As I was walking out of the theater after seeing Manhunter, I overheard a young woman say, “It was like—I don’t know—it didn’t have any flash.”

No flash? I don’t know what movie she thought she saw, but if the Manhunter I saw doesn’t have flash, then no movie does. In fact, I’m sure the common criticism of the film will be that is has too much flash, much in the way “Miami Vice” is said to sacrifice substance to style.

The comparison is not accidental. Manhunter is the latest from Michael Mann, the executive producer of “Miami Vice.” Here, he serves as writer-director, as he did with his previous theatrical features, Thief and The Keep.

Mann has taken a basic cop story and, with ferocious panache, dressed it up in designer duds and high-tech visuals, just as he has on “Vice.” But Mann is a better director than his “Vice” hired hands, and so he achieves some powerful and perverse moments in the film.

In the early going, the plot itself is strictly formula stuff. A retired cop (William Petersen) is called back to assist in an unusually horrible set of murders—much to the consternation of his wife (Kim Griest). He’s retired because his working method is too intense. He caught killers by identifying with them, by learning to think like them, and the last time he caught a murderer, he went a little over the edge.

Once he’s on the case, the film crackles along as a good, basic police thriller. Then, two-thirds of the way through, there’s a startling shift in point-of-view, as we focus on the killer (Tom Noonan), a real creep who suddenly, unexpectedly, finds a sympathetic friend. This shift is weird, and perhaps not structurally sound, but fascinating.

Mann tries to layer in a lot of variations on the theme of sight and vision. Movies themselves play an important role in the murders. Not all of this is coherently expressed, and the business about Petersen’s disturbing identification with the killers is somehow not quite resolved. But Mann does work hard to make Manhunter more than just a cop movie.

He often succeeds. Some of the detection sequences—the decoding of a crucial note sent by the murderer, the kidnapping of an obnoxious reporter (Stephen Lang) and his shocking demise—are potent indeed.

Mann’s visual and narrative intensity is matched by the solid group of performers. Petersen, recently named by Rolling Stone magazine as the year’s hot actor, is burning on a low flame throughout. He inhabits this world well, as evidenced by his previous role in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

Petersen’s screen roles have not had enough variety to suggest that he can do more than be one intense dude. But he can certainly spark the kind of flash that Manhunter requires.

First published in the Herald, August 14, 1986

Who knew about the whole Hannibal Lecter phenomenon to come? Not me, apparently. I’d like to be able to say that a paragraph extolling Brian Cox’s performance as Lecter got cut from this review at some point, but I have no recollection of that. A strong movie, anyway.

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