When I was a Junior in college, I studied abroad in Europe for the summer. I was in the French countryside, walking back from the grocery store with some buddies, when the conversation turned to movies. In particular, movies which featured prominent American cities almost as another main character. We had been discussing Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight quite a bit. We loved how the director used the city of Chicago as a fill in for Gotham City. My friends were asking me for suggestions on other movies like this, particularly ones that featured Los Angeles. I pondered this for about 30 seconds before stating, “Well, you’ve got to check out Michael Mann’s Heat, definitely.” The following day, we went back to the store, somehow managed to find a copy of the DVD, and watched it that night at the Bed and Breakfast where we were staying. I remember all of this vividly. I mean here we are in Bayeux, France sitting in the living room of our cabin watching Heat with about 7 or 8 people, many of whom are experiencing it for the first time. It’s fantastic sharing the joy of a great movie with others. Certainly an experience I won’t forget. Now, on to my first film review.
In the 1960’s, real life Chicago PD detective Chuck Adamson matched wits with brilliant criminal mastermind Neal McCauley and his tight knit gang of thieves. Involved in a spate of daring high stakes robberies, Adamson doggedly pursued McCauley for months before finally taking him down. Decades later, director Michael Mann used Adamson’s story as the basis for his 1995 crime saga Heat. Transplanting the action from Chicago to modern day Los Angeles, Mann creates an epic crime drama featuring a diverse cast of A listers top lined by AL Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Pacino plays Lt. Vincent Hanna, a supersmart, highly dedicated detective in the LAPD robbery homicide division. Opposing him, Robert De Niro plays Neil McCauley, the cool, composed, and highly methodical master thief. When McCauley’s crew takes down an armored car filled with 1.6 million dollars in bearer bonds, killing 3 of the guards in the process, Hanna is called in to investigate. Immediately impressed with the professional handiwork, Hanna quickly realizes this isn’t a typical crew of gang bangers he’s pursuing. Tapping into a complex network of fences and professional snitches, the cops begin to slowly identify the members of McCauley’s gang. Surveillance and wire taps are set up and the plan to trap the crew of thieves begins to take shape. It doesn’t take long for McCauley to take notice, “Where the fuck is all of this heat coming from?” “Assume they have our phones, assume they have our houses, assume they’ve got us, right here, right now as we speak.” The heat nipping at their heals is unwelcome as the crew is on the verge of taking down a huge score. A bank in downtown LA, with an estimated payout of a cool 12.1 million dollars. The crew insists that the bank is worth the risk and with the successful execution of the heist, they intend to split town and go their separate ways.
Now I know what you’re thinking. The synopsis I’ve just provided you sounds like a very generic crime thriller. “Whats so special about this film?,” you’re asking yourself. However, let me reassure you, this summary is just a skeleton of what Michael Mann uses to flesh out a much more complex narrative. For example, Pacino’s character has an absolute clusterfuck of a personal life. Remarried for the 3rd time, he has a step daughter who is a chronic depressive and may even be suicidal. His wife, played by Diane Venora, is giving him a river of shit for never being home and becoming increasingly withdrawn when he is present. “You don’t live with me. You live with the remains of dead people,” she tells him. “You scour the terrain for the scent of your prey and you hunt them down, the rest is the mess you leave behind as you pass through.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, De Niro’s McCauley has just met a lovely young woman named Eady, played by Amy Brenneman. They meet at a diner early in the film and immediately hit it off. Smitten with her, De Niro makes plans to skip the country and live out the rest of his days with her in Fiji. She provides him the opportunity for hope of living a normal life and experiencing real love after decades of loneliness. On top of this, there are a myriad of subplots involving an ex con attempting to go straight after a recent release from prison, another member of Neil’s crew, Val Kilmer, struggling with a young son and wife who is fed up with his gambling addiction, and we’re still just scratching the surface.
