. Mann fades the viewer’s point of view to disorientate him, to make him feel insecure and put him on the spot, right in the middle of the chase. Right onto the race track, on foot.
With Mann it’s the details that count. Details sometimes might be associated with boring, unnecessary additional “stuff”, but Mann uses details to create action. Details are the basis for the ultimate climax. The first twenty minutes of Thief is just James Caan’s character drilling a precise hole into a safe vault. Mann captures every movement, every little sound, which later on makes an impact on what will follow. It all matters, so don’t blink. Mann went on and tackled the subject of criminality in a more mature, adrenaline pumping way later on in 1995, with his magnum opus – Heat. Not only does the film star the impressive duo of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, it also contains one particular scene that will go into history as one of the most memorable action scenes in cinema. I’m talking about the heist scene, where the gang led by De Niro’s character gets caught after a nearly picture perfect bank robbery. That’s when Mann, out of what could have been a simple chase sequence, makes a spectacle for the viewer’s eye. We move from the gang’s car onto the main street, into the back of a supermarket, into a car again. All of this while switching from the police’s perspective to the gang’s. Both sides fighting for survival. One running away, the other trying to bite the other’s tail. It’s not cat and mouse. It’s more complex. It’s survival of the fittest. Bullets whistle and rattle against the car’s’ windshields. People scream in panic. Policemen fall to the ground, calling for back-up. The gang finds its way to the safety zone. Some members don’t. It’s a whole maze of brilliant ideas: Mann’s staging is a plan for the ages. Everything follows something. Every part matches. That’s entertainment.
Mann didn’t stop after Heat. He made a particular comeback (after the mediocre Ali) with the exciting Collateral; the story about a cab driver (Jamie Foxx, convincing), who realizes his current fare is a hit man (Tom Cruise, untouchable) that has been having him drive around from mark to mark until the last witness to a crime is dead. What’s so revolutionary about this movie? The amazing proper (very important) use of digital cameras. Mann catches the LA nightlife just like in a documentary adding a realistic feel to the whole setting. It seems as if we’re driving along Foxx and Cruise, with Cruise’s gun pointed at the back of our head. It feels like we’re running short of ideas, trying to figure out what to do to stop the hitman’s killing spree. And again, Mann with the use of complex camera work creates a visceral storytelling action scene set in a LA nightclub. The music’s loud, the hitman is on the hunt for his next target, meanwhile the cab driver is trying to alert the police. The crowd, the heavy bumping music, the pulsating lights, yet again are all part of a maze. It all comes down to who is the first one to press the button. Who is the definitive hunter.
Thought provoking entertainment. So rare in today’s cinema, yet we learn to appreciate it more and more as the time goes by. It’s not always about packing the highest amount of action or sexuality. It’s about building up a mood, an exciting setting , a plot that actually goes places and teaches us a new way of looking at what surrounds us. A new way of grasping energy and life. Mann drives us into thinking about what amazes us, what leaves us, the common public, in awe.
If we know the answer, we shall be entertained by the right material. That’s it. No more superheroes.