By Marc S. Sanders
My all time favorite crime drama, as well another one of my most favorite films, is Michael Mann’s Heat which is widely recognized for the much-anticipated moment where Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro finally share the screen together for the first time. The Godfather Part II never counted as their characters performed in different time periods. Still, Heat has so much more going for it, beyond just its headliners.
Michael Mann wrote the screenplay he directed. It deeply involves both the thief, Neil McCauly (DeNiro), and the homicide detective who pursues him, Vincent Hanna (Pacino), with inspiration from two real life characters. Therefore, this film drives with more authenticity than a standard Lethal Weapon picture. Much more is at stake than a standard kill shot, arrest or the score to take down. The women and children and partners these guys become associated with carry a weight and sense of value. Even the hoods who betray them hold significance. How they matter and are part of the story is just as pertinent.
The story focuses on DeNiro, with Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore taking down high stakes scores, not petty liquor store hold ups. An early armored truck hold up goes well until a new partner executes the three security guards in broad daylight on the street, at point blank range. Pacino takes the case along with his brilliant squad of detectives that includes great supporting performances from Mykelti Williamson, Ted Levine and Wes Studi. Then it becomes a cat and mouse tale where two equals match one another in wits, skill, and experience. To believe the equal match up though required casting Pacino and DeNiro. The film would not work with any other pair. Through their respective careers, their various performances came off different than one another. Yet, it has been often easy to imagine either one of them playing their classic roles instead. I could envision DeNiro as Michael Corleone or Serpico. I can also envision Pacino as Rupert Pupkin or Travis Bickle. The range of these actors is unlimited.
Diane Venora and Ashley Judd are two actresses not used enough in films. As the wife to Pacino’s round the clock detective, Mann provides time for Venora to show the pain of a woman in love with a man who can hardly ever be home because he’s always on the prowl of DeNiro’s professional thief and his crew. Venora is a likable woman in the role, only the circumstances of her marriage and the difficulties of dealing with a troubled pre teen (a fantastic Natalie Portman who will break your heart with just three scenes) are gradually making her cold. She has a great monologue midway through the film that is terribly dark, as she surmises Pacino’s cunning detective.
Ashley Judd is a different kind of cold as the wife of Val Kilmer’s gambling addicted sharpshooter. She’s a beautiful housewife and mother to a toddler that is trying to maintain a happy home. However, the balance of living with a career criminal is near impossible to maintain.
Michael Mann put so much thought into characters like this. Other directors and writers would keep the story on the streets and in the hideouts and city precincts. Mann goes not just for the low level criminal hoods who provide information in a night club at 2 AM. Mann allows his crime drama to spill over into the home.
He even allows a side story to occur with an ex con (Dennis Haysbert) out on parole trying to get his life back in order. What does this guy with his loving girlfriend have to do with anything else? Eventually, the bridge is connected, and it comes down to an emotional and heartbreaking conclusion.
Heat deliberately takes its time to flesh out a lot of great characters. The large cast are all given moments to stand apart from the rest. It is primarily a quiet, talking picture of careful planning and investigation. However, when the legwork is complete, Mann arrives at two scenes right in the middle of the film. The first is the now famous coffee shop sit down confrontation between Neil and Vincent. Mann did a masterful job of capturing the two actors doing some of their finest work with nothing tangible to aid them; no props or grand music or effects. Just a table in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. The professionals allow their history to show only so much but the cop and thief know this is not going to be easy from here on out. Mann did numerous takes, but with at least two cameras showing at each go round. So, if Pacino is talking, we see DeNiro’s facial reactions and vice versa. Pacino’s take #11 is also DeNiro’s take #11. It is one of the all-time great scenes in film history. Beautifully written. Beautifully constructed. Beautifully performed.
The next centerpiece is the bank robbery that occurs at midday in downtown Los Angeles. Neil and crew are almost scott free when Vincent and squad intercept them in the middle of the street. What sets this massive shootout (based on a real incident) above all others is that I actually get choked up and emotional over the moment. Characters that I have become acquainted with for the last 90 minutes are swept up in huge risks and danger of massive gunfire and ambushes. I even become terrified for the extras that Mann includes in this scene. I’ve watched this scene a hundred times and I can’t help but actually get tearful over it. Mann has the power to make me have an affection for these characters. As well, how will the spouses, who become aware of this matter, be going forward? That accounts for much of the latter half of the film.
Neil holds true to a philosophy he learned while doing time. If you spot the heat around the corner, allow nothing to interfere that you cannot walk away from immediately to avoid getting apprehended. He is put to the test of that motto when he falls in love with an introverted graphic designer played with quiet reserve by Amy Brenneman. This storyline will sum up the ending. Again, Mann shows the characters on the outside of these guys with their guns, working in an underworld environment. How do the risks of these guys play out on others?
Technically, Heat succeeds as well with brilliant blues, blacks and whites in cinematography. Major accolades for Dante Spinotti. Everything from the well-lit coffee shop to Neil’s unfurnished, ocean view apartment and even a blue Camaro that Neil drives away in through an underground tunnel are brilliant. Spinotti paid careful attention to the evolution of the characters. As Neil drives into that tunnel, the car turns white hot. He is on his way to escape with an unsure Brenneman by his side. Often in moments like this, the film tells more than any piece of dialogue could ever sum up.
Heat is a must watch film for genuine portraits of characters few of us will ever cross paths with. We should understand, though, they have more than just a drive to steal or to get an arrest. These guys exist for more than just the score. Few crime dramas ever approach that angle, and that is why Heat is such a special film.