With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief.
Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes.