Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Kevin Gage, Diane Venora, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, Jon Voight, Natalie Portman, William Fichter, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Danny Trejo, Hank Azaria
Plot: Neal McCauley (DeNiro) leads a gang of fearsome thieves. When a new guy gets trigger-happy, the cops, led by the explosive Vincent Hanna (Pacino), become hot on their tail.
The plot to Heat is a little simplistic. Robert De Niro plays a career criminal who has made a decent living for himself with a gang of trusted members. They live wealthy lifestyles comfortably and trust each other implicitly. However, when a new gangster enters the fold, Kevin Gage’s Waingro, the team end up murdering their hostages to cover for his mistakes. This introduces Homicide Detective, the brilliant yet anger-fuelled Vincent Hanna to the crew’s antics and the two groups, cops and robbers to highlight the simplicity at hand here, get enrolled in a cat and mouse game, as McCauley leads his men through one last heist.
The story pretty much matches any other cop movie out there. However, Heat isn’t so critically acclaimed for the plot – the joy of this movie is in the characters. The action feels second place to character development, as Mann lovingly creates these interesting people to spend the film, one that pushes the 3 hour mark, with. I wouldn’t go as far as calling McCauley De Niro’s finest performance, but I do think it is one of the most interesting characters he has handled. McCauley is not your stereotypical bad guy, becoming the most sympathetic characters to side with. He breaks the law, yes, but his career as a criminal feels like background noise, whenever he is away from the set-pieces. There is no origin story with Heat – thievery is just what he does for a living and that is all we need to know. As Mann takes us away from that life of his, we see the man beneath the calculating mask. McCauley’s priority is with his men over his money. He treats his associates (or let’s call them henchmen just to hammer home the unusual take on a bad guy stance), as an extended family – perhaps the only family he has. When McCauley begins dating Eady, the romance feels natural and touching, as though this lone wolf has finally gotten what he deserves. Then we have Al Pacino’s ‘hero’ of the piece, the cop charged with taking McCauley down, Vincent Hanna. While we have McCauley as a sympathetic anti-villain, Mann makes Hanna surprisingly uncompassionate as a character. McCauley is leagues away from any stereotype out there, while Hanna rolls around in cliché, embracing it. Al Pacino’s growling detective is on his third marriage, distances everyone around him because of his obsession with work and usually has every conversation ending (and often starting), with that trademark Pacino shouting. His dialogue is repulsive, lines like “She’s got a great ass!” going down in cult history. Whenever he is away from the action, he becomes really hard to actually like as a character, up until the very end, when movie law demands he has some kind of redemption. In fact, we could argue that the only time we truly like Hanna is when he and McCauley share a scene. When you get both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in your movie, arguably two of the greatest actors of the 70s, you end up anticipating their scenes together, and with a director like Michael Mann, you do not leave disappointed. The dialogue is sharp, the characters find some sense of serenity and cinema history is made. Over a cup of coffee.
But while people leave Heat praising the two leads, rewatching it reminds you that everyone, even the smallest characters get fully-developed arcs to have some time with, even if their screen time is clipped short. Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd are a very interesting relationship, totally dysfunctional yet strangely compelling. Dennis Haysbert pops up as a getaway driver in the middle act, yet Mann spends time making him worthwhile to the story. Most movies wouldn’t have even named him, yet with Haysbert we get a tragic story of an ex-con, forced to go back to a life of crime, because the world won’t give him a break, despite him serving his sentence and genuinely meaning to live an honest life. Natalie Portman has a small role as Hanna’s bi-polar stepdaughter, who makes herself a career with a few, explosive scenes. There isn’t one weak character here, which makes Heat all the more gripping. Mann is a director who prides himself on his unpredictable tension and here, it is pushed to the maximum. With such a great ensemble, your favourite character is likely to get picked off at any given moment, sometimes in a flash, before it can even be registered, making Heat such a gripping and entertaining watch. The supporting cast are so well developed that sometimes you don’t want the film to end, wanting to explore even more of the characters. We only ever scratch the surface of Ashley Judd’s ex-hooker character. Waingro is important to the beginning and end of the story, but he is strangely absent throughout the middle act, which feels especially strange when a brief scene suggests he will get his own subplot, involving a trail of dead prostitutes, given to him. However, when your film is already bursting at the seams at two hours and fifty minutes, it is understandable if certain parts had to be dropped.
The time is definitely put into the right places. Mann doesn’t rush a single part of this movie, and, as a whole, we definitely benefit from this. If you are willing to put up with slow character building moments, you will definitely be rewarded for your patience. When the set-pieces do hit, the fully-formed character list make the action so much better. Cult moments are being born in front of our very eyes. The coffee scene will go down as one of the most memorable pop culture moments, but there are so many other reasons to admire Heat. The mid act gun battle is one of the finest action moments in cinema history, a prolonged gun chase throughout a crowded city, all of these characters meeting in a climatic struggle. Then there is the moment when McCauley’s philosophy of dropping everything he loves in a single moment, when the ‘heat’ is around the corner. Robert De Niro breaks your heart in a single look. I’ve changed my mind. Maybe it was his finest performance.
Final Verdict: The three hour mark might scare a few viewers, but when every minute is as precise and controlled as this, you might end up wishing it was a little longer.