It would be easy to say that while “Heat” is ultimately just a cops and robbers story, because there’s so much more going on than we’re used to from such films, it transcends the genre in a truly rare way. But while true, the problem with that analysis is that it assumes there’s something wrong with making “just” a cops and robbers movie. For all his widescreen artistry and facility with actors, it must not be forgotten that Michael Mann is not just one of the great directors, he’s also just a guy from Chicago who started out working on shows like “Vega$” and “Starsky and Hutch.” Mann is a cops and robbers guy (not that there’s anything wrong with that), which is why he was able to make this, one of the greatest crime films of all time.
The root of “Heat”’s story has been kicking around for years, and by the time Mann got around to making it in 1995, he had already filmed rougher versions of it twice, “Thief” in 1980 and the 1989 TV movie “L.A. Takedown.” The basic story is taken from a cop whom Mann knew back in Chicago who had had a long-running relationship with a professional thief. At one point the two of them actually met, and essentially said that they were each going to continue doing their respective jobs and that the other better stay out of their way. Ultimately the thief was gunned down by the cops coming out of a robbery. These are the bare bones for what would become Mann’s pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a war-like competition through the streets of L.A., cop and robber, both at the peak of their game, unable and unwilling to do anything else with their essentially empty lives.
De Niro plays the robber, Neil McCauley, one of those fantastically skilled thieves who (all of Mann’s legendarily prodigious research aside) exist only in the movies. The film starts with a bravura sequence in which McCauley’s regular crew – composed of Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer and Danny Trejo – as well as Waingro (Kevin Gage), a new guy they picked up for extra muscle, robs an armored car of $1.6 million. Waingro starts shooting, which results in them killing all of the car’s guards. McCauley tries to take care of Waingro later, as an obvious hotheaded liability, but he escapes into the night, ultimately to prove the crew’s undoing.
On the law side is Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino, as frothing at the mouth in intensity as De Niro is buttoned up and sedate), the Robbery Homicide detective working the case. As much a workaholic as lone wolf McCauley, Hanna is on the downslope of his third marriage, and seems to find more kinship in his enemy than in anybody else. Never quite at home unless he’s chasing some bad guy down, Hanna is a hunter on the move who will never quite fit into his world, as Neil never quite fits into his, where even the other members of his crew have wives, children, houses with furniture. As McCauley says, “I am alone, but I am not lonely.” Call it male bonding, an unromantic love story, two men discovering brotherhood through conflict, this is a film about that oldest of canards, the man of law who finds his double in the man of crime, but makes it fresh again through putting such towering actors in those respective positions. This is especially true in the scene where the two men meet to have coffee and talk shop. Most directors would have responded to having these towering thespians in their first on-screen meeting by giving them some explosive dialogue to chew through. But it’s a quiet, thoughtful piece which echoees through the rest of the film, as a counterpoint to the savagery which their relationship must inevitably lead to.
Surrounding Hanna and McCauley is a sprawling universe of Mann’s creation, with one of the great ensemble casts of the 1990s. With the possible exception of a haggard and tired-seeming Jon Voight (as McCauley’s fence), there is hardly a false note anywhere, with the slyly creepy Tom Noonan (who also starred in Mann’s “Manhunter”) and a quietly rage-filled Dennis Haysbert (as a con trying to go straight who gets roped into McCauley’s crew) especially standing out. There’s also the city of L.A. itself, which is practically made into a character itself through cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s elegantly gorgeous widescreen compositions – film snobbery aside, this actually is one of those rare films which simply cannot be watched pan-and-scan, it just ain’t right. And as always, Mann’s excellent taste for music is as evident here as in anything he’s ever done, with Elliot Goldenthal and Kronos Quartet’s sublime washes of electronic orchestration layered between pieces ranging from Passengers to Moby and Brian Eno that perfectly complement the film’s look, a cool blue vacancy. And all of it, the look and sound, are all meant to underscore again the loneliness of these men’s lives, as in McCauley’s edict to never have anything in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds.
Speaking of Eno, it’s his percussive composition “Force Marker” that’s used for the bank robbery preceding the shootout which is the undeniable and justly celebrated highlight of “Heat.” Hanna’s team of detectives hears about a robbery being pulled by McCauley’s crew and arrives just as they’re coming out, setting up a running shootout through the skyscraper canyons of downtown L.A. McCauley’s crew tries to blast their way out, using automatic rifles with terrifying precision (the results of literally months of ridiculously intense training the actors went through, a verisimilitude that comes through on screen), the unbelievably loud reports echoing through the streets as the cops scramble for cover. It’s alternately thrilling and horrifying, with civilians running for cover as the film’s postmodern detachment is utterly shattered, setting up the increasingly personal nature of the conflict that will bring McCauley and Hanna to their final showdown.
Are there things to complain about with “Heat”? Absolutely. Following the shootout, the film’s focus becomes too narrow, and we miss the exciting panoply of actors who populated its earlier stretches. The film doesn’t quite know what to do with its women – especially Diane Venora as Hanna’s pill-popping wife and Amy Brenneman as McCauley’s innocent girlfriend – they seem essentially lost in this alpha male universe. Pacino’s performance, which often ranges from campily enjoyable to simply excruciating. The more one watches the film, the more these problems pop up. But this is also a film that resonates and is always worth another viewing, to appreciate the sheer mastery of craft that Mann brought to the table, and the first-rate actors that he brought with him.
For some reason, it’s taken until now for Warner Bros. to do a proper special edition DVD release for the film, but at least they did it right. The sound could be better, but the picture transfer is spot-on. Some 11 deleted scenes are included (finally!), though they were all good cuts, with the exception of a few which could have made Tom Sizemore’s character more human, his role as it stands is unfortunately truncated. There’s also commentary by Mann and five making-of documentaries, which reveal the truly ridiculous lengths to which Mann went to prepare himself and his actors for this project. It paid off.