After starring together in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, where they didn’t have any scenes together, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro reunited for Michael Mann’s brilliant Crime drama, Heat(1995), where they shared scenes together for the first time.
While watching Michael Mann’s Heat, one is tempted to think that making a great film is pretty easy: You take two greatest acting legends of all time and then square them off; make one a cop and the other a thief. For more dramatic effect make them the best in their field; driven, ambitious, unflappable, who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Set the film in L.A, the capital of crime dramas and film Noirs. Surround the two legends with the best collection of supporting actors in the industry. Infuse the film with the existential cool of a Jean Pierre-Melville and the minimalist aesthetic of a Walter Hill. Et Voila! you have a great film. In a film like this, the basic plot is of no importance, it’s the age-old cowboys Vs Indians or the Lawmen Vs Outlaws themes from the Westerns that are recycled repeatedly; the thief takes down scores; the cop tries to stop him; the first score brings the thief to the cop’s attention; the thief slips a second score through by the time the cop gets a hold on him; the third score would most probably bring the cop and thief face to face in which the thief manages to escape with causalities; then we have the final showdown which mostly ends with the cop either killing or capturing the thief. These characters and plot points have been the grand archetypes and tropes of Crime\Noir dramas since their inception. What makes Michael Mann’s attempts in “Heat” so special is that he distills (and also in some cases expands) these characters and themes to create both an intense character study (in contrast)- never since Akira Kurosawa’s crime classic, Stray Dog(1949), has there ever been a movie that undertook such an intense psychological character study of the cop and the thief to arrive at the conclusion that they are actually doppelgangers; and the most elaborate police procedural, even as he pays tribute to the city of L.A. by showing a never before seen side of it; in the film L.A. is a sleek fantasy land where modernist architecture co-exist with wide open vistas reminiscent of the Western wilderness, giving the film a look and feel of a Futuristic Noir ala Blade Runner and an Urban Western. But unlike Kurosawa’s classic film, from which much of the modern crime cinema generated, Heat is not much rooted in time, place or the socio-political realities. Stray Dog was very much a film representing a post-war Japan and the social issues discussed in the film belong exactly to that time and place. Heat, on the other hand, is pretty much abstract in its socio-politics; The narrative and characterization is universal, it can take place in any city in any country. Also, unlike Stray Dog, which is more gritty, realistic and in your face where we had scenes like the cop and the thief fighting in dirt until we fail to realize who is who, Heat keeps things rather cold and detached. It’s minimalist in its characterization and plot development like Walter Hill’s The Driver(1978), though Mann’s film is a genuine epic with a complex narrative structure consisting of multiple subplots and more than 50 speaking parts.
One of the signature themes of the film is “Movement”; the characters are always caught by the camera in a state of motion, which complements the theme of the film. The criminals are always on the move and the cops have to move much faster and much more to track them down. As De Niro’s thief, Neil McCauley tells Pacino’s Detective, Vincent Hanna in the most quoted lines from the film:
“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.” Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a… a marriage?
The cops and the criminals are on the move constantly and this theme is firmly established in the opening (credits sequence) of the film itself, where we see a train arriving at the station. Robert De Niro walks out of the train and is seen briskly moving through the premises of a hospital; he gets into an ambulance and drives away. Next, one of his gang members, Val Kilmer (playing Neil’s right-hand man Chris Shiherlis) is introduced, buying some special items for their upcoming operation; it’s after this that Pacino’s Detective is introduced; but contrary to expectations, he is not in the middle of some operation, but in a passionate act of making love with his wife, Justine (Diane Venora). But lest we mistake him for a committed husband and family man, Michael Mann has something else coming: there is already red flags that their marriage might be on the rocks. After the love making session, Hanna takes off without even having breakfast with his wife. This moment is supposed to be the highpoint in Hanna’s domestic life, from now on it’s going to be downhill. We also find out that Justine’s daughter from her previous marriage, Lauren(Natalie Portman) is rather disturbed because her real father is not communicating with her. For Vincent this is his third marriage, which gives us a very good inkling as to the kind of driven, workaholic cop that he is. Next, we see Neil’s crew in action for the first time: they are seen robbing $1.6 million in bearer bonds from an armored car. Apart from Chris, the crew consists of Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Trejo (Danny Trejo). Since they needed an extra man for the job they brought a guy from outside, Waingro (Kevin Gage), who turns out to be a real Psycho cowboy; he impulsively kills a guard, forcing Neil to eliminate (unnecessarily) the rest of the guards. This was something Neil had not planned and he is pissed at Waingro. Neil tries to kill Waingro later, when they get together to split up the money. We see the simmering violence underneath Neil’s cool exterior when he ruthlessly beats up Waingro and then tries to shoot him, but he is thwarted by the sudden appearance of a police car . That’s all the time Waingro requires and he escapes. This slip up is going to cost Neil heavily in the future as we will come to see. Neil also makes another mistake, when he gives his “Fence”, Nate (Jon Voight) the go ahead to sell back the stolen bonds to its rightful owner, a cunning, egoistical money launderer named Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner). Though the transaction would make Van Zant a lot of money, he’s angry that someone has dare to steal from him and decides to kill Neal when he comes to make the transaction. Though Neil escapes unhurt in the resulting ambush, he has already made an enemy of Van Zant, whom he has now sworn to kill. Thus, making enemies of Waingro and Van Zant in quick succession would lead to Neil’s downfall.
