Michael Mann Movies Ranked: Criminals, Shootouts, and Feeling the Heat Around the Corner

Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley in Heat (Warner Bros.)

Throughout his over-forty years of filmmaking, Michael Mann has established himself as one of the premiere directors working in Hollywood. Mann has become a specialist when it comes to crime dramas and his filmmaking showcases an eye for realistic action sequences and shootouts. But Mann isn’t just focused on the action sequences in his films. His films feature sweeping, at times melodramatic, stories about relationships and friendships and are meticulously made. He is obsessed with the intricate details of how his characters work, like how a safe is broken into or how a cab driver gets ready for his shift. He also doesn’t shy away from quieter character moments like knowing looks and brief conversations and showing how important these things can be in developing his characters and advancing the story.

Mann’s favorite subject matter is that of troubled men. Cops, thieves, hitmen, and historical figures have all been covered throughout Mann’s career. He shows us men who are great at their jobs, yet face struggles in their personal lives. Mann has a knack for getting the biggest movie stars to star as these men (Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Adam Driver, to name a few) and he surrounds them with some of the best character actors around. While Mann’s films feature heart-pounding action scenes, he cares deeply about every single character in his films. No matter how big or small the role, each character is written with depth and characterization.

Here is my ranking of every Michael Mann film, from Thief to Ferrari.

12. The Keep (1983)

Scott Glenn as Glaeken and Alberta Watson as Eva Cuza in The Keep (Paramount Pictures)
Scott Glenn as Glaeken and Alberta Watson as Eva Cuza in The Keep (Paramount Pictures)

Mann’s sophomore effort is easily his worst and the least Michael Mann film. The film takes place in 1941 Romania and follows a group of Nazis who are forced to turn to a Jewish historian to help fight an ancient demon they have inadvertently freed from its prison.

The original director’s cut of The Keep was 210 minutes long, but the film was essentially taken away from Mann in post-production by Paramount Studios. They cut the film down to two hours and when test screenings of the two-hour cut came back poorly, they cut it even more. The result of such a heavy cut makes the film almost unwatchable. The plot makes no sense, the characters aren’t developed, and the sound is all over the place.

On a positive note, it does feature some cool special effects and a great Tangerine Dream score, and featured horror elements Mann would utilize with his next film.

11. Blackhat (2015)

Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway in Blackhat (Universal Pictures)
Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway in Blackhat (Universal Pictures)

Throughout his career, Michael Mann established himself as a master of making movies about criminals. From thieves to serial killers, bank robbers to hitmen, Mann’s fascination with criminals and how they work was all over his filmography.

With Blackhat, Mann realized that the most dangerous criminals no longer did their business in the streets, but rather online and through computers. Blackhat follows imprisoned super-hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, the swolest computer hacker in cinematic history) who gets released from jail to help the US and Chinese government find the hacker responsible for triggering a terrorist attack in a nuclear plant in China.

Mann was trying something different with Blackhat and while the effort was commendable, you can feel that he doesn’t know nearly as much about computers and hacking as he does bank robbing and safe breaking. There are plenty of patented Mann action scenes (this movie is wildly violent), and there are a lot of scenes featuring characters intensely staring at computers and typing vigorously, which can only be exciting for so long.

Despite this, the film does not deserve its abysmal 33% Rotten Tomatoes score and deserves better than its $8 million domestic box office total.

10. Public Enemies (2009)

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Public Enemies (Universal Studios)
Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Public Enemies (Universal Studios)

Public Enemies is a good movie, but not a great one, which I think came as a disappointment to many. Michael Mann making a John Dillinger movie sounded like a match made in heaven. One of the great crime directors of our time was making a movie about one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century with an all-star cast. What could go wrong?

I can’t say a lot went wrong, but nothing really stands out. Johnny Depp, at the height of his powers, is good and Dillinger and Christian Bale gives an under-appreciated performance as the straight-lace, stick-in-the-mud F.B.I agent after him, Melvin Purvis. The movie’s slow pace drags throughout the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, deflating most of the film’s excitement. But, the digital photography, a bold choice for a 1920s period piece, is beautiful, and, in typical Mann fashion, the shootouts and action scenes are spectacular.

9. The Last of Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (20th Century Studios)
Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (20th Century Studios)

Adapted from the James Fenimore Cooper novel, The Last of the Mohicans takes place in 1757 and looks at three members of the dying Mohican tribe, Uncas (Eric Schweig), his father Chingachgook (Russell Means), and his adopted half-white brother Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) who try and rescue the daughters of a British colonel who were kidnapped by a traitorous scout during the heated French and Indian War.

The Last of the Mohicans is one of the most important movies in Mann’s filmography. Having made gritty crime films in Thief and Manhunter and the forgotten The Keep, Mann adapting Cooper’s novel might have come as a surprise to some. It was a big swing for Mann and something completely different. But the result was impressive. The film looks spectacular, with some breathtaking set pieces, and the score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones is a swooning and beautiful piece of music. You feel the growth and maturity in Mann as a director and the film ended up being a box office success, an Oscar player, and a critic’s favorite, firmly cementing Mann as one of the best directors working in Hollywood.

