THE LISTS: Top 10 performances from Michael Mann films

Posted by · 11:24 am · June 30th, 2009

Russell Crowe in The InsiderWith the forthcoming release of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” (review) dominating — quite impressively, I might add — the publicity circuit this week, all eyes are on Johnny Depp.  An Ulmer Scale X factor for this character study posing as a summer blockbuster, Depp’s performance is sure to draw champions and detractors alike for its delicate, internalized particulars.  But of one thing we can be certain: the work is of a piece with Mann’s typically detailed approach to character.

Mann’s collaborative process with his actors typically involves something called “character acquisition,” a tightly-conceived regimen, of sorts, that gives his films’ characters the authentic touch that makes his work so novel.  Many times these details won’t even be discussed in the overall narrative, but their background impact on the performer is unmistakable.  Take, for instance, the photos of the childhood home of Tom Cruise’s hitman Vincent in “Collateral” that Mann brought to the actor’s attention, merely by way of more fully developing the character’s clearly complicated formidable years.

The result of this hard work has been a slew of captivating, at times career-best performances from some of the most accomplished actors working today.  A Michael Mann production represents the opportunity to go deeper with a performance and perhaps even learn more about the craft.  Will Smith has frequently discussed his collaboration with Mann as the most rewarding experience of his professional life.  And, as Javier Bardem once told me, “When Michael Mann invites you to his party, you don’t turn him down.”

So with that, a collective representing the best performances to come from Mann’s 10 feature films to date seemed the best way into this week’s installment of The Lists.  It’s a very personal list, of course, as yours would be.  There are three performances from one film, none from two, and a pair of unconventional supporting turns to shake things up.  After going back through the director’s work last week in preparation for the list, even I was surprised my #1 choice was left standing, but regardless of order, see this as a way to compliment a true actor’s director.

Tom Noonan in Manhunter10. Tom Noonan, “Manhunter” (1986)
Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon” was the first installment in the Hannibal Lecter saga.  Brian Cox took on the famed role five years before Anthony Hopkins made it legendary, but more compellingly sewn throughout the narrative of “Manhunter” was Tom Noonan’s psychopath Francis Dollarhyde.  A unique blend of vicious angst and gentle inner torment, Noonan captured a truly deranged individual with equal parts idiosyncrasy and human complexity.  When he shares the screen with Joan Allen (in just her second feature film), the character’s deepest rifts are fascinatingly illuminated.

Wes Studi in The Last of the Mohicans9. Wes Studi, “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
A two-time Mann collaborator, actor Wes Studi dominated the screen in the director’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”  Mann built an intriguing romance out of compelling performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe at the heart of the film, but the narrative is ultimately driven toward its harrowing Chimney Rock conclusion by Studi’s relentless native Magua.  Stalking the screen with a burning desire for revenge, Studi’s work itself builds toward a delicate moment opposite actress Jodhi May where, if just for an instant, we catch a glimpse of his lost humanity.

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies8. Johnny Depp, “Public Enemies” (2009)
In Mann’s latest feature, heartthrob Johnny Depp — whose talents long ago shed that pejorative — gives perhaps his finest performance yet in “Public Enemies.”  As Depression-era gangster John Dillinger, he simmers underneath an unspoken specter of obsolescence, the rise of organized crime slowly leaving him no place in the world.  His impassioned lust for life clashes with that sense of foreboding somewhere deep down inside, making for, from an observation standpoint, one of the more fascinating Mann-directed portrayals.  Depp makes his on-screen charisma work to his advantage here in unexpected ways.

Russel Crowe in The Insider7. Russell Crowe, “The Insider” (1999)
Russell Crowe’s performance as former tobacco scientist and Fortune 500 whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand in “The Insider” was the one singled out by most awards-giving bodies in the fall of 1999, but ironically, it didn’t prove as compelling to me as other portrayals display.  That shouldn’t be a mark against the work, of course, which was considerably authentic and still Crowe’s finest hour.  The actor was fresh off of a star-making turn in Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” and he made the most of the opportunity, digging under the skin of a haunted, ultimately somewhat tragic figure who was nevertheless a hero.

