THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: CRIME STORY (1986-1988)

In 1986, Michael Mann was having a hell of a year. The second season of Miami Vice had proven to be immensely popular, he stewarded Band of the Hand into the theaters as an executive producer, did the same for Manhunter as writer and director, and, finally, brought Crime Story to the airwaves, making him for one brief moment of time, the king of television.

Had Crime Story been half as successful as Miami Vice, there is little doubt that Michael Mann’s name and the show itself would have eclipsed Miami Vice in terms of the conversation as to what it contributed to pop culture. Where Miami Vice‘s influence was immediate and changed the entire look of America for a hot minute, Crime Story would have undoubtedly been on multiple critics’ lists regarding the greatest network television shows of all time for its sophisticated storytelling, stellar period soundtrack, and its impeccably gorgeous production design. Alas, what can only be deduced as network interference spoiled the soup and caused Crime Story to remain only as the foundation of a brilliant show that went horribly wrong, the seeds of which nonetheless scattered far and wide and brought forth amazing fruit.

Inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s astonishing Berlin Alexanderplatz, itself a multi-part German television series shown theatrically in New York City in 1980, Crime Story was to be a less episodic television series than Miami Vice and, instead, one that told, in serialized format, one continuous narrative of the obsessive cat-and-mouse game between Chicago Detective Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and arch-criminal Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) that would span five seasons and cover the years 1963 through 1980. What Mann ended up with was more like Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, the Fassbinder series that was initially scheduled to run in eight episodes but was canceled after only five, ending the series on, for Fassbinder, an uncharacteristically happy note JUST before it got to take its planned darker turn. Crime Story’s aborted ending after just two seasons doesn’t do that, exactly; but, if you cock your head and squint just right, the end of the show does makes a certain amount of sense and create a small amount of satisfaction if looked through the prism of the universe of Michael Mann.

But before we get to the ending, we have to talk about the beginning and, man, what a glorious inception Crime Story had. Jumping off with an explosive, two-hour feature pilot, directed by Abel Ferrara, Crime Story chronicles the rise of Ray Luca, small-time Chicago criminal. Moving up through the ranks with the help of boss Phil Bartoli (Jon Polito), numbers runner Max Goldman (Andrew Dice Clay), cat burglar Frank Holman (Ted Levine), dim witted henchman Pauli Taglia (John Santucci), and crime lord Manny Weisbord (Joseph Wiseman), Luca is chased from one end of Chicago to Las Vegas and, ultimately, the end of the earth by Lieutenant Michael Torello and his gang of coppers; Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan), Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), Walter Clemons (Paul Butler), and young blood Joey Indelli (Bill Campbell). Working both sides of the fence at different points in the show is Stephen Lang’s David Abrams, mob boss son on a crusade against injustice and crime.

Crime Story was created by Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger and, indeed, is based off of true crime events that were massaged and fictionalized. A soft bridge between the cinematic, operatic opulence of The Godfather and the gritty, granular details of Goodfellas and Casino, Crime Story’s biggest progeny is likely The Sopranos which had the benefit of coming after Scorsese’s at-bat and was able to launch off the familiar popularity of Goodfellas in the same way that Happy Days was able to cloak itself in American Graffiti clothes. But, in 1986, Crime Story was well ahead of the curve by attempting what Mann described as a 20 hour movie that snaked its way through the annals American history via the exploits of its two leads.

So, yes, that is, indeed, the outline of the plot of Casino you’re seeing (except with Andrew Dice Clay in the Robert De Niro part) deep into season one yet nine years before the Scorsese film hit the theaters. In fact, you’re likely to see a plot element or casting decision or three that will likely remind you of things you’ve seen before and, yes, you’re probably right in deducing that they’re familiar. For Crime Story was the Velvet Underground of television shows; nobody watched it but those that did created their own piece of organized crime entertainment that became wildly popular. This is likely due that the raw material assembled for Crime Story, interviews Reininger conducted with actual mob figures, made up so much of the material that was used in the mob genre in the wake of Goodfellas and Wise Guy, the 1986 Nicholas Pileggi book from which Goodfellas was adapted.

