It’s easy to forget that Michael Mann’s classic crime film HEAT was a relatively modest success nearly a quarter century ago. The thriller made a sturdy $67 million at the box office after its December 1995 release, the equivalent of $138 million in present-day cabbage. A decent chunk of change, but only enough to place 25th on the list of the highest grossing movies that year.
The reviews were consistently positive, but few reflected the legendary status the film would later achieve. One of my favorite points of trivia is that Pacino and DeNiro’s HEAT received the same number of Oscar nominations as Burt Reynolds’ HEAT. That is to say, zero. (And if you don’t remember Burt’s 1986 film, you’d do well to keep it that way).
It’s stunning to consider that HEAT received no awards recognition.
Forget the performances by Pacino as master detective Vincent Hanna and DeNiro’s career criminal Neil McCauley. How were the supporting performances of Val Kilmer and Diane Venora (just to name two), Mann’s kinetic direction and tight, eloquent screenplay, Dante Spinotti’s cinematography (LA was never shot in such a chilly blue/black palette), Eliot Goldenthal’s lush, moody score, and Neil Spisak’s brilliantly austere production design all ignored? The mind reels.
Perhaps at 170 minutes HEAT was a bit too long for some moviegoers. But I’ve always believed what Roger Ebert once said: “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” Some fans were disappointed that Pacino and DeNiro had only two scenes together (they shared no screen time in Godfather II). I would argue that their screen time together was precisely right for this movie – just enough – and both scenes were profound. The first time they sit across from each other, in what is now referred to as “the coffee break scene,” upends expectations with its muted energy. Maybe people wanted fireworks from their first duet. Instead, they got simmer.
But oh, what a wondrous simmer. The two legends and their director had to know what a momentous occasion in cinematic history it would be when they came face to face. One might have thought the temptation to go big would be too great to ignore. Instead, both men throttle down without sacrificing any intensity.
They speak without pretense as they size one another up. They have a respect for each other’s professionalism that borders on admiration. I’ve heard it said that the reason most ex-presidents get along regardless of party affiliation is because they’re really the only other people who can fully understand each other’s experience. It’s a very exclusive club. I think something of the same concept applies to Hanna and McCauley. Though they stand on opposite sides of the law, they speak the same language. They understand each other. Their differences aren’t personal, it’s strictly business, and you get the feeling that in another life they could have been friends.
At one point, Hanna asks McCauley if he ever wanted a “regular-type life.” The back and forth that ensues is a spectacular example of ample subtext conveyed with insinuating minimalism:
“What the fuck is that? Barbecues and ballgames?”
“This regular-type life, that your life?”
“My life? No, my life… my life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up, because her real father is this large-type asshole. I got a wife. We’re passing each other on the downslope of a marriage – my third. Because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.”
“Guy told me one time: 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. Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?”
“That’s an interesting point. What are you, a monk?”
“I have a woman.”
“What do you tell her?
“I tell her I’m a salesman.”
“So, then if you spot me coming around that corner, you just going to walk out on this woman? Not say goodbye?”
“That’s the discipline.”
“That’s pretty vacant.”
“It is what it is. It’s that or we both better go do something else, pal.”
“I don’t know how to do anything else.”
“Neither do I.”
“I don’t much want to either.”
“Neither do I.”
And then they trade knowing half-smiles. It is the best two sides of the same coin scene in history. Two guys sharing their lives across a table in a diner, saying everything about themselves that matters in the fewest possible words. How that could not be enough for anyone does my head in.
The criticism I’ve heard most often of the film – even from some who really like it – is that Pacino’s performance is too broad and over-the-top. I’ve always found that reductive. What Mann and Pacino do is turn the typical cinematic cop and robber dynamic on its head. Most films allow the criminal to be a colorful character, with bold flourishes and an expansive personality. The law man is restrained somehow, self-disciplined, down-the-line.
HEAT does the opposite.
And it makes sense. Vincent Hanna is a world-class crime-stopper. He’s reached a place in his career where he is basically untouchable. The rope given to him by his absentee superiors to catch bad guys is never running out. He’s too good.
He is a free man, and he behaves as such.
And then there’s McCauley. A man whose every move has to be perfect. His stakes are high, and he doesn’t have a margin for error. Should he be nabbed in one of his violent heists he’s likely to go to prison for life, if not shot dead at the scene.
He is a trapped man, and he behaves as such.
Vincent Hanna can afford to be Batman and The Joker. So, when he sings “Moon Over Miami” to a criminal informant, or shouts about the glories of a “woman’s ass” he’s revealing his privilege and status in the world. He can do what he wants. McCauley has no such luxury.
I mentioned the film’s nearly three-hour length earlier. Mann spends an unusual amount of time on the supporting characters in the film, and not just the main supporting roles played by Kilmer, Venora, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, and Tom Sizemore. He also gives grace notes to characters way down the credits list. The broken-hearted girlfriend of Dennis Haysbert’s ill-fated parolee; William Fichtner as a white-collar criminal who’s not as smart as he thinks he is; and especially Natalie Portman as Hanna’s anxiety-plagued stepdaughter.
In most crime films, incidental characters would be given only cursory consideration. But what Mann does with HEAT is create a kaleidoscopic view of the lives these two men lead and how their choices affect everyone around them. In doing that, he takes what would have been merely great and he makes it grand.
But HEAT is still mainly a film about restraint. Characters seldom raise their voices, and there are far more scenes of a philosophical nature than there are action set-pieces. It’s a decidedly masculine film that takes the women in the picture seriously. Sure, they are girlfriends and wives, but their lives matter too. There is real pain and suffering in HEAT. Whether it is when a character’s clavicle is snapped by a gun-shot wound, or when a young girl can’t find her barrettes ahead of the non-arrival of her deadbeat dad and feels the world is coming to an end.
Then there is the extraordinary bank heist that takes place in the last half of the film. A cacophony of gunfire, broken windows, crashed cars, and sudden death. Once it begins, it carries on for a stretch that is so suspenseful you almost want it to stop. And when it finally does, you catch your breath and find yourself thankful for a moment to reorient yourself in the world Michael Mann has dropped you into.
After a brief respite, Mann revs up the throttle again with an amazing late-night chase sequence that ends on the outskirts of LAX with planes intermittently roaring overhead.
One of these men meets his end at the hands of his own nature and an unfortunately timed well-cast shadow. The film closes with Hanna and McCauly all alone. The last of their kind. Holding hands as Moby’s rapturous “God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters” plays into the cut to black.
It is breathtaking.
It’s the greatest cops and robbers movie ever made, and much more. It is the Seven Samurai of policiers.
How many crime dramas are this profound?
“Goodbye, motherfucker. You were good.”