Tom Cruise in Collateral6. Tom Cruise, “Collateral” (2004)
Burned out on biopic material in the wake of “The Insider” and 2001’s “Ali,” Mann turned to material that would allow more creative freedom in Stuart Beattie’s “Collateral,” a script that featured a profound opportunity for whoever lande the role of Vincent, a contract killer checking off his list on the streets of Los Angeles.  Jamie Foxx’s supporting turn as a cab driver-turned chauffeur drew the most praise, which is unfortunate since I wouldn’t call it top-tier work.  But Tom Cruise’s performance as Vincent was electrifying, the dialog sliding off his tongue as he consistently betrays deep, meaningful emotional scars.

Robert De Niro in Heat5. Robert De Niro, “Heat” (1995)
Mann’s greatest opus to date is a project he cherished so much he filmed it twice (TV’s “L.A. Takedown”).  Much of that personal obsession certainly was mirrored in the film’s two leads, but it was Robert De Niro’s thieving professional Neil McCauley that moved the needle most.  Capturing the mindset of a — perhaps unhealthily — detached criminal, De Niro put forth a very understated portrayal, one that doesn’t typically get its proper due but is probably one of the legend’s most complete performances yet.  Calculated, driven, no-nonsense, but undeniably human — Mann’s characters in a nutshell.

Chrisopher Plummer in The Insider4. Christopher Plummer, “The Insider” (1999)
Christopher Plummer’s failure to receive an Oscar nomination for the 1999’s best supporting performance in “The Insider” is one of the Academy’s darkest hours, in my book.  As “60 Minutes” front man Mike Wallace, Plummer not only captured the cadence necessary to sell his work to a discerning audience, but the deeper particulars that drove the man, making him a fully fleshed-out character of high drama.  His most compelling moments might be in the day-to-day activities of a working news man, but Plummer certainly had his share of fire and brimstone to dish out along the way.

Will Smith in Ali3. Will Smith, “Ali” (2001)
“Ali” perhaps belongs among Mann’s top three or four films, an unconventional biopic with an unconventional approach to the narrative with, but of course, an unconventional choice for the iconic lead character.  Will Smith trained for nearly a year before production began, five days a week, six hours a day, running in combat boots through snow, lifting weights, boxing, etc.  If that doesn’t say commitment, I don’t know what does.  He also nailed speech patterns without resorting to impersonation and, above all, found the rhythms of an unlikely hero who wouldn’t be told how to live his life.

All Pacino in The Insider2. Al Pacino, “The Insider” (1999)
Al Pacino’s performance in “The Insider” found no love in the awards circuit in 1999.  Even Christopher Plummer received this critical laurel or that, but Pacino somehow was forgotten entirely.  It’s unfortunate because his was the best, most thoroughly realized performance in the film.  As CBS journalist Lowell Bergman, Pacino found the right balance of professional urgency and calming stewardship opposite Russell Crowe’s uneasy whistle blower.  That might have been a tall enough order for most actors, but Pacino also embossed Bergman’s personal struggle, his conscience terrorized by the actions of his employer.

James Caan in Thief1. James Caan, “Thief” (1981)
Considering the chronological order, “Thief” was the first film I revisited for this retrospective, and surprisingly, James Caan’s lead performance (his best work ever) stood the test of Mann’s highly accomplished portfolio to top this list of performances.  More than any other actor here, Caan was perhaps most assisted by Mann’s manner of filming, forcing observation of the character’s incredibly detailed work ethic as a high-end burglar.  But as expected, there were so many avenues to explore in the character, many of them writ large in a lengthy but compelling diner monologue that cemented the notion that Caan, in Mann’s feature debut, offered the finest performance of the director’s catalog.

And that’s how it breaks down for me, but what about you.  What are your favorite performances from Michael Mann’s films?  Have you say in the comments section below!

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44 responses so far

  • 1 6-30-2009 at 11:42 am

    McGuff said...

    Have not seen: pre-92 Mann, Public Enemies.

    Question: you’ve sung Cotillard’s praises from Public Enemies…was she close?

