By Ty Burr
Updated June 21, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT


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I was really against words when I started,” writer-director Michael Mann told an interviewer in 1992. ”I wanted to make revolutionary films with no dialogue at all.” In five films over 15 years, the Miami Vice creator has hewed as closely as possible to that credo while still being taken seriously at the Hollywood power buffet. That’s not to say that his latest .357 Magnum opus, Heat, is a ”revolutionary” film — it’s more interested in smashing cars than the state. But this three-hour heist flick may be the most extreme example of Mann’s fetish for atmosphere instead of plot, gesture in place of character, score over dialogue. Ironically, the macho-intellectual chutzpah that is Mann’s greatest strength has also been his Achilles’ heel.

His first film, Thief, displays the same assets as Heat: a high-class burglar hero (James Caan) whose philosophy of life is somewhere between Hemingway and Zen; a creative sense of lighting and camera placement; and a score (by Tangerine Dream) that’s a character in its own right. Working from Frank Hohimer’s novel, Thief devolves into standard bang-bang, but it’s an impressive debut for Mann’s street-corner existentialism.

His second feature, however, is one of the weirdest movies to come out of the ’80s. The Keep has something to do with WWII German soldiers occupying a mysterious Carpathian fortress only to come face-to-face with — a demon from hell? An alien from space? A waiter from Schrafft’s? Damned if I can tell. Based on an F. Paul Wilson book, The Keep wastes a fine cast (Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne) while playing like Alien on downers.

The director returned to scenes of crime with his next film, Manhunter. This adaptation of the Thomas Harris best-seller Red Dragon has gained a cult rep as the better of the two films that feature the character of Hannibal Lecter. It shouldn’t be oversold, though: It’s creepier but less flashy than Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. William L. Petersen plays another terse Mann’s man, an ex-detective with a knack for thinking like a serial killer, but it’s Tom Noonan who burns up the frame as Petersen’s primary prey, one of the freakiest madmen Hollywood has ever given us. Still, Mann’s aural/visual aesthetic rules the movie; you’ll never listen to ”In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” without locking the doors again.

The director pulled a 180-degree turn with his version of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Surprise: It’s his best movie. Not as coherent as Manhunter, Mohicans is a pleasant reminder that you don’t need coherence when you’ve got iconic stars like Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, an intoxicating score, and viscerally cinematic forward momentum. Yes, Mohicans turns the French and Indian War into an MTV love story — but it’s still better than the book.

Given that successful artistic stretch, it’s disheartening to see Mann retrench into a crime thriller — and not even a fresh one at that. Essentially a remake of his 1989 made-for-TV movie L.A. Takedown, Heat is most notable for its moods: From the noonday chaos of the opening armored-car robbery to the doom-ridden showdown between cop Al Pacino and criminal mastermind Robert De Niro, Mann puts you into a scene with a specificity no other working director can match. Unfortunately, home video cripples Dante Spinotti’s wide-screen photography, forcing viewers to pay closer attention to the script and performances.

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They don’t measure up. De Niro is fine and taut as a man fully alive in his isolation, but Pacino is at his merry-rottweiler worst, while Val Kilmer and Jon Voight, among many others, don’t have the time to do more than posture and move on. Mann fashions brilliant cinematic parts here — De Niro pulling his team out of a nighttime heist when he realizes the cops are watching, the two stars meeting in a diner — but the parts don’t create a whole. ”I gotta hold on to my angst,” says Pacino’s character at one point, and in a funny way, that reflects Mann’s willful opacity. His movies preserve angst, all right, but too often at the expense of his art. Heat: B-
Thief: B
The Keep: D
Manhunter: B+
Last of the Mohicans: A-


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