Rarely equalled, never bettered is a phrase that’s easily used to describe masterpieces. There is no film of its kind better than Heat and, in the rarest case, it has no equals either. The peak, if not the conclusion, of Michael Mann’s obsession with cops and robbers stories, Heat is also a masterclass in technical expertise and in wringing emotion out of two of western cinema’s most stoic archetypes. It’s the “dudes rock!” sub-genre of film distilled into its most primal, chemical form. It’s one of the few blu-rays on my shelf that if the heat was 30 seconds around the corner I’d risk it all to go back for it.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who, with his crew Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Trejo (Danny Trejo), often pulls off complex heists worth millions of dollars. After an armoured car robbery with new hire Waingro (Kevin Gage) goes awry due to Waingro’s violent tendencies the crew draws the attention of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide division led by the fanatical Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). As McCauley embarks on a relationship with graphic designer Eady (Amy Brenneman) and Hanna’s marriage to Justine (Diane Venora) implodes, the two men find themselves spiralling towards each other like asteroids on a collision course.
In the grand canon of crime epics Heat is technically underrated. Compared to the likes of The Godfather trilogy, Scarface or Carlito’s Way – all of which starred Pacino, “Hoo-Ah!” as much as you like, that’s a legacy set in gold right there – its commercial and awards season success looks slight. Critically it occupies the slot below a lot of these films but Heat has one thing The Godfather trilogy and Once Upon a Time in America don’t: brevity.
It might seem strange to say that about a film that’s just shy of three hours but nothing about Heat feels extraneous. Every line, shot and cut adds to the film. Although the Waingro or Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner), the investor McCauley rips off, subplots focus on genuinely evil men, it’s always fascinating to see character actors like Gage and Fichtner dig through the muck of the human soul in order to make McCauley and his crew if not more honourable than less damned.
Despite Heat having a who’s who of 90s character actors, the film is carried by De Niro and Pacino. They’re the twin suns every other character orbits around from young guns like Val Kilmer and Natalie Portman as Hanna’s troubled stepdaughter Lauren to hard bitten journeymen of the craft such as Wes Studi or Tom Noonan. De Niro has mostly excelled when he’s locked in to the reserved simmer that’s suited him so well in Casino, Jackie Brown and The Irishman. Not to say that his full-on blow-outs in Mean Streets or glowering comedic menace in Meet the Parents are lesser modes but Heat calls for a collected calm bubbling into fiery anger and De Niro delivers without ever raising his voice.
Mann’s influence on 21st century cinema is easy to see from the films of Christopher Nolan – especially The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception – as well as lesser fare like Den of Thieves. No one however has mastered Mann’s understanding of both human emotion and technical wizardry. Whereas Nolan has certainly mastered the technical aspects Mann so clearly inspired him to try, he has always struggled with real human emotion. His later films feel and look like elaborate machines that try to use tired old tricks like dead wives and shattered families to draw emotion from their audience. Mann, no matter what you may think of him or his work, never stooped to cheap tricks.
An underrated component of every Michael Mann film is the way he uses romance to advance his stories. From Thief onwards he always approached love and relationships in unusual ways. Through sheer force of will, James Caan’s Frank convinces Tuesday Weld’s Jessie to get married and adopt a child in Thief. It’s unconventional but it works because we understand that Frank lives outside of normal society due to over a decade spent imprisoned so his approach to work, romance and life is different. Ditto Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) seducing Isabella (Gong Li) via powerboating in Miami Vice or Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) offering blind Reba McClane (Joan Allen) the opportunity to pet a tiger in Manhunter. Although Heat has nothing so unconventional as these films in terms of romance, the relationships still feel more lived in and real than any other crime thriller from that decade.
Eady recognises a loneliness in McCauley she saw only in herself before. His air of mystery and her naivety are a brief match made in heaven only made more bittersweet by McCauley’s rule 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”. It’s in the way De Niro looks at Brenneman as she gazes out at L.A. from her hilltop house and when he leaves her sleeping in the blue pre-dawn light. We know he’ll be back because McCauley’s never known a connection like this before and it’s all he can do to try and stoke the embers. Elsewhere the conflagration of Vincent and Justine’s relationship is burning out.
