Saturday, May 28, 2016

Heat Movie Review

It’s sort of improbable that Michael Mann was able to make Heat the way he wanted to at the length of nearly three hours. How did a studio greenlight that decision? Mann was not a known director like a Scorsese or a Spielberg. Crime drama was not exactly a genre that typically lent itself to epic scope and length. I can only surmise that it was on the strength of having Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as the two leads that made executives believe that people would come to this movie. It didn’t hurt, I’m sure, that the movie is exceptionally well-made.


Prior to 1995, Pacino and De Niro had incredible reputation as THE iconic Italian-American actors from the New Hollywood cinema of the 70s. They had both played cops, criminals, outcasts, and thugs to perfection and they were both Oscar winners. But despite having the two lead roles in The Godfather Part II, they’d never been in a scene together. One of the great selling points of Heat was just that: De Niro and Pacino together at last. And it’s a great scene. The career thief and the detective tracking him sit down for a time-out (to use a term employed for similar purposes three years later in Out of Sight) over coffee. It’s not an action scene, there’s no shouting, no overacting. It’s just two guys, both experts in their fields, trying to figure the other out a little.

This is quintessential Michael Mann material with the theme of men and their dedication to work. We see this theme over and over again in his work. Mann’s world is one in which women are often marginalized so the men can get to work. In Heat De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a career thief who works with a tight-knit crew consisting of Chris (Val Kilmer), Michael (Tom Sizemore), and Trejo (Danny Trejo). They go for high-end big payout targets, plan everything perfectly, execute, and move on to the next job. But taking on an extra hand for a job turns out to be a liability.

You might be too distracted by Mann’s flashy direction and the complex plotting to notice at first that the reason for Waingro’s (Kevin Gage) inclusion in the team for the armored car robbery is a mystery. He brings no special skill set. He apparently has no strong connection to any of them. And then he murders a guard for no reason, at which point they execute the others because at that point they are all on the hook for murder if they get caught anyway. Waingro’s presence in the opening robbery and really the entire film is a plot machination. Mann needs a reason to get the cops hot on McCauley’s trail and to set some other plot points in motion later on. It’s not the worst offense possible and truthfully, I watched this movie a half dozen times over the years without ever noticing.

To sum up the plot could take a few thousand words. There’s the guy they unwittingly stole from (William Fichtner) who becomes a target of McCauley’s. Jon Voight is the guy who makes jobs happen for them. His character, interestingly, is modelled on ex-convict-turned-sometime-actor Eddie Bunker (you might know him as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs). After all that there’s still (barely) room for Tom Noonan, Dennis Haysbert, Wes Studi, Natalie Portman, Hank Azaria, Ashley Judd, Ted Levine, and Henry Rollins.

In spite of the overstuffed plot and heavy number of characters to keep track of, Mann’s screenplay does a remarkable job of making otherwise tediously detailed exposition regarding to robbery planning and detective work sound scintillating. No, really. Like the film’s running time, it’s something that just shouldn’t be believed, but it is somehow enthralling to listen to these guys just talk. And there’s enough action too, culminating in one of the best robbery action set pieces I know. This is where the big showdown happens with Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and his team arriving just too late to catch the guys in the bank and so a sprawling shootout and chase ensues. This is the film’s climax and yet there’s still an hour to go.

But more than an action crime drama, Heat is a character study of two individuals, each as dedicated to their profession as the other. Neil lives by the tenet that you can not “become attached to anything you are not willing to walk away from in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.” When we see his bare house, beautiful, on the ocean, with hardly a place to sit down, we know this is man who doesn’t sprout roots. His three cohorts all have wives or girlfriends. They go out to dinner together. Neil is alone. But he is not lonely he insists to Edie (Amy Brenneman), a young woman he starts seeing. He is not lonely, and yet he calls her after watching his friends interact with the women they love. Will Neil walk out on Edie if it comes down to it? Will his downfall be the result of a love he can’t walk away from?

And what about Vincent? This is a man at the tail end of his third marriage because in truth, like Neil, he’s married to his job. His wife, Justine (Diane Venora), complains not that Vincent works a lot or has to depart in the middle of dinner to respond to a lead, but that he doesn’t vent and discuss what bothers him in his job. He lives with the ghosts of the dead and the shadows of the criminals he can’t catch. Neil asks him how he expects to maintain a domestic lifestyle if he has to move when his target moves, especially when a guy like Neil will disappear at the drop of a hat.

What I found most fascinating this time watching the movie is that I realized that Neil is brought down precisely because of his failure to live by his own credo that he repeats. And it’s not Edie that keeps him. In fact, at the crucial moment, he leaves her behind. His mistake comes before that when he decides to take out his final act of revenge against Waingro rather than head straight for the private jet that awaits him. His sense of justice and revenge are what he should be able to walk out on in that thirty seconds flat.

Mann has an interesting way of making Neil and his crew the protagonists and the ones we actually want to see succeed. Is it staging? Is it prominence in the screenplay? Is it that we meet them first? Or is it some deeper psychological fulfillment that many people have and that Mann is tapping into that we like a good bad guy or that the outlaw is just more fun? I’m not sure if De Niro has more screen time than Pacino. My instinct tells me yes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s roughly equal. It feels like we get to know Neil, Chris, and Michael more than Vincent and his team of detectives. Certainly we get to see Chris’s domestic situation and his troubled marriage to Charlene (Judd) whereas we only get a peek at most of the cops’ wives. We want Neil to escape because despite the fact that he steals and, you know, murders, we see that outside his job he’s not a bad guy. Stealing and murdering are what he does for a living, but it’s not how he’s defined. We want there to be room for him to get away and for Vincent to walk away, tail between his legs, ready to move on to the next bad guy.

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