In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (the extra in August’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Those aware of, but who haven’t seen, 1995’s Heat might be forgiven for assuming it’s little more than a sleek and sophisticated, but simple, tale of unswerving cops-and-robbers machismo with major spikes in violence and volume.
Heat establishes its bona fides as a believable crime story early and easily. But writer-director Michael Mann’s magnum opus — the middle child among his ’90s masterpieces between The Last of the Mohicans and The Insider — is anything but simple … and stunningly so.
It is admittedly difficult to summarize the appeal of Heat without surrendering to the admirable intricacy of its high-tech heists, the sonic sorcery of its pianissimo-to-fortissimo gunfire, the righteous comeuppances visited upon its most nefarious villains, and the visceral thrills of its many lethal betrayals and battles. One gruesome downtown Los Angeles gun battle in particular is so persuasively essayed you’re certain it’s erupting outside your house.
Shot entirely on location, Heat presents L.A. as a shimmering mirage of deceptive, gauzy beauty rife with dangerous apex predators; the neon particles practically pulse in the strip-mall lights. You could also cleanly bisect many of cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s frames, an exceptional homage to the characters’ symmetrical motives and miseries on either side of the badge. The mishmash musical score is a similar blur of influences, blending composer Elliot Goldenthal’s work, upmarket ambient electronics from Moby, William Orbit and Brian Eno, chamber-orchestra pieces from the Kronos Quartet and more.
After Scarface, Heat also certainly takes the silver for most quotable shouts from Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna, a Los Angeles detective dogged in, and damned by, his relentless pursuit of criminals. It’s a concession to Pacino’s commercial appeal and a compliment to his character work that Vincent uses volume only as theatrical intimidation. (A cocaine habit in early script drafts explained this away, but the rationale here plays better.) Loud or soft, Vincent’s dialogue takes on a unique meter all of its own, as if Shakespeare soliloquized about shakedowns and takedowns.
We meet Vincent during a morning tryst with his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), that suggests a happy, hearty marriage. But it’s swiftly revealed as sexual spackle. What seems like a simple sex scene establishes an integral notion about Vincent: His demands and questions must be met or answered immediately and inarguably, whether from confidential informants or from his spouse. Mann and Pacino aren’t afraid to let extremely mercurial selfishness creep into a man whose nobility we otherwise admire. We also see what Justine contends with while Vincent is out on the street — Lauren (Natalie Portman), a mentally fragile teenage daughter whose inferiority complex is latently fed by Justine and Vincent’s mounting frustrations.
Down 0-2 in the divorce count, Vincent seems on his way to a called third strike. Justine demands emotional availability and complexity from him, which is to say “sharing, not leftovers.” But Vincent can only think in terms of alive or dead, open case or closed case. His binary view of the world offers less clarity than you expect.
Despite his domestic trappings, Vincent is more or less as isolated as his latest quarry. Neil McAuley (Robert De Niro) is a nigh-monastic master thief who lands on Vincent’s radar after Waingro (Kevin Gage), an unexpectedly hotheaded hired hand, kills an armored-car guard during one of Neil’s heists gone wrong.
Before we even know who Neil is, or what he does, we see him jaywalk against the directional arrow of a traffic lane. Neil will be damned if he follows the path he’s been told to go as an ex-convict, into a life of lousy opportunities and low-man exploitation. Whatever his past mistakes, Neil has learned for them, adopting a precision that has afforded him a steel-and-glass castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But it feels like a fortress of solitude. You sense Neil has overcorrected, leaning too deeply on his prison-yard mantra of attaching himself to nothing he can’t leave in 30 seconds flat if the heat comes around the corner. He dreams of an island paradise, but he speaks of it with the passion of an underclassman writing a term paper.
When Eady (Amy Brenneman), a chatty graphic designer who has often seen Neil in the diner they frequent, strikes up conversation, he barks at her: “Lady, why are you interested?” She persists, he warms, and the camera literally shifts to another side of Neil after he introduces himself — a new view of him and one on which we’re not entirely sold for the time being. Neil looks upon the flings and families of his crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Danny Trejo) with a mix of envy and revulsion. The number of liabilities in his periphery makes Neil nervous, but he secretly wishes he had one of his own. “I am alone. I’m not … lonely,” he tells Eady without an ounce of believability as their relationship grows. Even as Vincent closes in, Neil asserts a dangerous eight-figure robbery is worth the stretch. In Eady, we finally see something worth stretching for … even as he continues to calculate escape angles. De Niro makes Neil hard-ass, but haunted, too.