Unfortunately, after the show made a ballsy and epic shift from Chicago to Las Vegas halfway through its first season, something seemed to go terribly wrong in the second season. The show’s pace seemed to quicken and format seemed to become more conventional. What was a single-threaded chase for Ray Luca became stagnated in the Las Vegas desert while the antagonist and his exploits were pushed to the background and rinky-dink, Mickey Mouse investigations found their way onto Torello’s desk. This mimicked the way Miami Vice did business but Crime Story could ill-afford to monkey with its special formula and when chasing Ray Luca becomes secondary for a saggy spell, the show becomes far less compelling and at its worst, it feels like a routine cop show in a fun period getup. Perhaps this was a way to help bring new viewers on board at random which would be next to impossible as the show was envisioned. Hell, in the 44 episodes that make up Crime Story, there are at least three clip shows designed to square-up the audience that HAD been paying attention. And, given the way networks and television shows work, I can’t say that I entirely blame NBC. But it was a devil’s gambit; a bid for an audience that didn’t show up which ended up costing the show its greater reputation.

The other issue with making Crime Story less of a two-hander about Torello v. Luca and more one about Torello and His Flying Sack of Maniacs is that the latter approach is rote and most definitely NOT Michael Mann territory. For whatever lofty heights the first season reached, Crime Story winds up being the lesser between itself and Miami Vice mostly because either one of two things have to occur in Mann’s work; either you have the cop chasing the criminal who is just the mirror image of himself -or- the cop and the criminal are almost so intertwined that they’re basically the same person. This may seem like a distinction without much of a difference but this is also how Miami Vice could stay true to itself in almost every episode and not get out of the scope of Mann’s overall thesis. Without Ray Luca’s constant yang to Torello’s Yin, Crime Story becomes inert and uninspired although I will admit that “Blast From the Past,” the second season episode in which Torello hunts for the kidnappers of his ex-wife’s current husband, remains one of my favorite episodes of the entire show due to its uncommon emotional depth.

There does seem to be a point in which all of the historical tchotchke that riddles the central story of Crime Story eventually became too heavy for Mann and the networks which is why the last three episodes of the second season seem to jettison their historical skin and literally look like a three part Miami Vice arc in which Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in a high level of jeopardy in an unfriendly and unstable South American country. But say whatever you will about those episodes in which the show begins to (almost jarringly) expand into territory Mann would later touch with his stewardship of 1990’s Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, itself a prototype for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it regains the core vision of the series where obsessed men strip themselves down to their most base and animalistic to hunt and destroy each other which, honestly, is what really drives Michael Mann’s best work. In fact, if you took away all of the period detail in Crime Story, you’d basically have the soul of his next feature, the 1989 made-for-television film, L.A. Takedown, which would find more important life six years later when Mann remade it as Heat. This is also why Crime Story’s second season’s cliffhanger ending, seen as tragically disappointing because of the show’s cancellation, is one that could also be easily seen as the most logical ending of all of Mann’s works. For if Torello’s season one threat to Luca of “I’m going to take you down right” is to be taken literally, there is really no other way for things to end outside them killing each other. So its probably best for everyone involved that they all perish when that plane hits the water lest Dennis Farina survive end up like poor Al Pacino or James Caan at the endings of Heat and Thief, respectively; a broken soul left to wander the earth alone, pouring over his miserable past with nothing especially to look forward to.

It’s something of a disappointment that Crime Story never became what it was inspired to be. Dennis Farina gives a tremendous, physical performance which looks like he hurt a few stuntmen and day players and it is a complete joy to watch him throw people through candy glass and slam their heads a little too forcefully into the props even when the show goes off the rails. Anthony Denison should have been a bigger star away from television and got done completely dirty when the second season ate his character away into being just a tiny bit more than supporting cast member. Andrew Dice Clay is surprisingly at ease and amazing which makes me wish that the show would have helped him pursue bigger and better acting roles which was a better vocation for him than what he became. And, man, Joseph Wiseman really gets to sink his teeth into a role that apparently contractually allowed him to eat every shred of scenery he wanted to when he was on screen. In the annals of Wiseman’s villainy, I’m generally more gripped and terrified when he’s lecturing someone in Crime Story than when he’s talking world domination with James Bond as the titular character in Dr. No.

And it’s probably not for nothing that contributing to the show’s inability to rise above a mere cult curiosity is the way it’s been treated since its broadcast. Due to Universal’s balking at picking up the show due to its tremendous price tag when they were already paying over $1 million per episode of Miami Vice, Crime Story was taken in by the television department over at New World Pictures, one-time Roger Corman outfit that had decided to go straight in the mid-80’s. To say that Universal was a better custodian of its intellectual property than New World is a vast underselling of the situation because Miami Vice has done nothing but lived on in syndicated reruns with little or no problem in terms of physical media or otherwise in allowing the consumers to watch the full, unedited show with as brilliant a picture as humanly possible. Not so with Crime Story. First released onto VHS in the subpar SLP mode (always a then-sign of trash quality), the show never fared any better when it made the jump to DVD. Now collected into one nine-disc DVD set by Image Entertainment, Crime Story is a disgraceful presentation of compressed, dark, and muddy images with sloppy and obvious soundalike cues sprinkled about where musical clearances were not obtained. To add insult to injury, the second season is presented without preservation to the original broadcast order necessitating one to consult IMDB to ensure they’re on the right track. This is a show that simply screams to be restored and if it were given better treatment, the show’s obvious shortcomings in the second season wouldn’t land as particularly hard as they do. For no matter how stupid Miami Vice got in its fourth season, Mill Creek made Crockett and Tubbs pursuing a tank of bull semen look absolutely and achingly beautiful. And if you think you’re going to get around these things by watching whatever app reflects as having this as a streaming option, you won’t as they’re using the same transfers.

