Its plot can sometimes be a bit contrived and its pacing may suffer due to an overlong running time, but 'Heat' manages to overcome its problems thanks to excellent direction, good dialogue and brilliant performances from all involved.
Intensely dedicated and hungry senior Police Officier Lt Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) assigned to the case instantly recognises this is not the work of a bunch of amatuers and this is a professionally focused crew that he intends to take down. McCauley's fence Nate suggests that they can sell the bonds back to it's owner, a money launderer by the name of Van Zant (William Fitchner). Van Zant agrees but intends to teach them a lesson for stealing from him, although Zant is unaware how careful McCauley and crew are and when the attempt is foiled, McCauley vows revenge and chillingly intones to Zant that he's a dead man with a piece of the most memorable dialogue from the film.
Hanna in the process of investigating the crew grows to admire McCauley and his professionalism despite determined to bring him to justice, leading to a meeting in the now famous coffee shop sequence of the film. Waingro emerges to assist Van Zant in finding McCauley and his crew before they can get to him. Events are put in place as the film including an earth shuddering and visceral gun battle to end all gun battles pursues to it's sombre and emotionally charged ending.
As someone who was priviledged to have caught Heat on the original UK theatrical release (1996) I remember anticipating it greatly for the pedigree on display but not really quite ready for what I saw. My reason for revisiting this film I was lucky enough to see recently a new digital restoration of this film. This is something the film had desperately needed, even the much improved Blu ray presentation was not without issues. I'm happy to say that this version that was premiered recently at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theatre followed by a Q&A chaired by super fan Christopher Nolan who fielded questions to the attending cast and crew including Mann, De Niro, Pacino and cinematogrpaher Dante Spinotti amongst others is finally a fitting enough version of this much influential masterwork. The dialogue issues have been sorted and the 4K treatment has done nothing to alter it's film like appearance, no digital scrubbing evident here.
Heat certainly didn't echo anything that the decade had previously given us within the cop thriller genre. This absorbing meditation of crime with it's richly drawn characters and a cast to match with Italian American acting titans De Niro and Pacino at the lead stood out in an area of films that had become somewhat disposable and flashy in the 1980's and 90's.
Heat in comparrison did and still continues to sate my appetite for a thrilling and hugely entertaining piece of cinema that doesn't require I leave my brian disengaged. Michael Mann who meticulously researched and prepared before writing and directing this modern masterpiece. Mann had already impressed with Manhunter, the first film attempt at exploring Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter series as well as Thief but Heat saw him armed with a bigger budget than ever and the ace in his pocket two actors who the world had been waiting to see sparring on the screen together for decades. De Niro and Pacino had appeared in the same film but not sharing any screen time, this was the Godfather Part 2 where De Niro played the younger Vito Coreleone in flashback to Pacino's Michael in the present day.
Although certainly not all but some felt short changed at Mann's decison to keep both leading men while continuosly linked throughout the story to not meet on screen until the now much celebrated coffee shop sequence. They would cross each paths at the end but this meet up was one of the major talking points of the film on release and continues to be studied even now. While some felt they'd been cheated with the billing of these two on the poster to get one actual scene of proper dialogue my view then and now still is that less is indeed more.
On subsequent viewings leading up to it makes it that more rewarding when it arrives. It's not like fireworks are set off, it's actually just a simple conversation between 2 professionals that who admire each other but happen to sit on opposite sides of the fence. It's more that Mann doesn't make it a big deal that it becomes the legendary scene that other actors have lauded ever since it appeared. Though this isn't to do the rest of the film a disservice from the slow burn opening that leads to the tense bail bonds robbbery that puts the story in motion right up to the emotionally charged but sombre climax, Heat is an example of what can be accomplished within what had become a tired and worn genre.
A number of films have tried to match up to it's standard but failed, Ben Affleck's directed The Town is clearly taking inspiration but depite being an admirable work feels more like a tribute act than an original in it's own light. The more recent Triple 9 directed by John Hillcoat despite it's cast seems redundant and shallow in comparrison. It's fair to say the genre is yet to find a successor. As well as the complaints of the lack of screen time for the leads some of it's detractors seem to have expected something more action charged from the film, rather than at times a slow burn meditation of a film. Heat is given time to breathe offer characterisations. Mann offers enough of Hanna's home life for us to see that his job is well on its way to ruining his now third marriage. Diane Venora's Justine is a three dimensional character as opposed to the usual cliched cops wife and gets enough screentime to make this feel real and not just a plot device
Even fans of the film have talked about Pacino's tendency to overract and while I'm probably more of a fan of him than De Niro by a small margin I must admit as he's got older his acting has somewhat got less sublte and on occasions scenry chomping like. Although I would argue that Pacino essays Hanna quite brilliantly, he's a great counter point to De Niro's more reserved criminal. In the recent Q&A with Christopher Nolan Pacino revealed something that some had already suspected, that Hanna chipped cocaine to maintain his intensity. Hanna intones in one scene "It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be" when he's explaining why he can't share his job details to his Wife Justine. Though the big shouty moments seem to get most of the attention though the real brilliance of his performance is the more subtle moments, the way he surveys a crime scene the way he commands his team, Pacino has clearly researched this role and this definitely comes through in his portrayal, it doesn't feel like he's just strapped on a gun and badge and is going through the motions.
