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.
At the height of my journey into the world of watching “better” movies, I had begun to notice a similar theme among my peers: They all told me I had to watch Heat.
“Oh, you liked The Dark Knight? Yeah, it’s basically just a rip off of Heat.”
“Yeah, that’s a pretty good one. But you have to watch Heat. It’s basically this … but better.”
“You’re a big De Niro fan, right? So, you’ve seen Heat, then. NO?! What the hell is wrong with you?”
As one can see, the consensus was overwhelming. I was promised dazzling displays of violence, wonderful performances from a star-studded cast and, if my moviegoing belly was empty enough, rare and fine delicacies of which only this movie could offer. This was going to be the best heist movie I had ever seen, and I couldn’t wait. But I was duped. This wasn’t just some movie. This wasn’t just Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally in a damn scene together (that rules, and hard, but we will get there.) This wasn’t just Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer banging it out with assault weapons in downtown Los Angeles. This wasn’t just a beautiful blockbuster with a little bit of depth. This was peak Michael Mann delivering only what Michael Mann, apparently, is capable of doing. This was a clinic, his masterclass and his lecture demanding that we pay close attention or else miss the meaning of what he’s trying to say.
I think it’s important before we get going here to understand that I love this movie. I look for any serious film interaction now to squeeze in some discussion of why this movie SLAPS with a capial S for SERIOUSLY SLAPS. So … to whomever might be reading this … I’m sorry for fluffing it up a lot.
I decided after my first experience with this movie that I would make it an effort to watch it with anyone I could or try to convince my peers to give it a watch and report back with their findings. I became what others before had become, a Michael Mann acolyte. My respect for his directing ability was already high. The Last of the Mohicans was a childhood obsession that somehow my parents thought was a good idea for a 6-year-old to watch. I had a fake gun and tomahawk and was running through yards pretending I was Daniel Day Lewis … when I was 6. So, all anyone really needed to do was tell me he directed that movie and I would’ve been into the idea of Heat much longer ago.
But alas, it’s important to look at the heavy hitters and now classics that came out in 1995 to give some perspective on where Heat sat in the year and how its mythos progressed. More than a half-dozen action-packed movies like Mortal Kombat, GoldenEye, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Batman Forever, Desperado, 12 Monkeys, Congo and Now and Then (kidding on that one, although it also Still Slaps) came out to target the hearts and minds of movie goers in the mid-’90s and achieve either critical success or cult status. (Yeah, that’s right, we’re all looking at you, Congo, you beautiful bastard of a movie.)
But Heat was something different. I saw this movie in early 2013 with no real context of what it was about. It appeared to come wrapped in the same box as those films, only to reveal an arthouse artifact inside. It had the finesse, persistence and acute attention to detail that made it stand out for examination by generations of viewers and critics to come. Like Blade Runner 2049, except people actually went to see Heat. (We’re sorry, Denis.)
The premise is simple, albeit a tad formulaic, and can be summarized by three sentences from the now-classic diner scene, in which Neil McCauley (the movie’s main bad man, played by De Niro) sits across from the thunderous, enigmatic and justice-loving Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino).
“I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best, trying to stop guys like me.”
The dynamic is set with cops and robbers doing whatever each side can do to win — their dueling prizes here a large quantity of money or putting criminals in prison to (hopefully) make the streets of Los Angeles safer. Both men are masterminds in their craft. McCauley, with his formulated plans and decisive decisions. Hanna, with his ethos to spend as much time on the streets and learn its back-alley systems to think like a criminal. The story takes its time weaving in and out of their conflicting lives and goals. It turns both through their deeds on the streets of L.A. and into their inner sanctums that humanize McCauley and Hanna and offer brief emotional moments to give them depth. But Mann’s direction ultimately reinforces the classic good guy / bad guy trope to a comfortable sense of familiarity. It feels like a movie that doesn’t age. Except for the cars, outfits, technology and haircuts. But whatever.
I could spend hours and pages on a thorough shot-by-shot analysis for this movie. But I want to break it down to the film’s most important and famous scenes of action or intensity that sum up a lot of what makes it, well … HEAT.
The Armored Car Heist: It’s a literal and figurative smash into view for the opening scene, a semi-truck crashing into an armored car at an intersection and a flash-bang grenade stunning the police inside. The heist is methodical, professional and deliberate. It ends with the execution of the guards inside, mostly due to one of the robbers being more of an evil idiot than a methodical planner. (Of course, McCauley will eventually have his revenge on this rogue act.)