Crime Story remains one hell of a show, regardless of its ignoble end. One could watch nothing more than the first season and think that Michael Mann had delivered one of the greatest things in all of network television. Alas, the second season came with a price tag that brought it down to earth. As the 1980’s were coming to a close Mann was finding the world of television to be just as frustrating as what he had experienced with The Keep and Manhunter. But he still had a couple of other small-screen projects standing between him and his big-screen reboot and they’d be ones in which he’d further shape his thematic ideas of good guys and bad guys living amid cultural, urban, and emotional wastelands.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead

We don’t deserve a movie as outright cool, fun, entertaining and badass as Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead. Know how I know? Because of all the flagrant, inflammatory hate I’m seeing in discussion threads across the universe of social media, hate being doled out largely (not exclusively, before you lunge for my throat) by people who would have surely left this film alone and even enjoyed it if Snyder had nothing to do with it. Know how I know *that*? Just trust me, I know how these fuckwit Snyder hating trolls operate and I know it’s only because of his involvement that they are being this way. Anyways enough about them and onto the film, which is sensational and one of the best I’ve seen this year. Snyder sets the action in and out of a cordoned off Las Vegas where an undead outbreak several years before has decimated sin city and the zombies, unlike anything you’ve seen so far in the genre by the way, have taken up a sort of primordial tribal residence amongst the once glitzy landmark city. A Japanese billionaire (Hiroyuki Sanada) assembles a team spearheaded by Dave Bautista’ ex special forces short order cook to venture in and bust open a casino vault with millions inside, but is that what he’s really after? Bautista is wonderful and proves yet again what a talented presence he is on top of being a solid action dude. His character reconnects with an estranged daughter (Ella Purnell) who works inside the quarantine zone and here the film finds a pathos usually uncommon in this arena. Others in the cast make vivid impressions including Tig Notaro as a cavalier helicopter pilot, Mathias Schweighöfer as an adorably aloof safecracker, Theo Rossi as a despicably abusive government soldier, Ana de la Reguera as a fearsome warrior and perennial slime-ball Garrett Dillahunt as a smarmy private security expert with a shady agenda. My favourite was the lovely Nora Arnezeder as the aptly named Coyote, a highly trained scout who regularly ventures into the hot zone and serves as their guide, she brings a humanity and urgency to both her lines and action choreography that really struck a chord with me. The zombies are ruled by a sort of patient zero Alpha named Zeus, played ferociously by Richard Cetrome, who also played the leader of the pack Big Daddy Mars in John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars, a nice shoutout to a similarly maligned flick that actually totally rocks. Zeus has a Bride (Chelsea Edmundson) who for me was the most striking character in the film, a serpentine zombie queen with fiery contact lenses, a shrieking battle cry and wonderful physicality provided by model Edmundson. And yes there is a zombie tiger too, and yes she is one incredibly badass and beautifully rendered creature creation that is a highlight of the film. Look, this is a torqued up, totally ridiculous, hyper-stylized B movie about an outbreak in Vegas, wherein lies an undead jungle cat, zombies who ride skeletal horses and can both breed and have little zombie babies all wrapped up in a heist flick with a father daughter relationship, anti government undercurrents and more action that you can shake a severed head at, so if you’re trying to poke holes of logic and burrow for plot holes in a film that intrepidly incorporates all of that under one two and a half hour tent, well babe the only person you’re fooling is yourself. So what the story isn’t a succinct high-wire act of pushpin writing beats and realistic arcs? It’s a kickass old school horror flick with a huge cast, buckets of beautiful and strikingly graphic gore (eat your heart out, Bear attack scene from The Revenant), wonderfully unique mythology, dark humour, tons of gorgeous twilight and magic hour cinematography, splashes of genuinely affecting emotional work and a fucking zombie tiger named Valentine! So chill out. My top film of the year so far 🐅 🐯