We certainly never empathize with Neil, but we pity his downfall. That’s because to carefully manicured guys like him, Waingro is like a speck of dust in a clean room — a chaos agent able to contaminate everything in its path. Neil is handy with a weapon, but he prefers to wield it as a symbol of power, not a demonstration of lethality. However, the more Waingro intervenes, the closer Neil gets to discarding his rigid logic for the way of the gun, and the more doomed he becomes. Mann even frames Waingro and Neil the same way during their unnecessary killings — one pointless, one a point of no return, both the result of misguided tunnel-vision violence.
Heat is fascinating when it focuses on Vincent and Neil separately. But as is the case with most Mann films, it is the cosmic destiny of these foes to collide — well before Waingro even enters the picture, it would seem. And, of course, Heat’s biggest claim to fame is as the only film in which Pacino and De Niro would appear alongside each other until 2008’s Righteous Kill.
The first of their two scenes is the allegedly unrehearsed, and immediately iconic, tough-talk meeting in a coffee shop, where Vincent’s irresistible force meets Neil’s immovable object. Leaving the staging to shot / reverse shot simplicity, Mann gets out of these legends’ way to let them simply reign — hunter-killers entertaining the motions of a forced battlefield détente until they eventually arrive at honest revelations about their dreams, fears and an inevitable, fateful confrontation.
That second meeting — a cat-and-mouse stalk among cargo containers out on what feels like L.A.’s last undeveloped acre — represents two things: their begrudging admiration for each other and a shared melancholy as men forever unmoored from life’s simplest pleasures of companionship, self-worth and satisfaction of purpose.
Mann’s movies often employ bokeh, a purposeful blurring of lights and image in the background. In Heat, it’s a stylistic choice that speaks to the relative lack of focus Vincent and Neil place on anything that isn’t expressly in front of them. How “Heat” reverses this in the final shot — the bokeh still safely behind the back of the man bleeding out and yet taunting the gaze of the man left facing forward — is unexpectedly, and profoundly, moving.
There are so many moments in Heat like this that leave me awestruck every time. All of its selling points, however scintillating, are just loss leaders to a larger vision of, and viewpoint about, this world rather than a mere collection of exciting events within it. (That Heat was nominated for zero Oscars, even in superficial but deserved categories like Best Sound Mixing or Best Sound Editing, is mystifying.)
As a portrayal of men’s hardest edges and the wounds they inflict on the women and families around them, Heat hardly celebrates machismo. Instead, it cuts to a hard truth about machismo’s expression: The cops and crooks ostensibly puff their chests to protect those for whom they purport to care. But they really live for adrenaline, and punishment for the lie they tell themselves is seeing those cares set ablaze.
By the film’s unsparing conclusion, every relationship is eroded, wounded or severed. Heat isn’t just cops around the corner. It’s the anxiety of the worst always coming home to roost despite your best efforts to stop it. The worry that success will reveal no clearer direction in the world you’ve made for yourself. The fear that those who truly understand you will only ever be adversaries you must either fell or fall to. Heat is so remorseless in its heartbreak that it leaves you worried about secondary, tertiary and even quaternary characters you barely get to know.
In the big shootout between Vincent’s squad and Neil’s crew, Detective Bosko (Ted Levine) catches a fatal round in the neck. He’s not cradled or comforted by his fellow cops, just cut down in the cacophony and without a funeral or a mention afterward. Bosko factors into only one scene unrelated to the pursuit — a night out for drinks with a woman on his arm. When Bosko goes down, our mind flashes to this woman, whom we hardly even saw and never will again, and whose romantic relationship to Bosko is unknown. Did he bring her close enough to be worth grieving? Might she hold Vincent responsible? Will she resent Bosko forever?
Other one-and-done characters lend dimension to the leads, especially Vincent. One of “Heat’s” many subplots suggests the loathsome Waingro is also a serial killer. Vincent catches that case, too, as yet unaware how or even if it intersects with Neil. The crime scene is laughably contaminated to a point where the victim’s mother easily bursts past the tape in hysterics, comforted only by Vincent. We never see this woman again either, but Mann holds on her embrace with Vincent long enough for us to see he has more emotional intimacy with her than Justine.
Eventually, Vincent moves out and checks into a hotel. Hoping to catch even the slightest snooze, he walks in so exhausted that he walks right over a soaked spot in the carpet. We’re certain Neil, or someone from his crew — now on the run and desperately unpredictable — is there to accost Vincent. Instead, we find that Lauren has done something drastic. All Pacino seems to do in this scene is apply makeshift tourniquets and coax a breath in Lauren, but his body language gives away Vincent’s sullen awareness: Lauren hoped Vincent would find her and confer upon her in death a dignity that, despite his surface stepfather pleasantries, he never gave in life.