8. Ferrari (2023)

Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Ferrari (Neon)
Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari in Ferrari (Neon)

Michael Mann’s most recent film brought Mann back to the big screen following a nearly ten-year hiatus. But even being gone for so long, Mann’s did not miss a beat. Ferrari is about Italian race car driver and businessman Enzo Ferrari (portrayed by Adam Driver) and like Mann’s other biopics, this isn’t a movie that looks at his entire life, but rather a key part in the man’s life. That moment here takes place in 1957 as Ferrari pushes himself and his drivers to win the Mille Miglia, a grueling 1,000-mile race across Italy to save his auto empire.

Enzo Ferrari was a perfect subject for Mann to take on. Driver is superb in the role of a man whose entire world is on the brink of collapse. His car company is in crisis, people on his team keep dying on the track, and his personal life is a mess as he tries to balance life and emotion between two women, all while mourning the loss of his son. But through all this, Ferrari must appear confident and strong and isn’t allowed to break in fear of everything falling apart. Mann couples this complicated man with excellent visuals and a horrific car crash which is one of the most shocking scenes in Mann’s filmography.

7. Ali (2001)

Will Smith as Muhammed Ali in Ali (Columbia Pictures)
Will Smith as Muhammed Ali in Ali (Columbia Pictures)

Ali was Mann’s first foray into biopics, and he firmly established that he isn’t interested in showing a person’s entire life, but rather a key part of their life that symbolizes who they were. Known for his bold swings, Mann made a movie about legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, looking at his life from 1964-1974. During this time, Ali rose to the top of the boxing ranks while also facing backlash for his protest of the Vietnam War and his relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

Will Smith gives one of the best performances of his career and one of the best in any Michael Mann film as Ali. Smith got jacked for the role and perfected Ali’s speaking cadence, mannerisms, and attitude in and out of the ring. Mann had the actors actually box in the ring instead of the fake boxing we normally see, which resulted in some of the best boxing sequences ever put on camera.

Though it received a couple of Oscar nominations, Ali is thought of by most as a disappointment by many and one of Mann’s lesser films. But not by me. This is a rich, detailed look at one of the most iconic figures anchored by Smith’s performance.

6. Manhunter (1986)

William Peterson as Will Graham in Manhunter (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)
William Peterson as Will Graham in Manhunter (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group)

Following the debacle that was The Keep, Mann came back strong with Manhunter, a chilling police procedural about a former FBI criminal profiler (William Peterson) who gets back into the field to help the FBI find a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy (Thomas Noonan). The film is an adaptation of the novel Red Dragon and features the first cinematic appearance of Hannibal Lecter (a quietly terrifying Brian Cox).

Manhunter is one of Mann’s most visually interesting films. Working with frequent cinematographer Donte Spinotti for the first time, the film utilizes a heavy color pallet of blues, greens, and magentas to enhance mood and elevate the themes of duality. The creepy atmosphere looms large throughout the film and it kind of makes you wonder what a Michael Mann horror film would look like. Manhunter brought Mann back to his gritty crime roots and reestablished himself as one of the most exciting directors of the 1980s.

5. Thief (1981)

James Caan as Frank in Thief (United Artists)
James Caan as Frank in Thief (United Artists)

The opening sequence of Mann’s debut film Thief personifies everything we would learn to love about Michael Mann as a director. The scene shows Frank (James Caan), a safe cracker doing a job. Where most movies would play this scene of thrills, Mann played it for authenticity. He takes his time with the scene, showing Frank pulling up to the spot, the method he uses to crack the safe, the time it takes to crack the safe, and him leaving. This would symbolize everything about Mann as a director: patient, authentic, gritty, brilliant.

The rest of Thief is a crackling crime film and one of the greatest “One Last Job” movies of all time. Caan gives the best performance of his career as a loner for hire who gets caught in a scheme with the wrong people, run by a crime boss named Leo (an incredible Robert Prosky). Thief is not only a great crime film, but a compelling character study about a man who has stuck to a way of life for so long only for it to get turned upside down because of money, a theme we see often in Mann’s films.

Thief is a great calling card movie for Mann and one of the best crime movies of the 1980s.

4. Miami Vice (2006)

Colin Farrell as Sonny Crockett and Jamie Foxx as Ricardo Tubbs in Miami Vice (Universal Pictures)
Colin Farrell as Sonny Crockett and Jamie Foxx as Ricardo Tubbs in Miami Vice (Universal Pictures)

From the opening night club scene set to Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s “Numb/Encore”, you immediately knew that Michael Mann’s adaptation of Miami Vice was going to be very different from the Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas-led show from the 80s. Mann’s Miami Vice plays more like South Beach Heat as two vice detectives Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover to stop a drug ring but find their personal and professional lives becoming intertwined.