    My top seven:

    1. De Niro, Heat
    2. Studi, Last of the Mohicans
    3. Cruise, Collateral
    4. Pacino, Insider
    5. Crowe, Insider
    6. Day-Lewis, Last of the Mohicans
    7. Smith, Ali

  • 2 6-30-2009 at 11:42 am

    Smokey said...

    A well-made, well-needed list. Nitpicks aside, methinks you nailed it. Well done, Kris.

  • 3 6-30-2009 at 11:43 am

    McGuff said...

    You know what, that was off the top of my head, and Will Smith deserves to be higher. Put him tied with fourth with Pacino until I revisit those movies. Day-Lewis got the bump because I JUST watched Last of the Mohicans.

  • 4 6-30-2009 at 11:59 am

    adelutza said...

    I have not seen yet “Public Enemies” but Johnny Depp is one of my favourite actors and I’m big on “Heat” (because of Robert de Niro).
    Now you made me really curious about the film when you say that Depp’s performance is ” perhaps his finest yet” as for me he hasn’t been able to surpass his role in “Arizona Dreams” . If that’s true, it would be really something indeed.

  • 5 6-30-2009 at 12:08 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    McGuff: Yeah, maybe just missed it. 11-ish.

  • 6 6-30-2009 at 12:22 pm

    AdamL said...

    Can’t believe Crowe ranks third in The Insider alone! You like Pacino in full shouty mode? Really?!

  • 7 6-30-2009 at 12:39 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    He’s not in full shouty mode (the myth becomes the truth). He has one scene where he truly goes off and a few where he gets riled up, but if we’re being honest, the role of a journalist is one that demands “fully shouty mode” more than any other, I’d say. Especially this journalist.

  • 8 6-30-2009 at 12:41 pm

    Nathaniel R said...

    no love for actresses. I mean, I guess Mann is one of those directors who doesn’t care much about them (very manly films) but there’s still Joan Allen in Manhunter, Jodhi May and Madeline Stowe in Last of the Mohicans to consider.

    also ARGH. you’ve called Jamie Foxx a supporting actor in Collateral. Not again…

    anyway. interesting placement of all three INSIDER principals but I’d completely flip the order with Crowe taking #1 for the top ten.

  • 9 6-30-2009 at 12:46 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    @ AdamL:

    The full shouty mode scene Kris refers to just happens to be the best scene in the film, for me. Intense, loyal, no-spin, don’t give me any BS that Pacino’s character throws right back at Wallace and CBS. If there is one scene I take from The Insider, that is it.

  • 10 6-30-2009 at 12:56 pm

    Chase Kahn said...

    Russell Crowe is the best actor in “The Insider”, sorry. He’s never been better. Pacino, although does a fine job, is just being Pacino — that’s just the way I feel.

    On “Public Enemies” — I think the dichotomy between Bale’s Purvis and Depp’s Dillinger really elevates the latter.

  • 11 6-30-2009 at 1:00 pm

    Nagads said...

    No love for Gong Li (Miami Vice) or Diane Venora (Heat).

    I mean, I know Mann’s film are so focused on his male characters–but those two really stood out, no?

  • 12 6-30-2009 at 1:08 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    It’s too bad that you believe Pacino is only “shouty” in The Insider, AdamL.

    Solid list, Kris. My only problem is Caan at #1. I watch Caan and I see Sonny Corleone. I guess that’s too bad as well (and perhaps narrow -minded and unfair), but I can’t shake the Sonny persona from Caan. Bummer.

    I’d put Barry Shabaka Henley’s performance in “Collateral” in my top ten. Henley was able to convey his character’s entire personal history when he responds to Cruise’s question as to whether Henley looked up Miles Davis. I think Henley responds:” No, got drafted…and ran into some other things…”

    Colin Farrell’s performance in “Miami Vice” is an interesting one. Given the fact that he checked into rehab the day after shooting was completed adds a bit more complexity to his take on Sonny. Talk about an “anxious” performance. I wouldn’t put it in my top ten, but in time I could see it there.

