Heat (1995) dir. Michael Mann
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora
By Alan Bacchus
Remember when Michael Mann made good movies? It’s been a bad decade for him - a drought which has been clouded by huge disappointments which should have been cinematic sure things. After all, a huge biopic on ‘Ali’, a big screen remake of ‘Miami Vice’ and a ‘30’s era gangster film about John Dillinger were not risky ventures for Mann’s creative sensibilities.
Prior to this drought Mann, over the 80’s and 90’s, honed a unique muscular yet elegant cinematic style, which arguably hit its zenith with 1995’s tour de force ‘Heat’ – finally available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Video.
In 1995, Michael Mann’s name was absent in the marketing lead-up to this picture. Of course, it was the event casting of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who, until then, had not yet appeared on screen together. But the film turned out to be bigger and better than the casting, a second career renaissance for the director really, who before then was largely known as the creator of Miami Vice. This near-three hour crime epic, action picture and naturalistic character study, anchored by it’s phenomenal ‘shoot out’ scene instantly announced itself as one of the greatest ever crime pictures with Michael Mann now an A-List director staking his own claim next to the best work of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Howard Hawks, Sidney Lumet, Brian De Palma.
It’s now been 14 years, and with the new Blu-Ray release, it’s a good time to revisit and look at the picture critically again.
The dual protagonist plotting creates a marvelously structured narrative, an evenly matched cat and mouse chase between cop and criminal – two individuals on two different sides of the law but identical in character and motivation.
Robert De Niro is the burglar extraordinaire, Neil McCauley, a career criminal who approaches his job with the same kind of integrity and honour as any legitimate working class joe. He adheres to a philosophy of ‘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’. As such McCauley lives a spartan life unattached while his colleagues on the other hand have wives, girlfriends, children – regular lives.
Al Pacino as the cop, Vincent Hanna, lives to work. In the opening, he’s having some morning sex with his wife Justine (Diane Venora), showers, then leaves without taking her to breakfast. The look on Justine’s face suggests this is a frequent occurrence and signals the eventual demise of their relationship. Mann shows Vincent approaching his job with the same workmanlike procedural detail as McCauley. The aftermath of McCauley’s armoured truck robbery is dissected and broken down under Hanna’s confident command to his minions.
Mann continues this paralleling of the two characters by dramatizing the family lives of both their teams. Mann’s not afraid to take a careful timeout of the muscular action to show the male camaraderie and their family life like regular domestic people. While it’s an honest approach for Mann to focus on character, at times the naturalism of the domestic scenes don’t quite match the cinematically crafted set-pieces of the robberies. The dinner scene for example showing the cops dancing with their wives feels like a different film. Same with Natalie’s Portman’s character, the suicidal step-daughter of Vincent, is given a huge emotional arc, but with too few scenes to execute.
The glue which binds these gentle moments with the hardcore bullet-ridden action scenes is Mann’s blanket of music and sound – a pop culture tonal sensibility which has been a hallmark throughout his career. Elliot Goldenthal’s atmospheric score blends in well with Mann’s chosen pop tracks which includes Moby, Brian Eno, Lisa Gerrard and William Orbit.
Dante Spinotti’s cinematography compliments the musical tones perfectly. His visual palette includes shades of blue, grey and white which appear consistently throughout. His anamorphic lenses open up the frame with a true widescreen spectacle which an epic film like this demands. His frames are so precise, we can imagine the care he took to carefully place the traffic and car lights out of focus in the background of his longlensed shots.
But it’s Mann’s set pieces which will be the film’s lasting legacy. Action pictures tend to be anchored with 2 or 3 key scenes. In this case, there’s four - the armoured truck robbery, the drive-in money-exchange double-cross, the bank heist, and the final running chase between McCauley and Hanna. But Mann’s concertedly peppers in as much aggressive male-on-male conflict in order to keep our boners up in between these action scenes. Characters like William Fichtner’ shady white collar minion played by Henry Rollins, or Jon Voight’s cold and blotchy-faced father figure character, or Kevin Gage who resembles perfectly the irresponsible lifer criminal Waingro. Badasses like these exist in almost every scene.
And so, “Heat” admirably loses little over time, and considering that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” played a big creative influence on the tone of that film, it’s still arguably the high bar and close to becoming the final word on crime action on film.
“Heat” is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Video