“You search for…the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That’s the only thing you’re committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through.”Justine Hanna (Diane Venora), in Heat
Justine’s withering monologue about her detective husband actually applies to both of the protagonists in Heat. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) live like the Sundance Kid: They only thrive on the run, where the adrenaline and desperation bring everything into sharp focus. “All I am is what I’m going after,” Hanna solemnly tells his wife. For McCauley, that dogged pursuit–the perpetual heat around the corner–reshapes his human interactions. If all one man can do is chase, then all the other can do is run.
The story begins with an all-star crew of criminals. McCauley, Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), and Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) have been in and out of the clink, but each prison stretch has only made them smarter and more disciplined. Their heists move with the precision of a Swiss watch. Unfortunately, in the armored car job that opens the film, the crew subs in a dipshit ringer (Kevin Gage) who goes Mr. Blonde and starts plunking security guards. As the robbery escalates to multiple counts of murder one, the men suddenly draw more heat than they can handle.
The added scorch arrives in the form of Detective Hanna, a veteran officer who specializes in bagging high profile criminals. Equal parts savvy and relentless, Hanna immediately asserts his personality over the case: He moves with a swagger, barking orders and dissecting every crime scene with lethal precision. His lieutenants (played by a gifted squad of characters actors, including Wes Studi and Mykelti Williamson) form a kind of Super Posse, to complete the Butch Cassidy reference. Their hoofbeats always pound in the distance, drawing ever closer to McCauley and his men.
The women who love these dangerous men all suffer some degree of collateral damage. Justine lives with the resignation of knowing her husband is always meant to be somewhere else. Charlene (Ashley Judd), Chris’s wife, responds to her husband’s destructive gambling and violent behavior by cheating with a sleazy liquor wholesaler (Hank Azaria). Finally, Eady (Amy Brenneman) must overlook Neil’s sketchy lifestyle and buy into his half-assed lies about what he really does for a living. “This is leftovers,” Justine grumbles. Heat depicts a host of women locked in different stages of grief.
Written and directed by Michael Mann, Heat sprawls to nearly three hours of runtime. Mann meticulously unfurls his epic, allowing each character a chance to shine before interlocking everything in the final act. In modern times, this saga would play out over a season on Netflix or Hulu, with subplots and action scenes spreading over multiple episodes. It’s actually quite an achievement that Mann could cram so much content into one coherent movie.
The centerpiece of Heat lies in the incredible bank robbery that takes up a huge chunk of the second act. A master class in staging an action scene, Mann creates a gripping, frantic experience in well-organized terror. Where other directors might chop a sequence like this into a flurry of cuts, Mann opts for a more retrained approach, thus making the action much easier to follow. He also makes great use of “Force Marker,” a churning, mechanical track from the eccentric genius of Brian Eno.
For all its technical flawlessness, Heat has even more to unpack on the acting side. The monumental teaming of Pacino and De Niro doesn’t so much live up to the hype as it gently steps around. While their personalities and legacies fill this movie to the brim, the two men only share two crucial scenes, and both of those are defined by quietness. The legendary exchange in the diner depicts two weary men in wry reflection, and displays none of the characteristic tics or hamminess for which both actors are famous. (Although Pacino does have a few showy “hoooo-waaaa” moments peppered throughout the rest of the film.)
Around these icons, Mann rounds out the cast with a staggering array of talent. Kilmer, looking like a sleazebag from Mann’s earlier Miami Vice, plays Chris as an emotional roller coaster: He’s cool and methodical on the job, volcanic at home with his family. For Sizemore, Michael is a tragic embodiment of Neil’s entire crew: He’s smart enough to have been successful in the legitimate world, but his criminal ambition and thirst for adrenaline represent fatal flaws. “For me, the action is the juice,” he says. It’s also his doom.
Lots of famous faces pop up in what amounts to glorified cameos: Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Henry Rollins, Danny Trejo and many more supply Mann’s massive canvas with a few brush strokes of vivid color. Part of the fun of this movie lies in marveling at all the talent in scene after scene.
Upon its initial release, Heat garnered a decent amount of acclaim and raked in a respectable box office haul. As the years have passed, the film has only grown in stature. While many crime thrillers wear their age poorly, Heat still looks compelling and relevant. It could easily pass for a season of True Detective. Christopher Nolan has said that Mann’s style and energy greatly influenced his work on The Dark Knight. Go back and watch that film and you’ll spot references everywhere: If Nolan’s aim was to strip the campy varnish from the Batman franchise and weigh it down with real-world gravity, then Heat was a wise starting point.
Beyond its legacy, Heat remains an engaging masterpiece–an intimate character study of epic proportions. It must be noted that Mann first attempted this story before, in 1989’s L.A. Takedown. That was a forgettable TV movie, stocked with no-name performers. Here, Mann broadens his scope and hires massive talent to provide layers of depth to complex characters. In the hands of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Hanna and McCauley aren’t just a cop and a criminal. They are, in fact, desperate men drawn to the heat around the corner until that’s the only thing they have left. The rest is the mess they leave behind as they pass through.
170 min. R.