Meanwhile, Vincent Hanna is tasked with investigating the (bearer Bonds) robbery cum homicide committed by Neil and crew. Using a throwaway line spoken by Cheritto during the robbery, which a local TV man happened to hear; Cheritto addresses everyone with the term “Slick”; Hanna manages to zero down Cheritto with the help of an informant, and thereby the whole McCauley gang. The gang-members are having a lavish dinner outing with their wives, when Hanna and his men manages to track them down all at one place. Through their conversation, we come to realize that though Chris and Trejo already has criminal records, Neil has successfully managed to fly under the radar of the law until now. He is a stranger to the lawmen and we can understand why: Neal has no family, no attachments, he lives in an obscure place with minimal furniture, away from the hustle of the city, he travels light and dresses very ordinarily. in short, he makes sure that he does not do anything to stand apart from the crowd. Hence no one has managed to track him down, but now through Michael he has been trapped, and he’s going to be further pulled down by Chris’s marital problems; Chris has a stormy marriage with the feisty, Charlene (Ashley Judd), who is finding it hard to stick with her husband who’s a gambling junkie. Charlene gets into an adulterous affair with a seedy businessman named Alan Marciano (Hank Azaria). Hanna manages to puts the screws on Marciano for his past misdemeanors and thus is able to get to Charlene. On top of all this, Neil ends up breaking his own rule of “No attachments”, when he gets involved with a Graphic designer, Eady (Anne Brennan), who thinks that Neil is a travelling salesman. Thus we get two (or rather three) contrasting man-woman relationships explored in parallel- while Neil is trying to build his relationship with Eady and a thereby a new life; he thinks he can takedown one more score and he would be home-free to start afresh in New Zealand; the Vincent-Justine and Chris-Charlene marriages are crumbling under the weight of the professional lives of the men involved. So while we see Neil taking time out from his operations to call up and connect with Eady, Vincent is called away from a romantic evening with Justine to investigate a rape-murder of a young prostitute by “on the lam” but still psychotic Waingro. This intense scrutiny of these ‘professional’ men’s personal lives distinguishes this film from several of the similar Cops & Robbers crime dramas that came before, even the great ones that i discussed in the beginning, where the emphasis was mostly on following the men and their professional journey.
Neil and Vincent comes (almost) face to face for the first time when Vincent’s team stakes out the crew’s next target, a precious metals depository; but Vincent’s attempt at nabbing Neil is foiled by a careless cop who makes a noise that warns Neil to the danger. Neil and crew walk away from the job without finishing it, thus denying Vincent the evidence to put them away. Now realizing that the LAPD are hot on their scent, Neil proposes that they disband their operation the very minute and go on their separate ways, but Chris insists on hanging in; because a final bank job worth $12.2 million set up by Nate is going to set him up for life with charlene and he wants it bad. Though Neil doesn’t overtly display his emotions, he knows he needs it too, to set sail for New Zealand with Eady. Michael is the only one who has no stake in this, he’s already got plenty put away and enjoys a happy married life with his wife, but he decides to go along with his comrades with the retort “For me, action is the juice”, signifying another theme of the film: why a lot of these people- cops or robbers- do what they do?; it’s not exactly the money or the rewards or the good life, but for the thrill of it all. So Neil decides to go ahead with that big, final score; before doing that he runs a check on the Detective who has been smart enough to track him down and he realizes that Detective Vincent Hanna is a hot dog in the department who has it in him to bring him down, but still Neil persists, as this final score takes on the dimension of a ‘Suicide mission’. Meanwhile, a bored Vincent, caught between an unresponsive wife and an investigation that’s going nowhere, decides to track down Neil for a face to face chat. Vincent pulls over Neil on 105 Freeway and invites him to coffee. They talk about their commitment to their fields and limitations of their personal lives. Despite the fact that his personal life as a disaster zone, Vincent says that he doesn’t want to do anything else, Neil retorts that neither does he. Then in a rather Freudian psychoanalysis, they start describing their recurring dreams; Vincent has nightmares about dead people staring at him while Neil has one about drowning and he has to wake up and start breathing to feel ok again. Through the conversation they develop a healthy respect for each other, but they both acknowledge that they will kill the other if necessary, even though they may not like it. When Vincent returns to his office after his conversation with Neil, he learns that Neil’s crew has dumped all police surveillance, and that too all at the same time, exactly when Neil finished having his conversation with Vincent. Totally outsmarted, Vincent can only scream and shout as he realizes he may not be able to stop Neil from pulling off his next big job.
