Directed by: Michael Mann | 171 minutes | drama, crime | Actors: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Tom Noonan, Kevin Gage Hank Azaria, Susan Traylor, Kim Staunton, Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins, Jerry Trimble, Martin Ferrero, Ricky Harris, Tone Loc, Begonya Plaza, Hazelle Goodman, Ray Buktenica, Jeremy Piven, Xander Berkeley, Rick Avery
‘Heat’ is basically a simple story about an obsessive detective (Pacino) who hunts down an equally driven master criminal (De Niro), but along the way a very broad spectrum of characters, motivations and relationships is shown, with which the (crime ) genre is largely transcended. There is actually something for everyone, with not only action, but also drama, tragedy, romance and humor. At the same time, ‘Heat’ also perfectly meets the requirements of a (traditional) ‘cops and robbers’ film, with exciting shootouts, tough language and smart moves from both parties. Add to that a memorable, ‘noire-esque’ filmed Los Angeles and of course an excellent all-star cast led by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and it’s no wonder that ‘Heat’ is seen by many – including filmmaker Christopher Nolan – as a modern masterpiece.
The thrill of seeing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a movie together, after so many of their independent successes, is actually enough to recommend the film, with the now-legendary showdown scene at a roadhouse serving as a tasty pièce de résistance. It is true that these are not roles that really challenge the men – they are in fact variations on previous roles, but the interactions with each other and the other characters are nevertheless very stimulating. Precisely because the viewer finally sees them fighting each other, in the way in which he knows them and (probably) prefers to see them.
One realization or layer in the story that is increasingly surfacing (until it is almost literally spoken) is the fact that Neil McCauley (De Niro) and Vincent Hanna (Pacino) are essentially not polar opposites—whatever their “social ‘ suggest roles as cop and criminal – but rather soul mates. In fact, of all the characters in the film, they are probably the two who understand each other best. Both are extremely passionate about their work. The one meticulous in the preparation of his robberies and rigid in his philosophy of life that he should not commit himself because he must be able to leave everything behind immediately if the police (the ‘heat’) is after him. And the other, in turn, is just as focused on catching criminals and eliminating everything else in his life, coming home late one night to encounter cold chicken and a disappointed wife (his third already). come, with whom he shares nothing. Hanna is addicted to hunting criminals: it’s his whole life. “All I am is what I’m going after” he tells his wife very self-consciously. And in his telltale (only) conversation with Neil at the cafe: “I don’t know how to do anything else [and] I don’t want much to either”. The same goes for Neil, he replies.
It’s a beautiful duality that you see in these characters; or at least in Hanna’s, who somehow still adheres to social norms and values and would like to build a family life, but actually cannot do this and spiritually adheres to the same attitude to life as Neil. With a kind of tube look he pushes everything around him, extremely focused on only one goal, living in a kind of twilight world of crime, misery and testosterone. The agent and the villain find each other in this world, as adversaries but also as soulmates. It is therefore becoming increasingly clear that they need each other – as Batman and The Joker – but will also mean each other’s downfall. The whole movie leads to this ending, which may be dismissed as too ‘romantic’ or kitschy by some, but is actually unavoidable and carries a lot of interesting emotions. It means the end for one but what does it mean for the other? Victory? Business as usual? A new beginning? Or a look at his own end?
It should be clear: this is not a simple story about the cop who has to catch a clever villain. While there is the simplicity of the (superficial) western in the central relationship – due to the strong This town isn’t big enough for the both of us feeling – the elaboration is much more in-depth than usual.
Another consistent theme is the strained relationship between the men – who do their manly things – and their wives, who they try in vain to offer meaningful, loving lives. The men are nevertheless inevitably drawn to the dangerous, adrenaline-pumping life, which will eventually – in almost all cases – bring them to ruin and irreparably disrupt their private and family lives. It is sometimes tragic to see how powerless these men are in the face of the call of ‘the wilderness’ or ‘the hunt’. You sometimes want – at key moments, when these men are faced with a choice – to shout ‘don’t do it’; for example, when Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) – after some hesitation – decides to participate in the bank robbery when, with his meanwhile amassed money, he could easily have chosen his wife. Ex-prisoner Breedan (Dennis Haysbert, long before his presidential role in “24”) also evokes sympathy with his small role in that sense. He swallows his pride when he takes a shabby job in the kitchen for a boss who offends him, hoping to build an honest life and be happy with his girlfriend. But an exciting life of crime proves too appealing: he joins Neil’s crew when they need a driver, with disastrous results. Lost and gambling addict Chris (Val Kilmer) wants to make one last attempt at building a lasting relationship with Charlene (Ashley Judd), but needs some money from their next bank robbery to do so. That doesn’t end well either. Neil has wisely kept women at bay, but is now seduced too; through the life and romance that might be possible after or outside his current life. The rather sudden way in which he starts a relationship with Eady (Amy Brenneman) and immediately turns out to be the love of his life is not very likely, but the relationship itself does a lot for the development of his character and involvement of the viewer by his fate.