Miami Vice’s greatness rides on its vibes. Led by a dynamic duo of Farrell and Fox and a slew of character actors like John Hawkes, Ciarán Hinds, Barry Shabaka Henley, and Eddie Marsen, you are gripped by the action (particularly the final shootout), the music, the score, the go-fast boats, and the mojitos. Mann’s use of digital photography is striking, a style rarely used at the time that gives the film a look unlike any movie ever made.

While the shoot of the film was historically troublesome, the legacy of Miami Vice has grown greatly over the years, making it one of Mann’s finest films.

3. The Insider (1999)

Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (Touchstone Pictures)
Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (Touchstone Pictures)

Michael Mann earned his only Best Director Oscar nomination for his 1999 thriller The Insider. Mann stepped away from the cops and robbers and turned his focus to the criminals of Big Tobacco and those denying the truth. Based on real events, The Insider looks at 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) as he tries to convince ex-tobacco industry scientist Jeffrey Wigand (a career-best Russell Crowe) to reveal that his former employer, Brown & Williamson, suppressed research about the addictive powers of nicotine. In order to do so, Wigand must break the nondisclosure agreement he signed with the company, which subjects Wigand and his family to threats of violence and imprisonment and flips his entire life upside down. Meanwhile, Bergman must deal with corporate interference that has him questioning the journalistic integrity of CBS and the people he works with.

Michael Mann’s films are known for their realistic, thrilling action set pieces, but in The Insider, there are no guns or bullets, yet it is as exciting and riveting as any movie in his filmography. Mann co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth, and it is Mann’s best screenplay to date. The film is mostly just a bunch of people talking and yelling at each other in rooms, but the words go back and forth like the bullets in a Mann shootout, making every scene engrossing and spellbinding. The film zips by as you are engrossed by the story of a simple man (Wigand) in extraordinary circumstances and watching Bergman fight to get the story released.

Along with Mann’s Best Director nomination, The Insider earned six other Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Crowe (who arguably should have won), and Best Adapted Screenplay for Mann and Roth.

2. Collateral (2004)

Tom Cruise as Vincent and Jamie Foxx as Max in Collateral (Dreamworks Pictures)
Tom Cruise as Vincent and Jamie Foxx as Max in Collateral (Dreamworks Pictures)

Collateral was a return to form for Mann. His previous two films, The Insider and Ali, took Mann away from his street-level action roots and saw him making more dramatic, Oscar-friendly fare. Collateral brought Mann back to the streets of Los Angeles, where lonely cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up Vincent (a silver-foxed Tom Cruise) who hires him to drive him around for the night while he knocks off people he was hired to kill.

Collateral plays like a chamber piece. Most of the movie takes place in Max’s cab where Max and Vincent talk about everything from jobs to Darwin, and only features a handful of characters. Stuart Beattie’s screenplay is tightly constructed, gripping, and surprising. Foxx rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Max and Cruise gives one of the best performances of his career playing against type as the calculated but personable hitman. This is Mann’s most successful film at the box office and easily one of his best.

1. Heat (1995)

Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro and Neil McCauley in Heat (Warner Bros.)
Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro and Neil McCauley in Heat (Warner Bros.)

It might be predictable, but there is no denying that Heat is Michael Mann’s best film and the one that defines him as a filmmaker. It is a sprawling, layered crime epic about cops and robbers as they chase and try to outsmart each other. Robert De Niro stars as Neil McCauley, the leader of an elite group of high-end professional thieves. Al Pacino is Detective Vincent Hanna, an LAPD detective hot on McCauley’s trail. These two men are great at what they do and they respect each other for it. While they’re so good at their jobs, it’s their personal lives that they can’t get a hold of.

Heat is a rich character study hidden within one of the greatest crime films ever made. Mann takes his time establishing the characters and fleshing the story out. Every character in the film is interesting, even the side characters like Dennis Haysbert’s Donald, a man recently released from prison who gets caught up in McCauley’s crew, or Kevin Gage’s terrifying portrayal of the murderous Waingro. Mann knows every character inside and out and it feels like if he wanted to, he could make a film about each character without any problems.

Heat is the movie everyone will remember Michael Mann for, and for good reason. It was the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the screen together and for much of the movie they are apart. But when they meet at the coffee shop, it is an electrifying scene that reminds you why they are two of the greatest actors we have ever seen. The bank heist centerpiece is, for the writer’s money, the greatest shootout in cinematic history and one of the greatest action scenes ever. Shot and edited to perfection, the shootout is so realistic that United States Marines use it in weapons training. 

Many films have tried to replicate Heat, but none have come close. Heat is an iconic action movie, a seminal piece of 90s filmmaking, and the best film of Michael Mann’s career.

Ranking the films of Michael Mann was no easy task. Besides The Keep, which was ultimately taken away from Mann, all of his other films are good. The top five are genuinely great. He’s a risk-taker, innovator, and one of my favorite directors of all time.

Written by Kevin Wozniak

Kevin is a film critic and writer from the suburbs of Chicago. He is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, Online Film & Television Association, and Internet Film Critics Society. He usually writes movie reviews and lists of Film Obsessive.

You can find more of Kevin's work at

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