-Nate Hill

Exploring the Nic Cage B Grade Cinematic Universe with Nate: The Trust

Finally a solid Nic Cage B flick!! I needed one and The Trust provides a great time as Nic and Elijah Wood play two sad-sack Vegas cops who decide to rob a mob safe house that’s several zeros above their pay grade. This is such a quirky little recipe, super casually paced yet efficient when it needs to speed things along, darkly comic, dangerous, loopy and easy breezy where it counts despite fizzling out a teensy bit in the last act when it should have turned the dial up to full spicy but we can’t have it all. Cage is the cavalier veteran cop who somehow doesn’t see the impending danger in their plan and does a fairly effective job of luring super nervous Wood into it, and yes it all goes violently wrong at one point but probably not as spectacularly as you’re hoping. They bust into an adjacent apartment, hold a girl (Sky Ferreira, almost unrecognizable and doing a great job with little dialogue) hostage and begin to drill below into the mysterious safe, all the while cracking weird jokes, chomping fast food and bickering like sixth grade buddies. That’s basically it, and while the thing is a brisk ninety minutes it still manages to feel laidback and laconic, probably thanks to a hilarious Cage who seems not to have a care in the world in one of his freewheeling, casually weird turns. Wood is a good choice for a nervous guy but he always freaks me out a bit, he’s 39 now and still somehow just comes across as a teenager in physical appearance and essence but he does a fine job that aside. Ethan Suplee shows up as a bored, shady detective with a penchant for Russian roulette and, curiously, the late great comedian Jerry Lewis randomly makes his final film appearance in a quick cameo as Cage’s father. This isn’t anything explosive or super unique and like I said, much of the film is eccentric buildup to a less than earth shattering resolution but there’s tons of welcome sarcastic humour, a nice jazzy original score and Cage subtly hams it to effect playing Vegas’s laziest and craftiest beat cop. Good times.

-Nate Hill

MARTIN SCORSESE’S CASINO — 20th ANNIVERSARY REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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It’s crazy to think that later this month, Casino will be turning 20 years old. I’ve seen this film roughly 5,380 times and I’ll likely see it another 5,380 times more. It’s a fabulously engrossing saga of Las Vegas sin and sleaze from the very first masterful frame all the way until the last. Some have called it Goodfellas Gone West, and that’s not far off, but stylistically, the two films are very different, while of course sharing some similar traits. Casino is epic, where Goodfellas stressed the intimate, and it’s the smart way that Scorsese and his writers pulled all of the small and big pieces together that they were able to concoct a packed narrative that still remained coherent. Cinematographer Robert Richardson was in full-on flamboyant mode here, with massive crane shots, huge camera-arm movements, with as dynamic of a sense of how to shoot in widescreen that can possibly be referenced. The film is truly massive in both visual scope and story structure, with one element complimenting the other, as Scorsese ladled on the blood, profanity, and gangster tropes that everyone would expect from the master of this particular milieu.

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There’s a journalistic sweep that encompasses much of Casino, with Richardson’s always-searching camera gliding over the action, covering the various back-room deals and violent confrontations with extreme, flashy style. Scorsese was obsessive in the details both large and small during Casino, which allowed Richardson the chance to gaze his camera upon the glitz and glamour that Las Vegas exudes. There’s a mind-boggling amount of three to five minute long stedicam shots in this film, which gives off an observational quality from moment to moment. It’s sort of ridiculous to be honest. Richardson lit Sharon Stone like a goddess in this film, always showing off her eclectic wardrobe and sexy make-up to maximum effect; do you think she had 10,000 costume changes? Everyone in the cast was just perfect, with De Niro and Pesci doing their best “one-two” with each other, while Richardson and Scorsese caught all of the sly moments from these two supreme actors which helps make this film what it is – an obsessive study of excess and greed and power. There’s even a Smothers Brother in this film!

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There’s a level of verisimilitude that Richardson and his crew brought to this film, from the practical locations to the fully decked out sets to all of the character actors and “faces around the tables” that help to produce a tableaux effect – it’s a perfect distillation of a bygone era. And then there’s also the freewheeling sense of visual flamboyance (this is Vegas after all!) that Casino possesses, which separates it from other genre entries, and it felt like the next logical step for Scorsese in terms of his fascination with this subject matter. This was one of those movies that blew the doors off my cinema-mind 20 years ago, an example of what I’d like to call bravura filmmaking. Casino is akin to an out of control but still somehow in control locomotive that just never wants to stop moving. “An equal amount of blueberries in each muffin” POWER.

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