Michael Mann is probably one of the most overrated directors working nowadays. Mind you, I've liked almost everyone of his films (of those I've seen), but I just can't see him as the visionary he's said to be. There are auteurist touches in his films, sure, but then again the films seem a bit empty to me. If there's a message or some such, I don't think it's very interesting.
So, what's the theme in Mann's first feature-length film, the prison film The Jericho Mile? Do what you want to do? Concentrate on what's best for you? Don't mind others? Be yourself? C'mon! There are interesting minor themes, like the political organizing of the prison inmates or the story of a black inmate who's been blackmailed to smuggle drugs into the prison, but the main story is thematically not so interesting.
It is touching, though, and I even wept a tear near the end. Peter Strauss is a bit autistic guy who just runs. He runs over the prison yard, over and over again, and he's very, very fast. The prison administration wants him to run officially, to run for olympics. There are two climactic running scenes, which are very exciting. Strauss has killed his dad years ago and he's sentenced for life. The film doesn't go much into that, but the scenes about it enforce the man's gotta what a man's gotta do ideology of Mann.
But don't get me wrong: for its low budget and the use of non-actors (many of them being inmates of the Folsom Prison), it's a very well-made and good-looking film. Mann has a very good feel for realism that looks good and goes beyond the mere recording, but won't evolve into a mere style, either.
The Jericho Mile was originally a TV film, but it was released theatrically in Europe and made its way into Finland as well. I saw it last night at the screening of the Finnish Film Archive. There are some scenes that have a different stock feel to them, maybe they are missing from the original TV print and added in only the European 35 mm print, who knows. The VHS and DVD releases seem to be rare, so this was a good occasion to see the film.
More Overlooked Films here.