If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.
By the time we meet veteran thief Neil McCauley, he’s already lost control.
You’d be forgiven for believing otherwise, thanks to Robert De Niro’s deceptively familiar, characteristically coolheaded performance as a man who’s gotten rich on a career of robbing banks and money trucks.
One half of a dueling protagonist pair opposite Al Pacino’s Lt. Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann’s cops-and-robbers symphony Heat, Neil lives a life most would consider close to, if not on, the edge. Despite this, he maintains a stoic gaze as he exerts authority over his complex plans and roughneck crew, exuding the demeanor of a confident, calculated maestro at work. He knows which jobs to take and which to avoid. He’s precise, to the second, about the timing of his strikes and exits. He surrounds himself with the best of the best. He is, as is often the case for a De Niro character, The Man.
De Niro is pulling on well-known strengths here. By 1995, audiences were accustomed to seeing him as the thick-skinned, hardass honcho in films like The Untouchables, GoodFellas and Casino, so his character in Heat likely wouldn’t surprise at a glance. Furrowed eyebrows, squinted eyes, a mildly annoyed tone when he asks rhetorical questions of the doofuses mucking up his plans — all the standards are here.
But Mann subtly clues us in on the chaos slowly overwhelming Neil’s life right from the start. During the very first robbery of the film, one of Neil’s new-hires, Waingro (Kevin Gage), gets trigger-happy and executes a security guard for no reason. This sets off a chain reaction that results in a slew of bodies left at the scene, a messy escape and an LAPD task force that’s all the more fired up to catch Neil and his crew.
But it’s not just Neil’s vetting of new crewmen that’s mucking up the works of his carefully organized life. Even his right-hand man, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), is floundering in a failing marriage, with the turbulence of his personal life bleeding over onto his focus and resolve at work.
Neil’s own inland empire is becoming penetrable too, as he finds his stolid heart softening over a woman he meets in a chance encounter at a restaurant. Eady, a humble graphic designer played by Amy Brenneman, barely takes three steps into his life before Neil starts concocting ideas of moving to Mexico with her and leaving this violent life behind.
All this to say, Neil is not “The Man” he used to be. He is no longer in control of everything like he once was. And for three hours, we get to see that lack of control slowly get the best of him.
Heat was probably the first De Niro film I ever saw. As such, his performance never struck me as especially complex or extraordinary given my superficial knowledge of a career full of turns as hard-edged criminals. But I recently had the pleasure of watching him in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear for the first time. Now that’s a performance that sticks out: Max Cady, a vengeful ex-con with a thick Southern drawl and a goofy slapstick nonchalance about violently assaulting unsuspecting people.
Max unlocked something for me about De Niro’s more conventional performance in Heat: The man understands his assignments. Cape Fear was a script that demanded De Niro transform himself into something unrecognizable to maximize the shocking depravity of his character. Heat, on the other hand, required him to hide his character’s doomed fate behind a veil of familiar bravado.
It’s hard to classify a star performance in a widely revered crime epic as “unsung,” but I think it goes overlooked just how well De Niro’s “playing to type” gives Neil a subversive quality as a De Niro lead. Underneath the steely exterior is a man who doesn’t know what he wants, doesn’t realize he’s not in control and can’t see that his wandering ambitions have already sealed his fate.
Pacino’s Vincent certainly does a number to that effect, too, acting as an apparent foil to Neil’s mantra: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Vincent is in a crumbling marriage and has a suicidal stepdaughter who hates him. His career as a police officer has eroded his personal life. Neil, by contrast, has his eyes on escaping his work life to a peaceful retirement and a committed relationship.
We’re lured into Neil’s elaborate scheme under the impression that he’s got it all worked out, or somehow will by the end. We can’t see that he’s doomed from the start because neither can he.
Heat is a convergence of three masters doing their thing to the highest degree. However, I find now that De Niro stands out among them by not simply putting forth the best version of his shtick but by fooling us with it.
It makes Neil McCauley perhaps my favorite deployment of a typecast De Niro. He’s played the spectrum of calibrated puppetmasters to strung-out loons, but the fatal flaw of his character has never been so slyly, sleekly concealed as in Heat.