1995 found Al Pacino’s career in a weird place. Where lifelong friend De Niro was often icy cold Pacino was a barely tamped down blaze. Even in The Godfather trilogy he was just waiting for someone to pour petrol on the fire. Still, many were getting tired of what they saw as a kind of 80s excess brought into a decade still suffering from the hangover the 80s left. Mann manages to balance out Pacino’s explosive fury with the numbness that fury leaves in its wake. Heat, despite its multiple subplots, is a film about two men who are very good at their jobs and how one’s weaknesses are the other’s strengths. McCauley’s Arctic temperament allows him to meticulously plan and execute his heists but Hanna’s passion drives him to extremes that help him catch the crooks.
“It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be,” Hanna says of his drive to solve ugly violent crimes but this life on the edge has destroyed three marriages and left him incapable of ever truly loving someone. He admits it himself, saying “All I am is who I’m after”. For all the intimacy he shares with Justine and the genuine fatherly love he has for Lauren neither can keep him away from the bad guys for very long. It’s what makes the fire-and-ice pursuit across Heat’s runtime so compelling and it lends the film’s well-oiled action a gravitas few other films ever manage.
The cops and robbers of Heat are two sides of the same coin. McCauley and Hanna are extreme cases but that obsession with the next big score runs through all of them. It’s not about who’s good or bad in Heat it’s about whether Hanna will catch McCauley or be left grasping at empty air. The shoot out that decimates McCauley’s crew and the LAPD isn’t just an example of Mann’s textbook precision; it’s an exercise in tension as well. Once Hanna’s fellow detective Bosko (Ted Levine) goes down with a bullet in his neck all bets are off. No one that we’ve spent the last two hours with is safe anymore.
It says a lot about how well written McCauley and his crew are that we still care about them even when they’re putting civilians in danger. It’s only when Cheritto takes a child hostage that his character is pushed over the edge from honourable thief to damned criminal. The sequence ends with Cherrito’s death at the hands of Hanna but the entire shoot out feels like the rhythm section of an orchestra kicking into overdrive. From the moment McCauley, Shiherlis and Cheritto walk into the bank to the final beat of Hanna’s bullet through Cheritto’s brain it’s a flawless performance with not a single misplaced cut, shot or step. It’s the definitive shoot out sequence of the 20th century and it’s still yet to be beaten.
But none of this would matter if we didn’t care about the characters. Take a film like Den of Thieves for example. Obviously inspired by Heat, Christian Gudegast’s film has a shootout between cops and robbers as its centrepiece but it doesn’t work because the audience doesn’t care about the characters. It hurts to see what’s done to Trejo near the end of Heat because we care. I can’t say the same about 50 Cent in Den of Thieves and nor can I say that the moment where Gerard Butler’s sheriff and Pablo Schreiber’s thief come face-to-face has the same impact as a similar moment in Heat.
McCauley and Hanna only meet twice in Mann’s epic. As opposite as they are in their goals and ideals they still respect one another. Their first meeting is a quiet scene, a lesson in understatement at a late night diner. By this stage an audience will have seen that Hanna is the flip side to McCauley and vice versa but Mann knew he couldn’t make a movie with De Niro and Pacino without having them both onscreen at the same time. You have to give the people what they want after all.
In 2016 at a panel hosted by Christopher Nolan, Pacino revealed that his character Vincent Hanna was on cocaine throughout the movie which goes a long way to explain his behaviour. He has thunderous highs and craterous lows throughout. From bellowing “She’s got a great ass!!!” at Hank Azaria to the ugly, gnarly introspection he sinks into in his conversation with McCauley and earlier with Justine. With that information in mind, something never revealed in the film outside of implication, it’s easy to see why the diner scene works so well in its understatement. It’s a grace note that explains the film’s themes while giving dads everywhere exactly what they want to see.
Grace is what Heat ends with. McCauley is the last of his crew left. Cheritto, Trejo and replacement driver Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert) are all dead while Shiherlis has escaped but at a terrible price. Planning to flee the country with Eady, McCauley can’t resist the siren call of revenge so he goes after Van Zant and Waingro and this is when Hanna finally gets his man.
Heat communicates as much through silence as it does through dialogue. Its final chase sequence is bookended by moments of longing and loss that say a great deal more than a long monologue ever could. It’s in the look McCauley gives Eady just as it’s in the wearied resignation etched deep into Hanna’s face before the credits roll.
Mann’s film ends on a grace note, a moment of brotherhood across lines that society says should not be crossed. In crossing these lines, the movie’s tender heart is revealed. By combining the muscularity of Mann’s specific brand of filmmaking with this tenderness, Heat is a masterpiece that 25 years on has never been bettered nor equalled.