  • 13 6-30-2009 at 1:16 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    Kris couldnt be more off topic, but i realized something recently, looking back over past oscar winners I saw that almost always does an actor need to be in an R rated film to actually win an oscar, also very few movies that are not rated R win best picture, makes me wonder if Fincher or Nolan had gone farther with Button or the Dark Knight and had an R rating could it have been stopped at the Oscars? The only movies or performances in the last decade to win but not be from an R rated movie are Heath Ledger and Return of the King. Do you think this is bias or it takes an R rating to really deliver and if not the work has to be fantastic?

  • 14 6-30-2009 at 1:21 pm

    Nagads said...

    Also: what about Bruce McGill (The Insider)? His brief scene in that courtroom steals the show.

  • 15 6-30-2009 at 1:40 pm

    Michael W. said...

    Great list. I would have Russell Crowe higher though. Definitely my winner from 1999. And Christopher Plummers performance in The Insider is one of my favorite performances of the last 10 years. It still baffles me that he wasn’t nominated.

  • 16 6-30-2009 at 1:42 pm

    Aaron said...

    @American Requiem.

    Million Dollar Baby was PG-13, and Hilary Swank won for that. And Morgan Freeman.

    Other performers who’ve won: Reese Witherspoon, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Hudson Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Penelope Cruz.

    But I guess it is curious that actresses appear to win for more lighter fare.

  • 17 6-30-2009 at 1:42 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Regarding the ladies (which I knew would draw some heat — no pun intended), I’ve always like Stowe in Mohicans, Judd in Heat and now, Cotillard in Enemies. Venora is off the mark but onto something in Heat, and ditto Gong Li in Miami Vice. The rest, in my view, prove to be ornamentation for the most part. Tuesday Weld in Thief, for instance, has always stuck out as a missed opportunity to me.

  • 18 6-30-2009 at 2:25 pm

    moviefan said...

    I so disagree about The Insider, Kris. IMO The Insider is still Mann’s best movie and Russell Crowe’s best performance. He should be #1 on the list and he should also have won the Oscar that year. Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino belong on the list but not nearly as high and certainly not ahead of Crowe. And Cruise and Smith ahead of Crowe? Really?

    If I’ve seen Thief I don’t remember it so can’t comment on Caan but I love Heat so have no problem with DeNiro. Tom Noonan was great in Manhunter but so was William Petersen. You don’t have DDL either, for Mohicans….maybe the list needs to have 15 places, if the Academy can do it, so can you, lol.

  • 19 6-30-2009 at 2:32 pm

    AdamL said...

    Actually I have to be honest, I liked Pacino in The Insider as well, and the shouty scene worked. Crowe was def better though.

  • 20 6-30-2009 at 2:52 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    moviefan: I agree the film represents Crowe’s best performance, as I indicated in the copy. But you’re right, too many good performances to squeeze into 10.

  • 21 6-30-2009 at 3:21 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Gong Li is appalling in “Miami Vice.” And I say that as a Gong devotee.

    Russell Crowe takes the gold for me, hands down, but this is a fascinating list.

  • 22 6-30-2009 at 3:36 pm

    geha714 said...

    Diane Venora is just amazing in Heat and in The Insider. Crowe is number one for me.

  • 23 6-30-2009 at 3:42 pm

    R.J. said...

    I thought Jamie Foxx was fantastic, as was Tom Cruise, in “Collateral” and he would definitely be on my list. I haven’t seen the bulk of Mann’s work, but I absolutely loved “Collateral” (a favorite of mine), I liked Ali, and I didn’t hate “Miami Vice”, so I’ll definitely have to familiarize myself with more of his stuff. Kudos to Mr. Gittes for mentioning Barry Shabaka Henley’s performance he was great. I also liked Jada Pinkett-Smith but I can completely understand not having her on this list.

  • 24 6-30-2009 at 3:50 pm

    walnuts said...

    1. Colin Farrell — Miami Vice
    2. Tom Cruise — Collateral
    3. Robert De Niro — Heat
    4. Al Pacino — Heat
    5. Gong Li — Miami Vice

  • 25 6-30-2009 at 5:18 pm

    Gustavo H.R. said...

    Excellent read. I agree with compliments made to Cruise (underrated in that role) and perennial Oscar-snubee Christopher Plummer.