McCauley's is more of a closed book and intentionally so, though from the moment he meets Amy Brenneman's Edie she opens him to an alternative to his current situation. By Allowing some variety into life and a someone to care about he betrays his usual life style that has abled him to maintain his profession so successfully. The complexity of his situation leads to his fate, he wants change but in the end he can't let go of his old life but then this new aspect he's invited in also contributes to where he ends up. The genre rarely offers such depth and it'a part of the reason the film has been reverred and it has resonated with many directors over last 2 decades. De Niro is simply like Pacino electrifying, his intensity his layered reading, while a methodical professional with a ruthless calculating mind but also loyal and clearly a caring friend and later lover.
Where some have sugggested De Niro has the edge I would argue neither comes out on top here. It's only on subsequent viewings you see that Pacino is easilly equal to De Niro, it's something that is likely to be debated over as it has been throughout their career who is the best? Well here for me they are equal and the wait to see them on the screen together was more than worth it.
With two leads a given, Heat also has an outstanding supporting cast, one thing the film does is remind you of what a talent Val Kilmer was. He's rarely been better and offers a layered portrayal of Chris Shiherlis. A gambling addiction which is impacting on his marriage to Charlene a career best performance from an excellent Ashley Judd. Their final scene together is heartbreaking, both depsite their problems clearly deeply love each other. Mann unlike some of his peers as with Verona can write exceptionally well for women, both are integral to their male counterpoints and not just thinly written stereotypes. Another actor that has disappeared off the radar at one point seem to have a promising career is Tom Sizemore, here as Michael Cheritto, while not quite as impressive as Kilmer and Judd he offers a superb performance as action junkie sociopath Cheritto. Dany Trejo is fine as Trejo although he's the least interesting of the group.
Hanna's team also offers more quality supporting roles, Mykelti Williamson's Sgt Drucker is probably the one who gets the most screentime, an incredibly gifted actor who not only gets some great dialogue but all has some great scenes, especially with Judd towards the end of the film. Ted Levine as Bosco makes the most of his screentime and Wes Studi is on fine form as loyal soldier Casals. The supporting cast is so rich with even a seasoned actor like Jon Voight gets a key but brief role as McCauley's fence Nate and Chris Noonan already having delivered a memorable turn in Mann's Manhunter appears briefly as well. With also Hank Azaria and Jeremey Piven making an appearance.
As well as the obvious heavy weight leads the other star here is obviously Michael Mann himself who not only presents his greateast directorial effort to date but also furnishes himself with a terrific script that serves all so impressively. Mann meticulously researched this before starting production and due to his connections with law enforcement was allowed to get a first hand experience, that he would channel into his script. The story has more than some basis in fact, Mann had already attempted to look at McCauley and Hanna's story when he directed a TV Movie L.A Takedown in 1989. McCauley was the fictional Patrick McClaren in the film, he changed it to the real life McCauley for Heat. Both films are based on the real life story of Neil McCauley a calcualting criminal who was eventually killed by real life Hanna Chuck Adamson. Voight's Nate is based on Edward Bunker a ex con, acclaimed author and also Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Mann also is served by the legendary Dante Spinotti who imbues the film with it's distinctive look.
The film has some subplots that you can imagine a studio executive might have wanted gone to tighten up the film. One in particular has Dennis Haysbert as an ex con Breeden trying to rehabilitate back into sociey with the assistance of his wife. His predicament seeing him having to accept humilating employment where he's taken advantage of. His stories inclusion here though only makes sense later in the film and like with the key characters rather than some plot device he's a living breathing character that when we see his fate when he's unable to leave behind his old life not unlike McCauley we understand the tragedy fully of his predicamant. It's a testament to Mann to not remove it, when other less expertly made films would surely have cut it out to save on time. Mann actually doesn't believe Heat to be a genre film and there is some truth to this. Yes it does inhabit that world but it deals with other things like Chris and Charlenes marriage issues and also Hanna's trouble teenage step daughter played by the then 14 year old Natalie Portman.The disappointment of some that it's not more of a quick action fix is a tonic to others. This is the very opposite of the quick fire shallow Michael Bay like pyrothechnics that seemed to populate the 90's and beyond.
That being said Heat certainly doesn't short change us on action, ironically although it can't be described as an action film it delivers one segment that towers above any action sequence of that decade and beyond. When McCauley's crew pull their final job they walk straight out of the bank they have just robbed right into Hanna and his squad, they have no alternative but to battle it out with the high powered weapons they are carrying. Staying with the theme of realism, Mann employed the ex British special force (SAS) member Andy Mcnabb to stage the ensuing gun battle. The litteral deafening raining gun fire as McCauley and his men tried to evade capture and Hanna and team try to stop them. Think William Friedkin and Owen Roitzman's staging of their legendary car pursuit in the French Connection and apply that method to this scene and you'll get some idea of the sheer visceral intensity that is experienced.
Heat is simply a testament to what can be done with the good old fashioned cops and robbers theme invested with a top class cast and crew firing on all cylinders. It does not short change in any department, to be honest you could talk about this film for hours. The best way to appreciate this masterpiece is to watch it, if it's your first time boy you are in for a treat but if it's a film that you are more than familiar with, because of it's dense and epic content there is always something new to see within it's layers, Heat litterally is the gift that keeps giving.