A drum-machine loop followed shortly by a single, ominous, synthesized chord crashing down like a doom pronounced. At wheel-level, the driver's side corner of a black Ferrari Daytona. The car skims liquid over nighttime streets, its suspension system absorbing the pavement's imperfections, its sleek chassis, regaled in amber fog lights and sable armor burnished, flowing over the asphalt.
The music continues to brood. Two men wear stone expressions even with the top down and balmy Miami air transformed into hair-tousling wind. The passenger briefly looks to driver, grave concern in his eyes.
Now the Ferrari's rear corner, a dazzling gyre of chrome; the car's direction is momentarily difficult to determine so eye-beguiling is the shot, but those are dual-fluted tail pipes…. The man riding shotgun slides two rounds into a sawed-off then snaps the breech closed.
I can feel it
Comin' in the air tonight,
Laconic exchange. Without turning his head, driver asks: "How much time we got?" Shotgun accomplice checks his watch: "25 minutes."
And I've been waiting for this moment
All my life,
In a vertiginous overhead shot, road squeezes past the Daytona's rounded corners as reflections of one streetlight after another roll up the middle of the polished hood like muted arctic sunsets in some time-lapse film. Could it be the tunnel-vision at speeds approaching that of light?
Can't you feel it
Comin' in the air tonight?
Oh lord, oh lord.
The song is "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins and the scene—one of the most iconic in all of film—is from the first episode of Miami Vice, "Brother's Keeper," which aired on September 16, 1984. The men in the Ferrari are Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as Detectives "Sonny" Crockett and "Rico" Tubbs.
And it isn't speed-of-light tunnel-vision or any other relativistic effects.
No one in American cinema understands mythos better than Michael Mann.
In film after film, scene after scene, he conjures the uncanny magic which occurs when the right song—a real song plucked out of reality—gets paired with a certain kind of footage. George Lucas pioneered the technique in American Graffiti; Francis Ford Coppola (a close friend of Lucas) took the synergy to new heights in Apocalypse Now—his use of "Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones is memorable, his use of "The End" by The Doors hasn't been exceeded; but Michael Mann remains the master. He's the only director who depicts mythos for the sake of mythos.
Those moody atmospherics of a Mann mythos sequence constitute one of the essences of his art. Sure, he's brilliant at dialogue—check out the diner scenes in Thief and Heat or the jail-cell chat between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham in Manhunter. Yes, he commands a film's grand architectonics (it didn't surprise me when I read that Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one of Mann's ten favorite movies: Heat is structured just like it.) But Mann gets mythos and he loves it.
I use the word "mythos" in a rarefied and altogether poetic way. Mythos in film means reality heightened with self-awareness, the awareness in real-time—for the characters and, thus, vicariously for the viewer as well—that what is happening is not just of importance but of mythic import. We don't need slow-motion. Time just seems to decelerate. We're taking part in a moment that's becoming legendary even as it's going down.
One of the ways Mann achieves this heightened, clock-slowing perception of reality is by lavishing the eye on details. You see, mythos is a branch of Romanticism. It goes back a long time. Homer spends stanza after stanza describing the shield of Achilles, Hector's spear, and the armor of Paris.
Michael Mann knows that details provide atmosphere. He's also just plain obsessed with accuracy. For the now-famed shootout scene in Heat amidst the glass and steel canyons of downtown L.A., Mann had the actors portraying the bank robbers train on a live-fire range with one set of instructors and the actors playing the police train with another set. Reason? "Bad guys" handle their weapons differently than "good guys."
Unlike Homer, Michael Mann has moving pictures and sound at his disposal. In Miami Vice, Jan Hammer composed and played the soundtrack. Much of it, especially the show's signature opening music, but also a piece called "Crockett's Theme," attains to mythos. And yet, Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo's The Killer and Hard-Boiled are full-on homages to Miami Vice textures and moods, but their soundtracks keep them from gaining that magical flight.
Mythos rarely happens with newly composed music. An exquisite example where soundtrack does make it happen is the English Olympic squad running along the strand at the end of Chariots of Fire. As much as seeing the lads once more in their gold medal prime moves the viewer, it's also that unearthly, now-we-step-out-of-time music by Vangelis. And for overall mythic effect, I give you Maurice Jarre's ravishingly Romantic scores for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, as well as Nino Rota's haunting melody for The Godfather.
Michael Mann understood the power of contemporary music, real songs on the Rock, Pop, Dance, or Rap charts. He hits mythic paydirt again and again. The Miami Vice scenes in which you hear Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City" or "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits (also used to memorable, mythic effect in Spy Game) will sear themselves in your cinematic memory.
But there's a shiver, truly, a frisson, one gets watching that scene with Crockett and Tubbs heading to a dicey rendezvous, the sequence where Mann debuts his technique. Even now, let alone that Friday night in 1984, those electronic drums start playing and for a second you can't believe your ears. Then Mann disorients you with a low shot from outside the Ferrari timed to start exactly when that doomsday synthesizer chord explodes. You say "holy shit!" and you hear the song (which came out in 1981) like you never have before . . . and it's never the same again.
That's Michael Mann. That's mythos.