Band of the Hand

July 26, 2011

For a few years, Michael Mann was one of the more interesting directors, with his TV film The Jericho Mile, the high-tech James Caan movie Thief, and the exceedingly weird sci-fi World War II picture, The Keep. Mann looked like one of those original talents who have to scratch and claw for every idiosyncratic project.

Then he stumbled onto a television show about some “MTV cops,” titled “Miami Vice.” As executive producer, he’s the chief creative force on that very successful show. Now, having garnered some clout, he’s flexing his muscles.

The movie that puts him back in the director’s chair, Red Dragon, will be released later this year. First out is another Miami production on which Mann serves as executive producer, Band of the Hand; the directing chores are handled by a “Vice” collaborator, Paul Michael Glaser.

Glaser’s visual style follows the “Vice” look pretty closely (aided by the increasingly active Risky Business cinematographer, Reynaldo Villalobos); the streets and alleys of Miami are dotted with pink and turquoise, the nights shine with neon, the bad guys glisten with evil.

But the most effective scenes in the film take place in the Everglades, where, in the opening minutes, a racially balanced quintet of violent and seemingly incorrigible juvenile convicts is unloaded. They haven’t been told why, they don’t know where they are, and they don’t want to be there.

A mysterious figure appears: a tough commander (Stephen Lang) who barks orders to them but doesn’t spell out why they’re in the Everglades. He does tell them that they’ll have to learn to survive with the elements—and with each other—or he’ll let them die out there.

Lang takes them through a rough regimen of survival skills, in sometimes compelling sequences. It turns out he’s training them as part of a rehabilitation service. When they return to Miami, he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city.

Unfortunately, once they get back to town, the film becomes as interesting as a subpar episode of “Miami Vice,” but without the black Ferraris. Glaser has trouble with the film’s structure; it goes on for about a half hour after you expect it to end.

And for all of Glaser’s experience on the “Vice” squad, he makes a basic mistake: Too much of Band of the Hand takes place in dull daylight, when the flashy nighttime scenes are what make the TV vision of Miami tick.

The five hooligans are not bad, and Lang, who was superb as Happy in the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman, is effective as the strong-but-silent leader. And, as usual, James Remar is adept at playing the kind of big-time psychopath he essayed so well in The Cotton Club and 48 HRS.

But the film is never again as engaging as the early Everglades scenes. Its attempt to provide a showy conclusion by blowing everything up at the end feels desperate. And the Bob Dylan title tune, heard a couple of times, actually creates a more vivid picture of the urban inferno than anything in this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1986

Michael Mann would come roaring back in movies, as you know, and “Miami Vice” did a quick quality-swoon after its first season. Larry Fishburne and John Cameron Mitchell are also in Band of the Hand, plus a scad of 80s hits; I take it the movie’s a camp classic now, and clearly I was a little too respectful in this review; ordinarily when I write a sentence like, “he’s going to have them work together as a positive force within the decaying inner city,” I can provide some kind of smirky paranthetical.