For Vincent Hanna, you wish there was still hope. There are intimate moments with his wife and sympathetic moments with his foster daughter (Natalie Portman) that suggest it might be possible, but it doesn’t seem to be his fate. Perhaps that last tragic event – which we won’t reveal just yet – was a wake-up call so close to the confrontation with Neil? As is often the case, you only really notice what you feel – sleep, pain – when you relax and allow your body and mind to rest. That this conscious event, so soon after Hanna has thrown in the towel and – literally – says that he is going to sleep, has a lot of meaning, therefore seems plausible.
It’s amazing how much the viewer’s perspective and sympathy for the characters is divided between ‘good guy’ Hanna on the one hand, and ‘bad guy’ McCauley and his gang on the other. Both command respect through their professionalism and both are sympathetic to a certain extent, with goals and desires that you can well understand. Basically you want to see them both succeed in the end, which is all the more interesting because this is impossible. ‘Heat’ also effectively shows the dynamics, culture and many shades of gray within McCauley’s criminal group, somewhat comparable to films such as ‘The Godfather’, ‘Goodfellas’ and, for example, TV series “The Wire”.
You’d almost forget, but ‘Heat’ is also ‘just’ an exciting action thriller, with the bank robbery and subsequent chase and long, extraordinarily intense shootout in the middle of the Los Angeles streets being one of the highlights. And the acting is (of course) excellent, with De Niro often calculated, restrained and Pacino a bit looser and more temperamental. But in the iconic restaurant scene, they both show some subtle acting and the actors and their characters seem to come together in the ultimate way. Very different, yet so many similarities. It’s wonderful how they smile slightly at each other in the last seconds of the conversation, De Niro clearly and Pacino mainly with his eyes. Only a tiny twinkle in their eyes – not even half a word – is enough for these two to understand each other. Los Angeles is after all a character in its own right, with unique, grand or desolate, locations and beautiful play with shadows, darkness and light, perfectly fitting the themes of the film. Themes that don’t come at the expense of the entertainment value, by the way. ‘Heat’ is almost three hours of enjoyment of action, tension, intensity, beautiful images and, if you are open to it, the necessary depth.
It’s well worth listening to Michael Mann’s audio commentary, seeing ‘The Making of’ from the film, going back to the old locations, hearing thoughts on the important cafe scene, but these extras were all on the old blu-ray release.
Exclusive to this new Blu-ray, based on the recently restored film, are two live recordings of conversations with (among others) Michael Mann, Pacino and De Niro, after screenings of the restoration; one at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and the other at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2016.
This latest interview is led by Christopher Nolan – director of the likes of ‘Memento’, ‘Insomnia’ (also starring Pacino), ‘The Dark Knight’, ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar’ – and features a whopping dozen cast and crew members from the film. It’s very nice to see the two acting legends De Niro and Pacino sitting side by side here and reminiscing. But at the same time also more than a tad uncomfortable. Because they are of course quite old men, for whom it has also been a very long time (21 years) since they made the film.
So sometimes it takes a while to get a response or it gets stuck in generalities like “When Michael asked me, I knew it was going to be something special.” It’s a good thing many of Nolan’s questions are for Mann and they get reinforcements on stage quickly. But while Pacino jokes towards the end of the interview that it’s all slowly coming back now and barely knew what movie it was about for the first half hour, he and De Niro do make valuable contributions, with stories about the acting approaches, and for example an interesting revelation about the reason for Vincent Hanna’s sometimes manic behavior.
We also see and hear Diane Venora (Justine, Hanna’s wife), Amy Brenneman and Val Kilmer speaking. Speaking of awkwardness, Kilmer has a very hard time talking because of his – for some unknown reason – swollen tongue, but remarkably for a very long time. His enthusiasm is very contagious and at the same time moving; especially when he says he misses that time so much.
In terms of content, however, the most worthwhile – as you would expect – are the answers and stories of Michael Mann (also in the one-on-one interview in Toronto). About how many of the scenes were created retroactively with the ending scene(s) in mind; roughly speaking, many scenes were aimed at making the viewer feel as much connected to Hanna as to McCauley. Or about the fact that many of the characters – including the two most important ones – are based on real figures, many of whom Mann knew personally as well. Many facts and background stories will make you want to watch the film again immediately. Not that you really need an excuse for this.