What Michael Mann Teaches Us About Enduring Crime Fiction
I’ve had Michael Mann on the brain lately. As a crime-fiction fan, how could I not? “Heat 2,” the novel he co-wrote with Meg Gardiner, is about to hit bookstores around the world; it’s a prequel/sequel to “Heat,” his epic cops-and-robbers masterpiece. He’s gearing up a biopic about Enzo Ferrari in Italy, and supposedly the cinematic adaptation of “Heat 2” is on the way at some point.
A few months ago, as the massive PR campaign around “Heat 2” cycled to life, I had the opportunity to ask Mann a few interview questions. There was one thing on my mind: given the enormous cultural cachet that “Heat” has earned over the past two decades, why take on the risks and challenges that inevitably come with crafting a sequel? The last thing you want to do is retroactively harm a great work’s reputation.
“As the writer and director who created [Heat], my perspective is internal on the lives of these people, their pasts, and projecting into their possible futures,” Mann said. “So, I’m seeing opportunity more than how it’s regarded externally.”
I had to puzzle over that one. Talking to Gardiner, his co-author, helped. “When Michael and I first talked about his ambitions for the novel, he already—I think always—had the characters’ pasts and possibilities for their futures in his mind,” she said. “For the movie, he had written background biographies on the major characters. Those bios were rich and enticing. Reading them was like opening a treasure chest.”
As I re-watched most of Mann’s filmography for a few articles I’ve been writing, I thought about his meticulousness in crafting his fictional characters’ lives. As I watched heist movies by other writers and directors during the same period, I recognized a corresponding absence of detail in the character-work. That’s why Mann’s movies stick in the culture, I think; there’s a richness, a subtextual texture beyond even the distinctive lighting and digital camerawork.
The protagonists in Mann’s films are also smart. In every gun battle—from the climactic bank robbery in “Heat” to the kinetic raid in the middle of “Blackhat”—the characters involved are all smart professionals with plans. They have well-practiced tactics they manage to carry out for at least a bit, until things slip out of control—then it’s all chaos. It’s a nice contrast with so many crime films where the plot hinges on at least one character behaving like a total idiot.
I feel the need to shift away from Mann for a bit. I re-watched Godard’s “Breathless” the other night, catching for the first time all the elements that Arthur Penn swiped for “Bonnie & Clyde”—Belmondo wearing sunglasses with one lens missing, just like Beatty does at the end of the latter film. Melville’s “Le Samourai” is next, and maybe its spiritual remake, John Woo’s “The Killer.” Mann isn’t the only writer-director who became famous off structuring his crime stories around near-peerless professionals in the grips of existential despond—it’s a decades-long theme in crime fiction, and one that probably doesn’t bear much resemblance to real life.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. Brandnew: his „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022), inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – Just out: Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.
Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.
His column „Gunsmoke“ with us:
„Heat 2“ – How Do You Craft a Sequel to a Masterpiece?
4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
On „Heat“: Manhunter Takes Down Thief: How Michael Mann’s Early Career Led to ‘Heat’
The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor“
„Nightmare Alley“ – How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
David Cronenberg – The Carnal Crime of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”
With Parker, Donald E. Westlake Pulled Off Crime Fiction’s Most Spectacular Magic Trick
Guy Ritchie’s Return to Crime Films is Worth Watching