12 June 2009

MANN'S MEN: L.A. TAKEDOWN (1989)

As I probably should have mentioned in reviewing Manhunter, Michael Mann didn't just spend the 1980s directing movies - in fact, it's probably the case that for half of the decade, he wasn't even primarily thought of as a filmmaker. From 1984 until 1990, Mann was executive producer on the hugely popular TV cop show Miami Vice, and though he directed no episodes of the series, he did help to guide its iconic tone and appearance, bearing all the responsibility for its notorious pastel color scheme himself (though back in the '80s, people shockingly failed to realise how damnably cheesy the show was, and so Mann was actually given credit for its appearance, though thankfully none of his films ever looked the same way). Attaching his name so intimately to a massive hit did plenty of good for Mann, we can be sure; it's almost certainly the reason that the supremely box office-aware producer Dino De Laurentiis thought to tap him for the Manhunter job in the first place.

Now, the next bit of the story is at least partly conjecture, but it's generally thought to be the case that a few years after Miami Vice started up, Mann had the opportunity to develop a new cop show for NBC, set in Los Angeles and with a tone much grittier than its East Coast cousin. For the pilot episode, Mann took a very long screenplay he'd been sitting on for some time, and sliced it down enough to fit into a two-hour television slot. The other possibility is that Mann had the opportunity to shoot a made-for-TV movie and used this old screenplay as the basis for that, and given how little room the film ends up leaving for further adventures of most of its main characters, I tend to suspect that this latter tale is true. There's no evidence either way, and it doesn't really matter in the end: Mann directed a television feature that never turned into a series, although a few years later he was able to remake the screenplay in its original form.

This first stab at the truncated story is called L.A. Takedown; the latter is Heat, and it's probably Mann's best-regarded film as well as one of the most respected crime films of the 1990s. There's quite a lot that the two versions have in common, down to the level of shot set-ups and editing patters in a few cases; but it would violate the whole spirit of this project of tracing Mann's development from film to film to compare the two now. Whatever the fanboys who have given the telefilm a faintly toxic reputation on the internet would say, it's Heat that owes L.A. Takedown a debt, and not the other way 'round. And in the spirit of fairness, and chronological accuracy, I see nothing wrong with giving the original credit for what is done right about it, even those things that would be later recreated exactly.

Herein, Mann tells a tale of a cop and a robber, returning somewhat to the basic idea behind Manhunter but with a better structure - the robber doesn't just suddenly become a character midway through. The cop is Detective Vincent Hanna (Scott Plank) of the LAPD homicide division, investigating an armored car heist that left three guards dead. The robber is Pat McLaren (Alex McArthur), a sort of criminal mastermind who has designed a score so impeccable in every detail that the police are only just able to figure out even how to begin tracking down the perpetrators.

Both Hanna and McLaren have two lives, professional and private, and just as they're both buzzing through their roles as detective and thief with skill becoming men at the top of their fields, they're also both facing not-so-minor personal crises: Hanna's very lovely marriage to the very lovely Lillian (Ely Pouget) is starting to suffer for his constantly being a cop, while McLaren has done something that he has always studiously avoided, which is to fall in love with Eady (Laura Harrington), a woman who spells her name in an incredibly stupid way. This isn't the right time for either man to have relationship troubles, but it's going to make life a lot harder for McLaren, given that as all this is going on, he is unaware that someone is about to turn tipster for the cops.

It is fair to say that L.A. Takedown is a film much better written than executed. At no point in his career to this point had Mann been given a particularly expansive budget, but this is the first movie of his that looks just plain cheap. And there's a big difference, bear in mind, between "cheap" and "low-budget". The Keep looked very low budget, but it still looked good. Certainly, Mann's last telefilm and first feature-length project, The Jericho Mile, looked like it cost whatever money the producer had in his jeans that day, but Mann was able to turn that liability to his advantage. L.A. Takedown just... looks... cheap. One of the best and commonest ways to stretch a budget, especially in making a crime film, is to take your cameras out on the honest-to-God streets of the city and just take in the grit and grime. Every half-assed exploitation filmmaker knows that. And Mann does this thing, going out into Los Angeles and point his camera at locations, and trying to capture all the majesty of that city's scummy underbelly. Sometimes he even manages it, too.

