Boys don't cry

Cinema loves a tough guy. But directors such as Miami Vice’s Michael Mann purvey an outdated, testos

No living film-maker is more aptly named than Michael Mann. From the moment this macho director left the starting blocks with The Jericho Mile (1979), about a prisoner who trains to be a runner, he has focused on men doomed to lives of noble solitude. In The Insider (1999), Russell Crowe is intimidated and isolated as a tobacco-industry whistle-blower; Robert De Niro, in Heat (1995), is an automaton-like criminal who has pared his life down to its barest essentials. These professionals have been reduced to husks, their lives given over to full-time brooding. It is worrying enough that this image of masculinity has been fostered lovingly by Mann over nearly 30 years, but it is positively depressing that so many people appear to take it seriously.

The insularity of these films becomes most apparent when they are gathered together, as in a current season at the National Film Theatre that coincides with the release of Mann's new thriller, Miami Vice - a brash revamp of his 1980s TV series. Individually, most of his works cast a strange, lulling spell with their sizzling urban imagery and por tentous synthesizer scores. These films are executed with a finesse that makes most others look like cookie-cutter jobs by comparison. But this only compounds the paucity of the Mann message: all this care and expertise has been lavished on films that display only the faintest signs of human life.

Asked in 1986 to describe the kind of hero that was on the rise in shows such as Miami Vice, Mann came up with a def inition that applies to most of his prota gonists: "He is aggressive. He is hetero sexual. He has a sense of accountability, real individual accountability. If he has something to do that is wrong, he might do it, but he'll know why and he'll know whether there is a price to pay." Professionalism is another crucial element of the characterisation: these men are nothing without their jobs. Rather than looking critically at this careerist model of manhood, Mann seems to revere it. Tom Cruise, as the hit man in Collateral (2004), is a psychopath, but we are asked to approve of his dedication to his work. The safe-cracker played by James Caan in Thief (1981) is emotionally stunted, but the camera looks on fondly as he gets down to business with his drill.

This kind of innuendo must be intentional - in such testosterone-heavy territory, sublimated homosexuality is an occupational hazard. The relationships between men and women in Mann's films are never as meaningful as the ones between men, if only because there simply isn't any room for women. Collateral is a three-hander between Cruise, Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, but Mann finds nothing for her to do other than be terrorised in the standard woman-in-peril role. Cruise and Foxx, on the other hand, get no shortage of quality time together.

If women are disposable, families fare even worse. Domestic life exists here only as an impediment. Al Pacino, as the cop hunting De Niro in Heat, even complains to his quarry that his third marriage is falling apart because of his job. In the most revealing dialogue in Mann's work, De Niro replies: "A guy told me one time, 'Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.' Now, if you're on me, and you've got to move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?"

Mann portrays Pacino's life, with an unfaithful spouse and self-harming stepdaughter, as repellent and chaotic. De Niro, by contrast, has it all. Or rather, he has nothing, which makes him pure. The Mann hero is never more complete than when he is alone. In the 2001 biopic Ali, the fight scenes pack a surprisingly weak punch compared to the sections that detail Muhammad Ali's expulsion from boxing after refusing to be drafted. It is as though Mann can relate to him only in his moments of torment or isolation. Why else does the film begin with Ali jogging alone, his tracksuit hood like a cowl?

It would be wrong to lay the blame for this archetype at Mann's feet. The lonesome renegade, the man who has got to do what a man's got to do, has always been a staple figure in storytelling. And it's still the way that men are encouraged to think of themselves today. Even in the age of the metrosexual, being "under the thumb" or not "wearing the trousers" are insults that still smart, which is why male-oriented advertising often flatters its target audience with images of freedom and independence that show masculinity thriving independently of definitions such as "father" or "husband".

In cinema, the most insightful portraits of the loner are suffused with ambivalence. The key example is John Ford's The Searchers (1956), which subverts the image of its star, John Wayne, to corroborate a piercing argument about the hollowness of heroism. Wayne's character has no family, no place in society, because his experiences of violence have left him damaged. But the film doesn't romanticise his remoteness - he aches for what he is missing, and so do we.

Ford's film in turn inspired Taxi Driver (1976), currently enjoying a re-release. Paul Schrader's script, as later with his American Gigolo (1980), cleverly seduces the audience into empathising with a self-deluding hero, so that by the time we realise how dysfunctional he is it's too late to withdraw our involvement. These films are about cold men, but they are not themselves cold - they question the hero's narcissistic image of himself. In a Michael Mann film, there is no sign of that kind of equivocation, no final-reel reversal to prove that Mann doesn't really think life is best enjoyed alone in a minimalist apartment with Tangerine Dream playing on a permanent loop. The wait goes on.

Mann's films command more respect than they deserve because they tap into male daydreams. The idea that one could, like De Niro in Heat, simply shrug off your life like an overcoat, is bound to be appealing if you feel anchored by responsibilities. But if Mann is to grow as a film-maker, he should scrutinise these Reginald Perrin fantasies, or else abandon them for good. He has made one significant departure to date, in his tender historical adventure The Last of the Mohicans (1992). It has a self-sufficient, principled hero, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, but it also allows him to fall in love with a woman and to risk his life to defend her, without this noticeably affecting his ability to hunt wild animals or wield a tomahawk. It's one of the few examples of emotional maturity in the history of Mann.

"Miami Vice" is released nationwide on 4 August. The Michael Mann season runs at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from 1 to 26 August

Top five macho heroes
Elinor Cook

Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne, The Searchers, 1956)
America's favourite craggy-faced anti-hero stomps, drawls and swaggers his way through John Ford's epic western. Crossing the desert on a hunt for the Indians who murdered his family, he indulges in a little soul-searching along the way.

James Bond
The metrosexual of the macho genre. Bond continues to wage war against an assortment of eyepatched, one-handed and metal-mouthed villains, but always finds time for a sexually charged Martini with a girl with a dodgy accent.

Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, 1971)
The film that launched a thousand guttural exclamations of the word "punk". Eastwood plays a rebel cop, prowling across San Francisco with a mad glint in his eye and waving his .44 magnum handgun at the idiots who stand in his path.

John McClane (played by Bruce Willis, Die Hard, 1988)
One minute this sensitive cop is a needy divorcee; the next he's throwing himself off a burning building, fashioning detonators out of swivel chairs and inspiring men everywhere to buy that tight-fitting white vest.

The Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminators 1, 2 and 3)
A cyborg with a heart. The taciturn killing machine discovers his gentler side when he is won over by the goodness of the Connor family. He also reveals an unexpected knack for one-liners. Hasta la vista, baby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world