In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.

Manhunter is an interesting film in Michael Mann’s oeuvre. It wasn’t a particular success at the box office. In fact, it was a financial flop, grossing less than $9 million on a budget of $15 million. It opened in the midst of the wild success of Mann’s seminal 1980s TV series Miami Vice and is, as that show was, largely a police procedural.

Even more remarkable is that half a decade later, The Silence of the Lambs would become a huge worldwide sensation using one central character, Hannibal Lecter (spelled “Lecktor” in Mann’s film for reasons unknown). That adaptation’s success would spawn another version of this film, which found the box office success this version did not.

So is Manhunter a Mann misstep?

William Petersen, whose largest previous credit was in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., stars as Will Graham, a police detective whose gift for getting inside the mind of criminals, particularly serial killers, has earned him something of a superstar status. However, his signature capture, of the notorious Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), nearly came at the cost of his life.

As the film opens, Graham has resigned his position and is spending time with his family in their beachfront home, which I can only presume came as the result of some insurance payout revolving around his injury and not what he can afford on a detective’s salary. When his old boss, Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina), asks him to look at this new case, he initially declines but feels drawn back in by a sense of duty to help stop a killer.

And that killer is known as The Tooth Fairy, who has left a string of bodies whose eyes he has replaced with shards of a broken mirror. His name is Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan) and he’s obsessed with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. In fact, he calls his murderous alter ego the Red Dragon.

To help capture the Tooth Fairy, Graham enlists the help of the captured Lecktor, seeking his advice on getting into the mind of a lunatic. Lecktor plays mind games with Graham, offering him mostly cryptic clues and tidbits of information.

Mann infuses this film with his signature warm, soft hues and makes use of warm blues, particularly in a day-for-night shot involving Graham and his wife, Molly (Kim Greist), and he also makes use of almost all-white interiors, which gives the film a subdued look.

That feeling might be the biggest drawback to the film. Graham is a largely stoic character, as is Dolarhyde. Even Cox plays Lecktor with a sort of droll, casual and even methodical energy, a far cry from the gleeful madness Anthony Hopkins would inject into the character six years later.

Even the book’s attempt at a touch of empathy for Dolarhyde, where he meets and falls in love with a woman named Reba (Joan Allen), feels tacked on and hollow. We are meant to see Dolarhyde’s softer side, then see him even wrestling with the Dragon as he sees the possibility of a relationship. But it’s all resolved hastily and without emotion.

Indeed, Manhunter feels like, with a few script changes, it could be a Very Special Episode of Miami Vice down to the synth score and, frankly, somewhat shallow characterizations of the villains, a quasi-antagonistic / quasi-friendly relationship between detective and captain, and an almost non-existent connection between the protagonist and antagonist.

Mann seems to downplay the “sixth sense” nature of Graham’s gifts until a scene late in the film when Graham is finally piecing together the full puzzle. But still he doesn’t feel like a special or particularly talented cop. He’s just another police officer, a handsome guy with a square jaw and a furrowed brow looking to stop the killer.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Freddie Lounds (an almost unrecognizable Stephen Lang), the almost stereotypically sleazy reporter of the National Tattler, which Graham and Crawford use later on in a ploy to draw out the killer by planting misinformation he will no doubt find insulting, such as that he molests his male victims and that he may have had a sexual relationship with his mother.

Lounds prints this information, of course, and is promptly targeted by the killer. It’s the closest the film really gets to an interesting subplot, but his character’s fate is promptly forgotten and really makes the cops look bad on reflection.

But at a time when Vice was a mega-hit, Mann could be forgiven for whittling away some of the pork in Thomas Harris’s source novel in search of a leaner film more focused on the police work side than in characterization. But in doing so he loses what makes the Red Dragon story special, and Manhunter becomes largely a “first this, then that” story that feels disconnected.

The film’s climax is punctuated with a terrific shot of Graham smashing through a floor-to-ceiling window to attack Dolarhyde, with the music turning up at the moment he crashes through the glass. But even that falls prey to a too-hasty resolution.

The natural comparison to make is to Red Dragon, the film Brett Ratner made in 2002 that places the film in the Silence of the Lambs universe, casting stars like Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and restoring some of the touches Mann excised.

Say what you will about the quality of that film, and what Ratner’s on-the-nose, often ham-fisted direction did to the final product, but the script at least lands in some of the right places. It certainly piles on the Lecter, giving him more scenes than even the book, and giving him a larger role to play in the film. But Ralph Fiennes certainly gives a superior performance for a more well-rounded character as Dolarhyde. There’s also a greater sense of connection between Graham and Lecter, and we learn that they had a friendship, a circumstance Mann hardly even addresses.

But there is one last bit of interesting synergy in Manhunter connecting it to its better-known cousins: Frankie Faison, who plays a police officer that pops up late in the film, would go on to play Barney Matthews, Lecter’s in-prison caretaker, in Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon, making him the only actor to appear in four Thomas Harris adaptations.

Manhunter isn’t a bad film, but it is not nearly as polished as Mann’s later films like Heat, Collateral, The Last of the Mohicans or even his unfairly derided film version of Miami Vice. If you’re a fan of the Hopkins Lecter films or of Mann in general, it’s certainly worth watching to see an earlier entry, or a rough draft of what would become of that character.