Netflix Recommendation: Heat (Mann, 1995)
Whether or not you enjoyed Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s latest film, you likely noticed there was something missing. John Dillinger, as played by Johnny Depp, didn’t truly have an equal nemesis in Melvin Purvis, as played by Christian Bale. Not because of the characters themselves, mind you—after all, Purvis had the last laugh historically speaking—but in terms of dialogue, acting, and story structure. Bale didn’t have the charisma, the depth of character, or the amount of time dedicated to him in the film that Depp did. Thus, despite having cast two movie stars in a game of cat-and-mouse, the game seemed… one-sided. Mann’s film Heat, starring Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, is another story entirely—in fact, it might be the quintessential cat-and-mouse film of the past two decades.
The film opens with Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) leading his usual crew in an armored truck robbery. Everything is timed to the T, and the execution is flawless. One problem—there’s a new guy in the crew who decides to shoot one of the truck guards. They can’t let the others live and provide information on them, so they have to kill the other two. This puts Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) on the case. He is enormously thorough… so thorough, in fact, that despite McCauley’s inscrutable planning, he is able to get on their track. McCauley discovers that the heat is on, but they continue to plan their next move. Hanna then realizes that McCauley is watching him back. The two dance back and forth in this way, leading to the final showdown.
In the meantime, Mann devotes a lengthy amount of the film to the love interests of the main characters. We see the usually unattached DeNiro take to a girl (Amy Brenneman) who wants to be a graphic designer. We see the strained family relations of Pacino, his wife (Diane Venora), and his stepdaughter (a young Natalie Portman). We even see Chris (Val Kilmer), McCauley’s best friend and closest partner, and his failing marriage with his wife (Ashley Judd, in what is certainly her finest performance). This robs us of our ability to judge the characters—surely McCauley is an obvious anti-hero, and his dedication to this new woman is very sweet and charming to watch, but he’s a cold-blooded murderer who has said time and again that if the heat gets too hot, he’ll run and ditch everyone in a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, the obvious “villain” is a sensational policeman who loves his stepdaughter and has understandable problems with his wife that I’m sure many detectives have. When he walks in on her with another man, if he was a typical villainous cop, we’d cheer. Instead, we feel disgust.
Unlike Public Enemies, where two very different actors result in an oil-and-water combination, DeNiro and Pacino’s styles are perfect for their character. DeNiro’s subtle, intense acting is perfect for the cool pensive burglar, always plotting and always checking for the heat. Vincent Hanna has to ruffle feathers and make a scene to push his case forward—he’s damn close to a bully at times—so Pacino’s more flamboyant and showy style fits it to a T. The scene with Hank Azaria where he talks about Ashley Judd’s butt is now considered a Pacino scream classic, and can be found with ease on the Internet (along with his other scream classics, such as the monologue to Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross, and his speech during Charlie’s trial in Scent of a Woman). DeNiro and Pacino only truly share one scene together, and for once, the meeting of two huge actors on screen isn’t disappointing. Their characters understand each other’s methods and respect them for it—you feel the scene could stand for a lunch between the two actors as well.
Despite its sizeable length at two hours and forty minutes, Mann keeps the intrigue high. There’s so much tension surrounding the proceedings and so many characters to care about that there isn’t a wasted minute. Mann isn’t known for delivering a short film, but to say he lacks ability in the editing room is simply false. If anything, he provides an underrated service—the character driven epic. His films don’t lack action (both the shootouts in Heat and Public Enemies are enormously entertaining, packed with mayhem and excellent sound), but he knows the real action is when two characters the audience cares about are sitting in a room discussing important life-changing occurrences, either past or to come. While most burglar plots are light, breezy fare nowadays (the Ocean’s 11 trilogy comes to mind), here is a film that captures the risk and reward—the life one can lead if successful, the preparations it takes to achieve that success, and the infinite number of ways in which any simple thing can bring your success to an end. Two men, equal foes, trapped in combat against one another: it’s the recurring Michael Mann theme. While Heat isn’t life-changing cinema, it’s a reminder that two movie stars having a coffee can be just as exciting as a gunfight if you give them both equal ground to stand on.