But Vincent gets an unexpected tip to Neil’s next score through Van Zant’s henchman; Waingro had joined up with Van Zant and they had gotten to Trejo and through him they have found out about the big bank job. By the time Vincent arrives at the spot, Neil and his crew has completed the robbery and are about to get away. What takes place next next is one of the greatest action set-pieces in movie history; as the city street becomes a war zone. Neil and crew battling Vincent and his men with automatic weapons. This is were the urban-Western aesthetic of the film is most prominently on display; it brings back echoes of the opening gunfights in the city-square portrayed in films like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. But unlike those films where, with the use of slow motion the action was slowed down to make it balletic and time and space elastic; here the gun-battle take place very much in real-time, with handheld cameras and an exaggerated sound design used to takes us deep within the action. It’s more reminiscent of the final shootout in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. In the gunfight, Vincent’s team suffer heavy casualties; while Chris is injured and Vincent manages to shoot down Michael. Neil manages to escape with an injured Chris, but now their faces are plastered over every Television channel and they cannot depend on their already set-up “Out”. Nate gets to working on a new “Out” for Neil and Chris while Neil decides to hunt down everyone responsible for the betrayal. Through an almost dead Trejo (whom he has to “mercy kill”) Neil finds out that it was Van Zant and Waingro behind ratting him out and he goes after them. He manages to kills Van Zant but Waingro is untraceable. Neil decides to leave the city wish Eady, but Eady having realized he’s a criminal refuses to go along. In the end, Neil convinces her to go along, as he himself foregoes the vengeance on Waingro, and they make their way out of the city. While Neil reconnects with Eady, Vincent and Justine’s marriage has broken down completely, as Vincent walks in on Justine with another man. An angry Vincent walks out, taking his Television set with him. His attempts to trace Neil is also not getting anywhere; Vincent had already deduced that Neil will be going after Waingro- who’s staying at Airport Marquee under another name; he has let out this information into the criminal underworld, hoping that Neil would bite, but that hasn’t happened. So Vincent believes that Neil has left the city and he retires to his hotel, where, much to his shock, he finds his stepdaughter, Lauren, unresponsive in the bathtub after a suicide attempt. He rushes her to the hospital, and outside the operation theater, he and Justine has a reconciliation, as they decide to give their marriage another try.
