American director Michael Mann studied at both the University of Wisconsin and the London International Film School before commencing his career in 1965. Getting his start working on TV commercials, Mann took his rapid-paced, flash-cut approach into documentary filmmaking, producing an award-winning short on the 1968 French student riots, Janpuri.
Mann's fragmented-image technique further manifested itself on such TV detective series of the '70s such as Starsky and Hutch and Vegas, both of which utilized his scripts (though they were directed by others in the standard conventional style of the period). Mann turned out another prizewinning project, the 1979 TV movie The Jericho Mile, before making his big-screen directorial debut with Thief (1981). The story of a professional jewel thief (James Caan) trying to make good, it introduced audiences to Mann's stylish, atmospheric approach to filmmaking and earned a number of strong reviews.
Mann next returned to television, acting as executive producer of the popular TV cop series Miami Vice (1984-90). In this capacity, he brought what some considered the "MTV Look" to network television -- a look which favored style over substance and technique over storytelling, in the "short attention span" manner of the MTV cable network. Although Miami Vice was merely a lavish extension of what Mann had been doing since the '60s, the MTV label stuck, attracting millions of viewers to the series. When it was announced that Mann would produce and direct the 1992 filmization of Last of the Mohicans, purists despaired, complaining that the "youthful" director (who in reality was 49 at the time) would unduly modernize, trivialize, and homogenize the story. As it turned out, Last of the Mohicans (based more on the 1936 film version of the James Fennimore Cooper novel than the book itself) contained more pure storytelling and more raw evocative imagery than any previous Mann project and is known as one of his finest works to date.
Three years later, the director earned even greater acclaim with Heat, a nuanced, intelligent crime drama featuring strong performances by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as men on opposite sides of the law, and a well-written script by Mann himself. Even stronger reviews followed for Mann in 1999 with The Insider, which he directed, wrote and produced. Based on a real-life story of a tobacco-company research scientist (Russell Crowe) and the ramifications of his decision to disclose industry secrets to the American public on an episode of 60 Minutes, it was a moody, intense affair that many critics touted as one of the year's best films; it netted 7 Oscar nominations in the process.
Mann was back in the Academy Award hunt two year's later with Ali, a biopic of the beloved boxer Muhammad Ali that focused on both his athletic accomplishments and his political battles. Although the film failed to achieve the same amount of praise as Mann's work before it, Will Smith delivered an career-changing performance in the title role and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Mann returned in 2004 with the shadowy summer thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a menacing, high-powered hit man and Jamie Foxx as the cabbie unwittingly brought into his realm. Critics were generally positive if somewhat divided, but the movie resonated with audiences, who made it a sizable hit. The same could not be said when, in 2006, Mann revisited his own first success, Miami Vice, refashioning it into a gritty, would-be realistic police procedural starring Mann loyalist Foxx and a greasy haired Colin Farell. Overbudget, overschedule and plagued with bad production buzz, the film met with middling reviews; while not exactly a flop, it was plagued by general late-summer apathy. And though his subsequent period gangster drama Public Enemies was greeted with equal indifference, fans held out hope that a collaboration with Deadwood creator David Milch on the HBO horse racing drama Luck would find the veteran filmmaker back in his element. Unfortunately that wasn't meant to be; plauged with behind-the-scenes clashes and mysterious horse deaths from the very beginning, the series was cancelled by the popular pay-cable network after they prematurely announced that it would be renewed for a second season.