David Milch and Michael Mann are -- taken separately -- two of the more dynamic forces in film and television. Milch, with his unique, intricate writing style, has been a creative force in television for a few decades now. From his breakout work on the grandfather of modern police dramas, "Hill Street Blues," to his breakthrough efforts, with another all-time great cop show in "NYPD Blue" and the acclaimed revisionist Western "Deadwood," Milch's bonafides are enviable.
Mann continues to be one of the more visionary directors in the business. His feature film work marries gritty reality with dazzling cinematography to create views of life as you've never quite seen it. Yet for all the clever camerawork he employs, he rarely seems like he's showing off; very few directors know how to immerse you in the action without pushing the story to the side like Mann. If you've seen his films -- "Heat," "The Insider" or "Collateral" spring to mind for me -- you know what I'm talking about. (And if you haven't seen any of them, you ought to.)
Mann brought his cinematic talents to television a few times before, creating the hit 80s cop show "Miami Vice" and the less-known (but critically admired) "Crime Story," as well as executive producing an acclaimed-but-short-lived series called "Robbery Homicide Division" that aired on CBS in 2002. These were all shows that were long on style, yet still had plenty of substance.
Now, Milch and Mann are working together on a new Sunday-night television series for HBO, "Luck," the story of people who lives revolve around a horse track. The star power behind the camera is matched by serious wattage in front of it -- the show is top-lined by Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman as an ex-con about to make his big (and maybe last) move, plus features a supporting turn by Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as a past-his-prime horse trainer with a golden opportunity staring at him from a stall.
The show features the best of what its writer and director do. Milch has been a race horse owner for most of his life, so he knows the rhythms and the linguistic shorthand of the people in that universe. From the trainers in the holding stalls to the jockeys in the locker room, from the degenerate gamblers in the stands to the connected players in the luxury suites, Milch's writing doesn't miss a beat. His characters are believable, identifiable and full of the frailness of humanity; nothing out of the ordinary for this skilled writer.
Mann's camera, meanwhile, takes you everywhere you want (and sometimes, don't want) to go -- he explores the underside of the race track with an unblinking, steady eye, then take you into the races themselves with the same sure hand. The race coverage itself is fantastically exciting; it feels like you are in the middle of the sprinting pack of thoroughbreds, holding on for dear life. (I'm sure these sequences were incredibly difficult and elaborate shoots, but they are filmed and edited so cleanly, they almost seem effortless -- a great director like Mann brings that to the table.)
Near the end of the episode, there is a very tragic scene involving an injured horse. Here, Mann's camera is discreet, letting the moment unfold and the giving the sadness of the scene the weight it deserves; Milch's writing turns gentle, but not maudlin, as he allows the business and sport sides of horse racing to fall away, and simply show that at the center of this world (as he sees it), there is the singular emotional relationship between a rider and a horse.
Based on what I've seen, I think "Luck" has the potential to go the distance. Four stars (out of four).