When Eady learns Neil’s true identity, Brenneman’s work is shrewd and subtle. She’s less afraid for her life than its diminishment in Neil’s shadow, an accouterment for a man on the run forced to subsume her more realistic ambitions for his fugitive fantasies. Brenneman reportedly told Mann she didn’t like “Heat” because it was filled with blood and no morality. His response? That rationale made her perfect for Eady, whom we see struggle with the decision of love or vengeance as Neil does.
At 170 minutes, “Heat” even has time to show us Neil’s inverse in Don Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), a recently paroled thief shunted into a diner job where he’s subjected to the sort of graft and greed that put him behind bars. Don asserts there “ain’t been a hard time invented yet that I cannot handle.” But he also questions how his wife, Lillian (Kim Staunton), could possibly express pride for the pitiful place he’s made in the world. “Just come home,” she tells him, which is the last thing Don will be able to do, as his restlessness outweighs his introspection. Don is to Heat what Brooks was to The Shawshank Redemption, an impulsive creature of habit who can’t escape a shattering fate.
Then there’s the bullet that could pierce even the thickest of moviegoers’ armor. Kilmer plays Chris Shiherlis, a gambling addict who is Neil’s right-hand man, husband to Charlene (Ashley Judd) and father to a young toddler named Dominick. The cops eventually crack down on Charlene, succinctly laying out Dominick’s horrible future if she doesn’t cooperate to help them catch Chris. “This kind of shit sells itself,” says Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson). When someone resembling Chris pulls up on her street, Drucker sends Charlene to the balcony for a positive ID.
Chris flashes her a rogue’s smile of false confidence, befitting his gambling ways. As Charlene gazes at Chris, you feel her revisiting their misspent years of merriment and misery. And then she gives him up — not to the cops, but as a wife with a hand signal indicating the cops are onto him. Kilmer plays the moment perfectly, registering the irreversible blow but also a cold comfort: By leaving, he gives them the best inheritance possible — freedom from the albatross he would otherwise be. As Charlene tells Drucker it wasn’t Chris, you sense her satisfaction at getting one over on the fuzz. But then they pull Chris over to be sure and your stomach tightens again.
Like so much of Heat, the scene is both unbearably suspenseful and unforgettably devastating as a character moment. Note also that each of them involves a female character; it could be argued that we see only how they are reflected by the man’s behavior but instead of lifting those men up, it reveals their flaws. You might wonder why an actor of Kilmer’s caliber, fresh off a Batman blockbuster and presumably free to choose any leading role, would take a decidedly supporting part. This scene is the answer, as it is for the two-dozen-strong murderer’s row cast.
At the time of Heat’s release, its detractors found moments like these to be unnecessary digressions. Most nervous studio executives would line up these dozens of character beats against the wall — eager to fast-forward to the final hour’s titanic ticking clock. And yet the pace remains relentless, keeping expository dumps to a minimum along with cheap emotional swells. To strip these moments away would whittle Heat down to nothing more than a bevy of big breaks, dead bodies and shotgun blasts — perhaps enjoyable but curiously empty. Far from the piece of music Mann said he hoped to achieve “so I’d know where to be smooth, where to not be smooth, where to be staccato, where to use a pulse like a heartbeat.”
Such dynamics and time changes develop Heat’s theme beyond a time-tested melodies you expect into a deep, discordant rumble you can’t shake. It’s not only what makes the perennially ripe for revisiting and rediscovering but what pushes it to a point where you’re never sure who, between Vincent and Neil, will prevail.
Without these eccentricities, Heat was, quite literally, just network TV fodder. Mann wrote a 180-page script in the late 1970s based on the life of Chuck Adamson, a Chicago police officer who pursued a real-life criminal named McAuley in the 1960s. Heat’s coffee shop scene is based on a real-life incident when Adamson and McAuley bumped into one another and Adamson “didn’t know what to do — arrest him, shoot him or have a cup of coffee.” (Adamson, who died in 2008, co-created the series Crime Story and wrote for the TV version of Miami Vice, on which Mann produced and directed.)
After unsuccessfully pursuing others to direct it as a film, Mann streamlined it into a 90-minute TV pilot called L.A. Takedown. NBC footed the bill, hoping to re-create the ratings and cultural cache of Miami Vice. The problem was that they didn’t like the actor Mann had chosen to play Vincent. He balked, and L.A. Takedown aired only as a TV movie before Mann retooled it and returned all the beautiful grace notes to their rightful places.
Heat isn’t merely a great crime film about men and women whose deeds are all they have at the ends of their days, or lives, despite their words’ argument to the contrary. Ominous, operatic, often emulated but never equaled, this is go-for-broke, GOAT-level filmmaking — not only upending expectations but exceeding them with unanticipated success in its elegant, exciting examination of existential and emotional entropy.