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The origins of Michael Mann

United Artists

When we think of Michael Mann’s distinctive brand of synthesizer noir, we think first of the trendsetting gloss of “Miami Vice” and the moody sleekness of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s “Heat.” But as the Criterion Collection reminds us this week, before all of that came Mann’s taut, medium-shaping debut feature, “Thief” (1981). It’s a film that also helps us remember when James Caan still had all that edgy “Godfather” cachet, as opposed to playing network sitcom curmudgeon. (Sigh.) Caan memorably stars as a Chicago safecracker instinctively inclined to handle scores his way, but whose dreams of an ideal life with his girl (Tuesday Weld) lead him to a fateful partnership with the mob. (Robert Prosky of “Hill Street Blues” is terrifically insidious as the local crime boss.) Extras: Liner notes highlight the movie’s far-reaching aesthetic influence, crediting it with launching the “style decade” of the ’80s. One particularly apt observation: the neon-streaked grunginess of “Blade Runner” (1982) is anticipated by Mann’s here-and-now dystopian vibe. Mann sits down for a wide-ranging interview, mentioning how torn he was initially about the film’s groundbreaking electronic score (by Tangerine Dream, focus of another supplement). His original thought? Setting the action to the blues he’d grown up with on Chicago’s South Side. Caan also supplies a new interview, recalling what it was like learning the safecracking trade — and how handy this proved when his sister forgot her home-safe combo. Commentary is recycled from a prior reissue. (Criterion, Blu-ray, $39.95)

“The Butler.”



Daniels (“Precious”) and Forest Whitaker paint a sprawling portrait of Cecil Gaines, dutiful servant to eight American presidents (and a fictionalized version of real-life White House butler Eugene Allen). Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, as Gaines’s wife, deliver poignant performances that elevate some melodrama, and David Oyelowo does assured work as their civil rights activist son. Meanwhile, the splashy supporting cast ranges from effective to distracting (Alan Rickman as Ronald “Severus” Reagan?). We also could have done with even more buttling minutiae, but maybe we’ve got “Downton Abbey” on the brain. Extras: Production featurette; historical segment on the Freedom Riders. (Anchor Bay, $29.98; Blu-ray, $34.99)


RIDDICK (2013)

After nearly a decade, Vin Diesel revives his interplanetary tough guy with the night-vision eyes. Dispensing with the last installment’s cumbersome mythology, this one gets back to basics, dumping the hero on a desert planet teeming with lethal critters and determined bounty hunters. Between the title treatment and some memory-stretching continuity, Diesel and director David Twohy seemingly continue to regard this character as more than he is. Still, we get some solid B-movie action, and the novelty of a hard-boiled type in a galaxy far, far away grumbling about the “jamokes” he’s gotta deal with. Extras: Featurettes; on Blu-ray, unrated footage. (Universal, $29.98; Blu-ray, $34.98)

Tom Russo can be reached at