Far oftener, though, the film is a bit overexposed and the interior sets are palpably under-designed, and you can't shake the feeling that this was all done on the quick - because it absolutely was done on the quick. It's the filmmaker's job to make sure that you can't tell it was done on the quick, and this is something that the makers of L.A. Takedown did not do. The film has the appearance at every moment of a hatchet job that got cranked out in record time because nobody involved had any real desire to make it.

After the stylistic bravado of Manhunter, Mann plainly retreated into less ambitious territory this time around (though since much of time his experiments in Manhunter failed, this is more of a lateral move in some ways than a regression). His basic aesthetic was firmed up pretty well by this point, and so it's not fair to say that L.A. Takedown is badly directed; but the motif of snugger-than-usual shots that made Manhunter and The Keep look so distinctive doesn't survive the transition to the 4:3 aspect ratio of television all that well, and in the main L.A. Takedown looks an awful lot like a typical TV production - something decidedly untrue of The Jericho Mile, making it all the harder to believe that it was made ten years earlier by the same man. That said, there are moments within L.A. Takedown where it's clear that a gifted stylist was behind the wheel, especially a few extraodinary dolly shots hurtling in reverse through the police station late in the film where the movie flirts, briefly, with the visual poetry that can be found even in Mann's weakest theatrical features.

If there's one point at which the film honestly manages to distinguish itself, it's the actors. Only Alex McArthur, playing the role that Robert De Niro would essay in Heat, really manages to stink up the joint, confusing "methodical loner" with "stilted" and for some strange reason, "wide-eyed". As the character Al Pacino would later play, Scott Plank presciently plays him as in the style of Pacino during his manic phases, blustery and flailing - and yet, while Pacino has manged to turn this into a crushing liability in the last decade or two, Plank actually manages to make it work, giving Hanna the air of a man who always seems like he's out of control without actually being out of control - yet at the same time, just one or two steps away from exploding completely.

The best performances are the supporting characters, though. The best, by far, is veteran TV guest star Xander Berkeley as Waingro, the man thrown out of McLaren's gang who turns informant as a result; he plays the character somewhere halfway between strung-out addict and extra-terrestrial, a mumbling, sleepy-eyed figure with an erratic edge and the ability to string together a half-dozen sentences before he has any idea what he's saying. It's an electric performance that's not in the film nearly long enough, but cannot be ignored for one second when he's onscreen. Though a few of the other cast members fall short, most - particularly the two women - acquit themselves at or more often above the level required of a 1989 television project.

If L.A. Takedown ultimately doesn't work, it's not for lack of the fact that it ought to. It's a simple, well-worn story about a criminal and a law-enforcer who's lives and minds mirror each other to an uncanny degree, and Mann's enough of a writer to make that work without ever having to resort to the dreaded "we're not so different, you and I" speech. In fact, his dialogue throughout is of particularly satisfying quality. The men do not speak like real people, but their speech is stylised in a consistent way that give the lines a pleasantly stagey feeling.

Yet the screenplay, as I've often said, is not the film: the film in this case is lazy and shoddy in far too many aspects to be considered anything but a failure. Knowing the whole backstory, one gets the sense that this was the movie Mann made when it seemed like his screenplay wouldn't otherwise see the light of day, but that he had to make enough compromises that he wasn't very interested any longer. Say what one will about Heat (my now eight-year-old memories aren't very generous, but I'll be rewatching it anon), at least it gave him a chance to rework the material with engagement and enthusiasm, and not the apparent shame that this film gave him.

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