“Heat” occupies an exalted position among the countless contemporary crime films. Stunningly made and incisively acted by a large and terrific cast, Michael Mann’s ambitious study of the relativity of good and evil stands apart from other films of its type by virtue of its extraordinarily rich characterizations and its thoughtful, deeply melancholy take on modern life. Draw of the star names and critical buzz will be undercut somewhat by pic’s somberness and three-hour running time to result in sultry if not sizzling B.O., while foreign and long-term video prospects are potent.
Just when it seemed that the gang of thieves format was entering its death throes, at least for this cycle, Mann has jolted it back to life with massive doses of dazzling style and unexpected humanity. Rarely in the crime genre have so many characters been so deeply drawn, and only occasionally has there been this kind of grand, even philosophical view of lawless behavior that so effectively serves to paint a bigger picture of society at large. Overall impact is not only exciting but powerfully sad.
Showing signs of increased virtuosity with every picture, Mann orchestrates a sprawling tale of an obsessed, brilliantly intuitive cop hunting a superbly disciplined master criminal across a sulphurous Los Angeles landscape. The contrasts between the ways these two driven men go about their business are startling and engrossing enough to sustain interest over the long haul, as is the symbiosis that grows as their inevitable showdown draws near.
But this classic Western-like structure is just the central focus for a fantastically detailed portrait of seemingly equal forces on both sides of the law, populated by men and women whose personal lives and inner turbulence are laid open with surgical precision. The emotional wages of fully pursuing a life of crime, or one dedicated to punishing same, are examined in mournful, even existential terms, with fragmented lives, fractured families and women left alone in their wake.
Initial action setpiece is a heist that resembles a military operation, as a gang led by Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) knocks over an armored truck in downtown L.A. and makes off with huge stash. Group’s one late recruit decides to kill the three guards, so infuriating the cool McCauley that the boss nearly kills the guy.
Instantly on the scene is robbery and homicide detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who is able to generate the skimpiest of leads due to the crime’s nearly flawless execution. But instead of cranking up a premature cat-and-mouse scenario, film takes its time to elaborate on the characters’ domestic lives and inner drives, to splendid effect.
McCauley, hardened, focused and shockingly brutal when he needs to be, is determined never to go back in the slammer and intends to retire soon to New Zealand. By chance, he meets a sweet young bookstore clerk, Eady (Amy Brenneman) , who never gets a clue as to what McCauley does, but becomes tempted to join him when he’s ready.
By contrast, Hanna’s life is typically chaotic, with his third marriage, to the understanding but still dissatisfied Justine (Diane Venora), on the rocks, histeenage stepdaughter increasingly remote. Hanna is bluntly honest about his priorities in life and doesn’t pretend to his wife that things are going to change, but that doesn’t solve the problem.
McCauley cohort Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) is also on thin ice with his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) due to his gambling away of his big paydays, but he wants to save his marriage at all costs. A fleeting infidelity on Charlene’s part, however, inadvertently gives Hanna the little opening he needs to make progress against McCauley, who aborts a nocturnal heist when he suspects his crew is being watched.
When Hanna finally identifies McCauley as his prey, he amusingly finds a way to force him to have a cup of coffee, resulting in a terrific scene, the first ever between these two great actors, in which they exchange confidences about their extreme, abnormal lives and warn each other that, if forced to, they’ll take the other down.
They soon get their chances, as McCauley and a small group of cohorts pull off a bank robbery that precipitates a chase and mind-boggling machine-gun shootout on downtown Los Angeles streets. Full of heavy metal impact and terrible casualties, this memorable sequence, which comes roughly 100 minutes in, reps the pic’s action highlight.
From here, it’s the small betrayals and Hanna’s sure understanding of his adversary that allow the net to tighten around McCauley and his men. However, Mann remains less interested in tightening the net around the criminals suspensefully than in resolving his dimensional characters’ lives in a larger sense, which is done through major scenes devoted to McCauley persuading Eady to join him and Hanna dealing manfully with his cheating wife and his now suicidal stepdaughter, hardly the manner of material one would normally expect in the late stages of a genre thriller.
But Mann does deliver the final face-off between the two equally matched opposite numbers in a fairly staggering nighttime climax that begins during the evacuation of a hotel and ends beneath planes roaring into LAX.
There are a couple of pacing missteps in the late cross-cutting between the leading men and their women, as well as a couple of patches of poor dialogue for Justine, but otherwise Mann has delivered a seamless piece of work that’s equally impressive for its artistic and technical achievement. Dante Spinotti’s evocative lensing, Neil Spisak’s outstanding production design, Elliot Goldenthal’s sensational score, abetted by numerous source tunes, and edgy editing by four men, are all standouts.
Pacino and De Niro are undiluted pleasure to watch in their top form here, and Venora deserves special mention among a huge cast of outstanding actors, almost all of whom make an impression even in small roles. Bud Cort pops up unbilled as an unpleasant coffee shop boss.