Film Review

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: L.A. TAKEDOWN (1989)

In 1979, Michael Mann completed a 180 page screenplay that chronicled the exploits of a driven police detective and his criminal opposite. The screenplay was inspired by Mann’s conversations with Chicago detective and writer Chuck Adamson who, indeed, had matched wits with a high-line professional thief named Neil McCauley and, in the end, ended up killing him in a standoff. While Mann was able to break this screenplay apart over the years and place bits and moments of it into his various theatrical and television enterprises, his first chance to get as close as he could to doing the whole enchilada presented itself in the form of a television series Mann wanted to develop that centered around the robbery homicide department of the L.A.P.D. The 180 page script was cut in half, the tempo quickened to stroke level, and the two-hour pilot, eventually renamed L.A. Takedown, was produced.

In 2021, there are two ways to look at L.A. Takedown. The first would be to watch it in a retrospective manner where it will do nothing but look like a weak sauce, junior high stage performance of Heat, Mann’s now-classic theatrical retelling of the same material from 1995. While L.A. Takedown moves at the zippy pace of a television movie and I’m honestly astonished just how much of Heat Michael Mann was able to boil down into a 96 minute running time, absolutely nothing about it can touch Heat in terms of story, character, or mood which flattens this down into something just a little more heated than a stone cold table-read.

Another way to look at it is a logical step in the evolution of Michael Mann, one of the few filmmakers whose television work is as important as his feature work. In 1989, L.A. Takedown was Mann’s shot at getting his baby to the screen and as intact as humanly possible. We weren’t going to see reworked moments like Mike Torello coming home to his wife with another man in the early episodes of Crime Story; Manhunter’s Hannibal Lecktor and Will Graham looking at each other from across an expanse to evoke a certain kind of mirroring of the soul; or, as in Thief, Frank bitching to Leo about the transponders in the bumper and the wheel well. With L.A. Takedown, we were going to see all of Michael Mann’s heart and soul in the context in which it was originally envisioned.

For the uninitiated, L.A. Takedown is a story about whip-smart and laser-focused LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Scott Plank) who runs a crew of cops out of the robbery homicide department. On the other side of the moral coin is Patrick McLaren (Alex McArthur), cool-as-ice professional thief who, like Hanna, surrounds himself with a team of trusted professionals to pull of complex and high risk robberies. When the hold-up of an armored car leads to a multiple homicide, Hanna’s ears perk up and he is on the case while his marriage begins to slowly disintegrate under the pressure of his vocation.

Shot in nineteen days, L.A. Takedown has all the hallmarks of something that was created on the fly and thrown together as quickly as possible. And, while watching it, one can’t help but feel that this must have been a little more than heartbreaking for Michael Mann. Rewriting and resetting so many of Heat’s moody, noirish night pieces in the bright white California sun is as visually upsetting as if someone remade every Val Lewton movie and set them on Miami Beach at high noon. And even without the benefit of seeing the upgrade that would come in 1995, the leads in L.A. Takedown can’t help but feel like Heat if it were performed by the Max Fischer Players. Scott Plank and Alex McArthur are fine-ish but, setting aside the level of craft inherent in them versus DeNiro and Pacino, I’m not so convinced there’s enough there there in Plank’s performance to carry the television series that didn’t materialize from this. Where Pacino is a haggard and heavy-lidded live wire, Plank comes off like a grumpy and harried dad who’s mostly put out because he has to drive his fifteen year old to the mall.

And what L.A. Takedown excises robs it of its overall power. One of the main joys of Heat is realizing that is a love story about two men who don’t realize their in the best relationship of their lives with each other. In L.A. Takedown, there is no cross flattery between Hanna and McLaren. The mutual respect is there as evidenced by the third-string version of Heat’s classic diner scene. But the deep, solitary longing of two guys who cannot live normal lives is muted as it chooses to contrast McLaren and Hanna’s respective relationships with their significant others which, due to the nature of this being a pitch for a television series, had to have a happier ending of reconciliation which betrays a core commandment in the Mann universe and is the very thing that caused Manhunter to just miss masterpiece status.

But L.A. Takedown is not without its merits. I feel that, taken in the spirit of its original intent, it’s an important piece of the Mann puzzle and, on a technical level, Mann’s utilization of ethereal, synth-driven soundtracks is effective. His obsession with procedural detail is always fascinating and welcome and, regardless on whether or not the delivery is flat, let it be known that Michael Kenneth Mann can write a line of dialogue or two.

While this was meant to be a series that explored Hanna’s department, this was not yet a show that the networks wanted and Mann found himself again at a crossroads. While he would continue to work on a couple of more projects for television in the capacity of writer and executive producer (Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and Drug Wars II: The Cocaine Cartel), Mann was feeling the squeeze of television once more. Having blown his ultimate load on what amounted to a disappointing and failed television pilot, Michael Mann began to look toward America’s past to explore those themes that were close to his heart that might help regain some theatrical traction.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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