This is an old school R. Where the ratings don't have to look good and the score is clean. (I have some work to do before I retroactively write MPAA justifications from '81)
DIRECTOR: Michael Mann
Okay, am I allowed to review a movie based on one very impressive scene that stuck with me? Like, the movie's pretty great, but forget that. That scene. The scene pictured above. (Confessional: there was a pretty amazing still I tried to use for the image above, but I got Barracuda'd pretty hard. So I actually used a shot from the scene that was great.)
I'm apologizing for not liking Michael Mann. I haven't seen his truly great stuff. He's got some okay stuff that never really stuck to my ribs. He's also got some really bad stuff. I've mostly seen those. Like, I haven't seen Heat. I have seen the Miami Vice movie reboot. Yeah, that's where I'm at with Michael Mann. The problem that I've always had with him is that he makes really technically focused guy flicks that are loaded with jargon and accuracy. So much so that the emotional core seems to disappear from the movie because he's so wrapped up in his own attention to reality. It's like hard sci-fi with me. This is hard crime thriller, I guess. Considering that I'm interested in what makes characters tick and I want to relate to characters, I don't really love his other stuff. Thief, however? His first real movie? Yeah, I can get behind this. He's got a lot of what will show up in his later works in terms of attention to detail and thrusting the viewer into a world that may be foreign to the common man, but he's also got a lot of heart in this movie. It doesn't hurt that he really kind of pre-dates the trend of making the anti-hero in a titular role situation. There's a lot going on here and I love it.
The movie focuses on kind of a jerk. But he's a jerk with integrity. He has a set of codes and he works his own way. Let's not forget, this guy is a horrible human being, but Mann never really hides that trait from his audience. Yeah, Scarface and Walter White are great, but there's nothing really all that grandiose about Frank. His name is Frank! It is a synonym for "honest." He's as grounded and real as a guy could be. He's just really good at robbing people. He's one of those technical criminals. This will be Mann's bread and butter later on, but his proficiency doesn't come from working the system. It is about knowing how to blow the doors off something...Michael Caine style. And that is so weirdly satisfying. How is he going to blow the door off of a safe? I don't know, but it looked pretty cool. That's super nifty. I feel like this is a pride-in-research thing. But Mann is still young and hungry in this movie. He is not competing with the public persona that will become Michael Mann. Like my criticism with Lucas in his prime, the guy is still vulnerable and that vulnerability makes an interesting movie.
Okay, now the part that I was really preaching about. The diner sequence. Frank, as I keep harping on, is not a nice guy. But Mann makes him ridiculously relatable. Okay, he's an abusive personality and Jessie can do better. (Can she though? Now I want to analyze her. She doesn't love herself enough. She needs a strong support system. Anyway, I digress.) But there's this scene. It's nearly ten mintues long. A ten minute long short-reverse shot / medium shot. It's a play in this middle of this crime thriller about a thief and his vulnerabilities. This scene was preceded by Frank manhandling Jessie. He's utter scum. The guy is a punk who needs a good punch in the face. He would have received that punch had he been easier to punch in that bar. But then we go into a discussion about what prison life is like. Then follow that thread by what makes a criminal get up in the morning. It's about dreams and hopes and The Secret and that's super bizarre. This movie is so grizzled that you can taste the old whiskey on your breath in the morning and the movie comes to a dead stop to talk about feelings for ten minutes. I really hope that the original cut included this scene because paranoid me thought that this scene was added after the fact to make the character more sympathetic. The movie needs this scene. It holds together on this scene and it makes all of the characters far more grounded. Knowing Michael Mann from the garbage movies I've seen, I'm thinking that this scene was added on afterwards. The guy seems pretty emotionally distant and I can just see a test audience going, "Who cares about this jerk?" But it's such a great scene and I can't help but think that Mann was just having fun with his cast coming back. It just vibes like it was done in post, but the best use of a post scene to fix the movie.
There are a few things that kind of ring false, but they are minor. The main plot of the film seems like an afterthought to the imagery of how people break into safes. The inciting incident happens fairly late in the movie and it is resolved very quickly. I'm not saying the results are effective, but I would have liked to explore more of the conflict rather that fairly instantaneous results. As part of that end, I'm going to be cryptic about my spoilers. Why does Frank do what he does before confronting the antagonist? The imagery is great. That's the image I was going to put at the top originally. But I feel like all those character choices were put in the movie so Mann had something cool to film. Add to that some absolutely bizarre casting choices. I can live with Jim Belushi. I think the guy gets a bad rap because of the sheer majesty of his brother. He serves the movie just fine. The casting I'm choosing is Willie Nelson. Nelson does an okay job, I guess. But his presence definitely pulls me out of the movie. Also, the role is pretty minor and I don't have time to accommodate to his choices. It is a killer for me. Finally, Frank is pretty inconsistent in his choices. Frank seems good at keeping his emotions in check for most of the film, so having him explode at the adoption agency seems really out of character. But again, these are all choices for the director, not for the betterment of the film.
The movie is super cool. I had a really good time and I keep forgetting how dark '80s crime drama is super riveting. It isn't perfect, but it definitely has some perfect moments.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.