Michael Mann also uses this film as a canvas to discuss his fascination with the duality of the cop/criminal relationship. The film seems to suggest that there is a razor thin line between the hunters and the hunted. The now classic scene where Hanna and McCauley meet face to face, taking a “time out” from the case, further drives home this point. Sidenote: it’s incredible to me that it took this long to get Pacino and De Niro to share the screen together, but boy the wait sure was worth it. Anyways, the two characters share a quiet scene over coffee. They talk about dreams, the complications in their respective lives, and their code of ethics. Pacino asks if De Niro ever wished for a normal life to which he responds, “What the fuck is a normal life, barbecues and ball games? I don’t know how to do anything else.” The scene is fascinating because you sense the deep mutual respect and even admiration they have for one another. There is an understanding between the two that although they stand on opposing sides of the law, they are cut from similar cloth and are two sides of the same coin. Though they know they may come into contact again and only one of them may survive, both admit they won’t like it. Neat stuff.
Ok, lets switch gears here a little bit. I don’t want this to turn into an English essay, all themes and juxtapositions and blah blah blah. This movie is also an action film after all. There is an absolute doozy of an action sequence about halfway through involving the aforementioned bank heist. The cops are tipped off to McCauley’s plan and they catch his crew coming out with 12 million dollars worth of loot. Val Kilmer spots the cops approaching and proceeds to open fire on them leading to an epic gun battle in the streets of downtown LA. A virtuoso sequence, lasting about 15 minutes, proceeds with hails of gun fire, dozens of destroyed cop cars, and casualties on both sides. My suggestion to you, if you are breaking in a new home theater system and you want to impress your friends, put this scene on and proceed to have your ear drums blown back into your skull. I was watching the Making of Heat Blu Ray yesterday where they detailed the amount of preparation the actors had to go through to instill the scene with a sense of total authenticity. All the actors had extensive tactical weapons training including firing actual ammunition and learning how to load/unload clips as well as the movements they use. Apparently, the Marine Corps actually uses the scene from the film to showcase proper handling and discharge of automatic weapons when training new recruits. How badass is that? Anyways, the bank heist and subsequent shootout is, in my mind, one of the greatest action set pieces of the 90’s and maybe of all time. Feel free to disagree if you must.
Wow, i’ve gone this far into the review and I haven’t even discussed the acting, what the hell is wrong with me? Jesus. A film of this size and scale has to have a vast ensemble to fill out the cinematic landscape. I could devote another 10 pages dedicated to the acting in this film but ill try to condense it down a bit. It all starts with Pacino and De Niro, who both give what is probably the last truly great performance of their respective careers. Al is a snapping live wire, relishing a showboat performance he can sink his teeth into. Sometimes a tad hammy and overly theatrical, he is still absolutely riveting. De Niro gives a quieter, more reserved performance but still no less transfixing them Pacino. The fact that the audience hopes that De Niro gets away in the end demonstrates the power of his craft. You sympathize with a master criminal, no easy feat. The supporting cast is also stacked with talent, just look at some of these names: Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Ted Levine, Tom Noonan, Dennis Haysbert, whew! All of the characterizations are rich and well rounded. The fact that there was not a single Oscar nomination to come out of this cast is tragic.
Technical credits are equally impressive. Director of Photography, Dante Spinotti fills the film with images highlighting the beauty of Los Angeles. There is a shot early in the film, when De Niro takes Amy Brenneman’s character up to his house in the hills and they look out from his balcony over the city. Thousands of tiny lights fill what looks like a vast ocean that stretches on to infinity. The film is littered with shots like this throughout. Spinotti also frames his shots with cool bluish hues as well as blacks and gun-metal grays. Everything looks sleek and modern. The photography speaks a language of its own. Similar praise should be given to Elliot Goldenthal’s beautiful score. Hauntingly melancholic as well as strikingly sensual, it fits the mood of the film like a glove. However, it all stops and starts with Michael Mann. A consummate professional, he has created a carefully controlled universe to spin this epic tale.
The City of Angels is the perfect backdrop for this meditation on cops, criminals and the shattered messes they leave in their wake. Both a celebration and a deconstruction of the classic cops and robbers tale, Heat transcends the genre and reaches the rarified heights of a complex Greek Tragedy. Grade A (Masterpiece)