  • 26 6-30-2009 at 5:20 pm

    Gustavo H.R. said...

    And yes, as somebody else mentioned, Bruce McGill had a terrific cameo in THE INSIDER.

  • 27 6-30-2009 at 5:47 pm

    RL said...

    The fact that you left Daniel Day Lewis off the list is lame and obviously a lame ploy for ‘controversial talk back!’

    damn … I fell for it!

  • 28 6-30-2009 at 5:59 pm

    Lazarus said...

    I’m disappointed that no one besides Kris has mentioned Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter. In my opinion he creates a much more human character than Hopkins, and also doesn’t have to resort to hammy mannerisms to make the guy threatening. Extremely underrated.

    And while William Petersen’s Will Graham may be a bit too angsty and stagey, I think he did a great job of illustrating the character’s obsession, and skating the line between sanity and psychosis.

    Another perf which should have been mentioned is Jamie Foxx in Ali. In my opinion, his best work, finding the soul of a very troubled character.

  • 29 6-30-2009 at 6:23 pm

    RichardA said...

    To me, it’s Jamie Foxx in Ali and Collateral.
    And, I don’t even like Jamie Foxx.

  • 30 6-30-2009 at 6:35 pm

    Rogers said...

    I agree with many others in the comments, Crowe is number 1 on my list.

  • 31 6-30-2009 at 9:19 pm

    Lynn said...

    I am so glad to see Tom Noonan on your list. I haven’t seen him in much else, and I’m not even sure he is still acting, but recently I was watching an X-files episode which featured him as the villain. He is a master at playing creepy.

  • 32 7-01-2009 at 5:41 am

    El Rocho said...

    Noonan’s still going at it. He just had an incredible, hilarious and underrated role in Charlie Kaufman’s debut ;’chynedoche, New York’.

    Personal best performance from Mann’s resume is by far a tie with Tom Cruise in Collateral and Will Smith in Ali. De Niro in Heat and Caan in Thief come in a close second. But I have always loved William L. Peterson’s underrated performance–perfectly controlled acting–in Manhunter.

  • 33 7-01-2009 at 8:50 am

    Ivan said...

    How could you forget Kevin Gage (Waingro) in Heat!
    Another great female performance is from Jada Pinket Smith, her two scenes with Jamie Foxx are the best of Collateral.
    Also Naomi Harris did well in Miami Vice.

    My top ten
    Russell Crowe/The Insider
    Al Pacino/Heat
    Robert De Niro/Heat
    Kevin Gage/Heat
    Ashley Judd/Heat
    Colin Farrell/Miami Vice
    Jamie Foxx/Ali
    James Cann/Thief
    Jada Pinket Smith/Collateral
    Brian Cox/Manhunter

  • 34 7-01-2009 at 9:33 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I didn’t forget him, Ivan, he just didn’t make the cut. He hovered as a possibility for a bit, though.

  • 35 7-01-2009 at 6:51 pm

    Jacob said...

    Three stand apart for me, in rough order: Colin Farrel in Miami Vice; Tom Cruise in Collateral; and Robert De Niro in Heat. All due respect to the other leads, supporting performances, and daring roles (Gong Li in Miami Vice comes to mind), but the these three both best embody Mann, and in turn, give performances that are the most layered and locked-in of all his films. Caan was the first, and he’s admirable, but that film is slightly too literal for the performance to shine.

  • 36 7-19-2009 at 1:11 pm

    carrie said...

    in Miami Vice,the bromance between Fox and Farell doesn’t work with me,i never believed on their relationship , Farell is total unwarrant in this movie , he’s a miscasting(look,acting)and this movie is the beginning of the end between his acting and me.I never understood why Gong Li character was attracted by Crockett.Happily the movie is beautiful to see .
    on Public Enemies,Depp’s Dillinger is too likeable to be a ‘honest good ‘gangster and i don’t believe him when Depp tries to be more menacing but as Depp is a very charismatic actor and he’s in 80% movie,it works.
    why isn’t there actresses in this top? in usually,actresses are top in Mann movies.
    Cotillard is radiant in Public Enemies( even if her accent is bad)

  • 37 7-27-2009 at 5:41 am

    s said...

    johnny depp is the best actor in public enemies he shoud be at no 1

    and i think he will take his first oscar next year for his performance

  • 38 9-12-2009 at 2:34 pm

    ryy said...

