Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

I had been wondering what turn Michael Mann's career would take after "Ali" flopped. Would he pursue his course into straight drama even if it seemed the material didn't suit him? Or would he step back into the safe confines of the formula thriller on which he built his career? He apparently chose the latter, or had it chosen for him, and the result is a film that feels like regression for a director that was making such progress.

Considering that Mann's thrillers were always supreme entertainment, the best of them ("Heat") ranking among my favorite films, it's not such a bad place to find sanctuary. Here, as always, he digs deep into these two lead characters, each one in a unique position to look deep inside the other one. Their conversations, particularly the one beginning with Vincent's childhood, are fascinating little scenes, every one of them self-contained and woven together to form a film. When the plot must advance, it is rarely abruptly; Mann is genuinely interested in these men and their dialogue, and soft-pedals into each big scene after dwelling wisely on their words.

Despite Mann's comfortingly mellow touch, despite total engagement in their complex characters by the two lead actors, the film is denied greatness by the very act of playing it safe. It requires frequently ridiculous contrivances to keep the plot going, including being founded on the biggest contrivance of all (why wouldn't Vincent just rent a car and drive himself around?). It goes through the standard pressure-points of the genre with such rapidity, bringing on the routine traffic stop scene so early in the affair, that it seems desperate to play conventional and doesn't know how: This film is plainly improvisational by nature, from being filmed on video to allow the actors limitless takes, to the way it introduces arbitrary points of interest simply because it finds them interesting. Had the film been allowed to follow its own path instead of being crammed into a traditional thriller's structure, drummed-up final showdown and all, it could have really been a knockout.

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