The Truck Stare-Down: McCauley and his crew of robbers have been made by Hanna and his team of detectives. They are being tailed, and Hanna and his fellow officers watch them from inside an abandoned trailer (with HEAT VISION, no less). After one of the cops makes a misstep inside to cause a loud boom, it creates one of my favorite scenes of the entire movie — McCauley and Hanna staring at each other with walls between them, Mann cutting back and forth between their faces as they study one another. McCauley cannot see Hanna, not yet, but Mann makes the moment unmistakable: It’s Hanna’s turn to be made.
The Bank Heist: Unquestionably my favorite action scene in the movie. Probably most people’s, and with great reason. McCauley and his team go in for a quick cash grab after setting up what is supposed to be the perfect score. Hanna and the LAPD have been waiting for this, and as they approach, Kilmer’s character (who has a name but not one cooler than Val Kilmer) unloads his assault weapon and McCauley’s crew tries to get the hell out of there. This leads to one of the coolest shootout scenes in all of cinema. First off, the sound staging is just chef’s kiss. I’ve watched this on laptop speakers, a home theater system and even just basic headphones, and the sound of the guns firing back and forth hits me in the chest every time. It’s absolutely thunderous, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s camera keeps pace as the robbers try to escape. Today, this scene is often used for trainings of tactical police teams on how to maneuver between fixed positions, and how to properly load and reload in a firefight. (See? There’s that Mann attention to detail.) And this is truly world-class choreography. The scene’s big dramatic ending comes from Hanna shooting Sizemore’s character perfectly between the eyes as he takes a child hostage. The escape for McCauley and Val Kilmer has been set, but not without causalities.
The Escape: McCauley has to choose between his job and his lover (played by Amy Brenneman). And as he also says in the diner with another great bit of dialogue: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel heat around the corner.” This, and McCauley’s attachment to revenge, ultimately cause his demise. The bad guy gets his punishment.
There are layers to Heat that make it more than just a stereotypical shoot-’em-up action movie. Mann adds in flavors of personal romance and family life for all of these characters and how they try navigate a sense of normalcy while also living high-stakes lifestyles … and perhaps enjoying them a tad too much. Mann has the camera eye to bring flashes of brilliance and excitement to the action and make your heart pound, but then spends plenty of time slowing down the pace and showcasing the beauty of each moment (made easy by the California landscapes around the characters).
But Heat movie isn’t perfect and has a glaring issue that needs addressing. Like many movies made before we all started to actually give a shit about women and their involvement in crafting amazing stories, Hollywood often used them as eye candy, or characters only to serve the development of the men. Mann doesn’t know what to do with any of the women in this movie. Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Diane Venora all deliver knockout performances, often out-acting some of the bigger male co-stars in the film. But their characters are mostly plot devices, which is incredibly disappointing because they have the potential to be so much more. On my last watch of this movie with my fiancée, we both paused it multiple times to note their lack of involvement. I wonder what Heat could be without this mishap, and it’s another example of a missed opportunity to treat actresses with the proper respect they have always deserved.
I love Heat. I want it to be the perfect heist movie, if not the best one of all time. But it deserves its criticism as much as it deserves its praise, and those flaws are a smudge on a great canvas. I saved my thoughts on its iconic diner scene for the end because it deserves its own homage. Film critics and Twitter dorks still screen-shot clips of De Niro and Pacino sitting at this diner together in the acting showdown for which film lovers had waited for more than 20 years at the time. Two coexisting legends previously intertwined onscreen in The Godfather Part II, but never sharing a scene. Their presence onscreen together in Heat is daunting. Like Godzilla and Kong if they were both extremely Italian with incredibly specific dialects and facial nuances. They dance back and forth in talking about the simplicities of their lives, but with a distinct understanding that each man has a job to do. What their characters know, Mann and the actors know, too, only their job is to provide grade-A entertainment, explosive action and some good-intentioned attempts to pull on your heartstrings. What their job leaves us with is Heat as a staple of even the most modest movie collection and a piece of Hollywood history showcasing the best of what the 1990s had to offer.
We got Kilmer, Sizemore and Danny Trejo to be in a crew together. We got Kilmer with a beautiful ponytail … OK, just a lot of Val, all right? We got Henry Rollins with an incredible cameo, Hank Azaria with a classic Hank Azaria type of character. And most importantly, we got to see the first time these two Italian-American icons shared a wonderful stage together. Long live the Mann.