It’s while driving out of the city that Nate gives Neil the information regarding the whereabouts of Waingro. Neil says that he’s not interested anymore as he has decided to skip town with Eady; but the cold hunter that he is, he just cant resist the urge to go after his prey. His abrupt mind-shift is illustrated when he briskly switches lanes from the road that will take him out of the city to the one that will take him to Waingro’s hotel. This is a big turning point in his life that’s going to seal his fate forever, and Mann takes his time in building to the moment Neil parks the car outside the hotel and asks Eady to wait, as he has something important to take care of. The final sequence is basically a re-run of the opening sequence, instead of the hospital premises, Neil is walking through the hotel premises, evading the guards, until he locates Waingro’s room. He brutally attacks Waingro and mercilessly shoots him down; there is a serious lapse in the surveillance arranged by Vincent, who are slow to respond to Neil’s ambush and even when they capture Neil, Neil is powerful enough to overpower them and walk out free. The news of the disturbance at the hotel reaches Vincent who’s in the midst of a reconciliation with Justine; Lauren has survived and she’s safe now, but Vincent insists on staying on, though like Neil, he’s just dying to go after his prey and Justine knows this. She lets him go and the speed at which Vincent makes his way out of the hospital shows how excited and determined he is to nail his prey. When Vincent reaches the hotel, there’s utter chaos with Fire engines called in and people running scared all around, but his sights get fixed on the image of Eady sitting alone in the car. From his earlier conversation with Neil, he knows that Neil’s seeing a woman, and his hunter’s mind is quick to pick up the connection. As he makes his way through the chaos to Eady, Neil comes out happily smiling, but when he’s about to join up with Eady, he spots Vincent charging towards him. Steadfastly following his ’30 Second’ rule, Neil walks away from Eady, and makes a run for his life, with Vincent close behind him. The chase takes them to the tarmac at LAX, where Neil attempts to ambush Vincent, but Vincent is too fast for him, as he turns around and shoots him in the chest, mortally wounding him. Vincent approaches a dying Neil, who reminds him of his earlier words “I’m never going back”. Vincent nod in agreement. Neil offers his hand in friendship and Vincent accepts it as Neil succumbs to his wounds; finally, the cop and thief finds closure and it comes only at the point of one of them dying. Thus, one of the strangest stories of comradery between cop and thief comes to an end, where the killer cop is as weary and dead inside as the criminal he has just killed. As Vincent always says, “All i am is the one i am going after”, now that his prey is dead he is finished too, until he finds a new prey to hunt down. It’s interesting to note that the film opened with Neil stepping into the city via a train and the film ends at the airport with Neil leaving this world.
“Heat” is unquestionably Michael Mann’s masterpiece. As writer and director he outdoes himself delivering a film that’s equally high on style and substance. He had made some great films till this time: Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans etc., but never on this level. His filmography would radically change from this point on as he will come to concentrate more and more on style and the substance would become secondary or even irrelevant as with each film he would try to top the previous film in delivering a purely stylistic cinematic experience pretty much sacrificing stuff like characterization and plot development. This is very evident in his film adaptation of Miami Vice (2006) as well as his last film Blackhat(2015), where he concentrates only on delivering mood, atmosphere and great set pieces by keeping the exposition to the minimum. Heat, on the other hand, even as it deals with archetypes and standard crime film tropes (and even clichés) attempts to do something fresh with it. Obviously he has great actors to put flesh and blood into the archetypal characters: Robert De Niro gives the best performance in the film; cool, subtle, understated, his emotionless stone-faced exterior offset by the sudden burst of anger and physical violence. Al Pacino is a mixed bag; he indulges in some truly awful over the top hamming that sometimes pushes him out of his character and remind one of his loud, bellowing Frank Slade from Scent of a Woman(1993); reportedly, his character was conceived to be someone who chips cocaine and hence some of the outrageous behavior, but Mann cut all scenes showing his drug use. Pacino’s makeup is also horrible, making him look like a clown sometimes; otherwise Pacino is his natural entertaining self, he struts around like a rockstar, deliver his lines in his operatic voice with the musicality of a soprano hitting the arias. His body language and the delivery of the lengthy monologue- as he cleverly deconstructs the activities of Neil’s crew- at the first crime scene is a thing of beauty. The performances of these two actors are designed specifically to complement each other and the characters they are playing, while the thief is lowkey in everything he does, the cop is highly theatrical as he puts on an act all the time to extract information or confession from the lowlifes he is dealing with. The big scene where these two meet showcases this contrast to the fullest. This is the scene that the viewers have been waiting for more than 20 years and Mann really makes the audience wait for this and finally when it happens it’s a quite (but very very effective and memorable) moment over a cop of coffee rather than a high voltage sequence with guns drawn. The only disappointment with the scene is that we cannot see both of them in the same frame, it’s always cut for each other’s subjective POV. Mann is going more for the truth of the characters here, they are adversaries and not friends, and moreover mirror images of each other, hence cannot be featured in the same frame. The mirror image theme is accentuated as their conversation goes along; as the similarities between their life becomes more clear, they even starts speaking the same words. it’s only in the very last shot of the film- when De Niro is dead- that we see them together in one frame, but here too Pacino’s face is turned away from the camera. The supporting cast too chips in with good performances, with Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore giving the characteristic Kilmer, Sizemore performances.