    Here’s my top fifteen, ten isn’t enough.

    1.Robert De Niro_HEAT
    2.William L. Petersen_MANHUNTER
    3.Russell Crowe_THE INSIDER
    4.Will Smith_ALI
    5.Al Pacino_THE INSIDER
    6.James Caan_THIEF
    7.Daniel Day-Lewis_THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
    8.Brian Cox_MANHUNTER
    9.Robert Prosky_THIEF
    10.Jamie Foxx_ALI
    11.Tom Cruise_COLLATERAL
    12.Dennis Farina_MANHUNTER
    13.Colin Farrell_MIAMI VICE
    14Christopher Plummer_THE INSIDER
    15.Johnny Depp_PUBLIC ENEMIES

  • 39 9-12-2009 at 3:03 pm

    Fitz said...

    Christian Bale deserves his first Academy Award nod for Public Enemies. Seriously wtf MPAA?

  • 40 10-20-2009 at 3:59 pm

    Brian said...

    I’m shocked and surprised by crowe being so low, i loved pacino too, i don’t agree with those that say he is just being pacino. I did not share your likeness for caan, i thought thief was not a very good film and caan’s performance nothing noteworthy, the same goes for all the performances in manhunter.

    1. Crowe – Insider
    2. Pacino – Insider
    3. Day Lews – Mohicans
    4. Cruise – Collateral
    5. Smith – Ali
    6. Plummer – Insider
    7. Foxx – Collateral
    8. Foxx – Ali
    9. Depp – Public Enemies
    10. DeNiro – Heat

  • 41 7-10-2010 at 7:49 am

    k said...

    Glad someone’s willing to give Cruise his due; he carried that film, not Foxx. Rarely mentioned, perhaps too expected, but Cruise at his best (which he hasn’t been since around the time of ‘Collateral’, unfortunately) is, in some ways, beyond just good acting — he’s an electricifying, intense presence.

    Perhaps that’s what matters the most, at least as far as anchoring a film.

    Biggest problem with the list is the lack of mention for, perhaps, the greatest actor working, Daniel Day-Lewis.

    Also, Deniro’s performance in ‘Heat’ has to be number 1. A lynchpin performance, and the finale is, looking back and now forward, a sad precursor to Deniro’s fall as an actor.

    But his presence in ‘Heat’, much like the thematic and psychological underpinnings of his character and the narrative and visual flow from that, is transcendent.

    When Deniro was still Deniro.

  • 42 5-13-2012 at 8:37 am

    Allen from Austin said...

    Best performance in a Michael Mann film… Tangerine Dream of course…

  • 43 5-17-2012 at 12:23 pm

    jepressman said...

    Crowe should be number one on that list.His Wigand performance is just outstanding. Depp,are you kidding? He was lethargic in Public Enemies and brought down the entire film. Cruise? Actually when I saw Collateral I wondered why Crowe was not cast as the hit man. Hollywood politics?

  • 44 12-18-2012 at 3:05 am

    heyberto said...

    Hard to argue with any names here. They’re all outstanding. I won’t attempt to rank them, but want to offer some thoughts. Pacino in Heat is just as compelling as DeNiro. The cop seems to amp up and down as if he’s off the rails, despite being in complete control. He knows exactly which persona to utilize to get what he wants, and he turns it on a dime. Wonderfully complex and nuanced. Mann actually made me forget Tom Cruise was Tom Cruise for two hours. His finest performance ever, and genius casting against type. The same can be said for Will Smith. To have him embody the Ali role without impersonation was key, and is also Smith’s best role, and he gets lost in there. Effectively portraying an Icon is not easy. He could cast anyone in a role, and I’d buy in, solely because of what he’s been able to do with actors whose personas overshadow the roles they play. That’s fine directing. Hope he’ll direct something else soon!