Couple of grouses that i have with the film deals with the innumerable subplots as well as a lot of stylized language used in the dialogue. I wish Mann had cut out some of the subplots; a criminal, Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), trying to go straight and failing; he joins up with Neil and ends up getting killed in the final bank robbery; or the marital problems of Chris and Charlene; or Justine and the problems with her stepdaughter; or the far too drawn out police investigation. It’s like Mann wants to pack in every urban social problem into the script, trying for a far grander tapestry than that what a regular crime drama template would hold. As for the dialogue, there is too much technical jargon that a lay viewer cannot grasp easily; this will reach epic proportion with Miami Vice, which is full of these sort of dialogues as if Mann is out to prove how adept he’s with the inner workings of the shady gangs and law enforcement agencies. The dialogues, otherwise too, is rather heavily stylized, not very entertaining in the mold of a Quentin Tarantino dialogue, but rather too staccato and vague, like the following conversation:
Vincent Hanna: Seven years in Folsom. In the hole for three. McNeil before that. McNeil as tough as they say?
Neil McCauley: You lookin’ to become a penologist?
Vincent Hanna: You lookin’ to go back? You know, I chased down some crews; guys just lookin’ to fuck up, get busted back. That you?
Neil McCauley: You must’ve worked some dipshit crews.
Vincent Hanna: I worked all kinds.
Neil McCauley: You see me doin’ thrill-seeker liquor store holdups with a “Born to Lose” tattoo on my chest?
Vincent Hanna: No, I do not.
Neil McCauley: Right. I am never goin’ back.
Vincent Hanna: Then don’t take down scores.
I don’t now if everyone in L.A. speaks like this, or is it just cops and thieves, but i have heard this kind of lingo only in Mann’s films.
From a visual Point of view, there are absolutely no complaints, Mann is a true and pure visual artist. The glossy, steely blue hues of Dante Spinotti’s photography complements the mood of the film. The locations are also a knockout, It’s L.A. like you have never seen before and will never see again. The scene where Mann captures Neil and Eady talking on her balcony with nighttime L.A in all its splendor in the background is one of the most magnificent images i have ever scene on screen; Neil compares the vision to the appearance of iridescent algae that can be found only in Fiji. There are several such iconic images in the film, like that shot that shows the solitude of the gunslinger, which has Neil looking out of his glass window of his apartment into the ocean with his gun resting on the table. Mann does much of the storytelling through visuals; he flips the usual cop-criminal dynamic by showing the cop living in a spectacularly designed house (post-modernistic bullsh**t house as Vincent calls it), while the criminal lives in a barely furnished house. The cop also dresses stylishly, while the thief dresses in ordinary grey suits. Also, the camera moves that follows the criminals are ditto mirrored in the scenes where the film follows the movements of the cops. Elliot Goldenthal provides a highly atmospheric score that complements Mann’s visuals. Though it lacks a central theme; it sounds more like ambient music rather than a straightforward movie score, it’s utterly electrifying in its modern, avant garde approach and in the manner the score and the countless songs are married to the narrative; this off-beat use of music is another fixture of Mann’s films.
But Mann’s greatest achievement with “Heat” is making a film that’s big enough (or great enough) for Pacino and De Niro to come together again; after The Godfather Part II, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest movies ever made, the expectations were sky-high for their reunion and Mann doesn’t disappoint, crafting roles for the two screen legends that perfectly suits their personality and talent at that point of time in their careers. Pacino and De Niro will go on to do the atrocious, Righteous Kill(2008), which Pacino, today, acknowledges as a big mistake. But they would get the perfect vehicle to team up again (maybe for the last time) in the great Martin Scorsese’s, The Irishman(2019), where both of them played comrades, and hence had a lot more scenes together. As for Mann, post “Heat”, he will move out of his his distinctive brand of stylized crime dramas to pursue some real-life stories and biopics like The Insider and Ali; I’m not much of a fan of both, but he will get back to familiar territory with Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, but none of them will achieve the critical and commercial success of “Heat”. “Heat” made close to $200 million worldwide, a very respectable sum for a R-rated 3 hr. crime drama. Mann hasn’t made a film since the disastrous 2015 film, Blackhat, A film which i really love by the way despite its flaws; the film is an electrifying exercise in style and possess great energy; a hallmark of all Mann films, but it lacks the substance and psychological layering that Mann used to infuse his vintage films like “Heat”. I hope he makes something new soon, i ‘m dying to experience the Michael Mann style again in a new film.