A master thief has to elude a master detective.
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
One doesn’t ascend anywhere without having some kind of guiding ethos, and Heat is just as interested in these kinds of professional codes as it with the tools and tactics of the film’s respective trades. McCauley’s code about the heat around the corner is repeated several times in the film, a stance as lofty as it is unattainable. In the circles emanating out from McCauley are Nate’s (Jon Voight) oft-futile belief in bloodless professionalism, Shiherlis’ (Val Kilmer) imperfect but adamant insistence on love, Don Breedan’s (Dennis Haysbert) brief flirtation with self-abnegation and humility, Van Zant’s (Willam Fichtner) masculinity, and Cherito’s (Tom Sizemore) pure love of the action. Hanna has his superficial devotion to the law and protecting the weak from people like McCauley, but he most prizes directness and honesty in himself and others. His wife Justine (Diane Verona) believes in partnership, and his stepdaughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) is a stubborn believer in that most basic of codes; that a parent should love their progeny.
Because Heat is a tragedy where the god of the film is watching, judgment is visited on characters who flaunt or break their codes. McCauley’s crew goes down because it associates itself with Van Zant, whose code makes him impossible to do business with, and Waingro (Kevin Gage), a man in service to no principle but hedonism and wanton cruelty. The latter is so offensive to McCauley that he trades his freedom for a chance to wipe him off the planet, and is subsequently punished. Breedan can’t keep stomaching humiliation and capriciousness despite the diamond-strength nugget of goodness in his life, and dies with his sunglasses on. Shiherlis’ blind faith in a dying relationship nearly gets him caught and is only saved by last-minute pity. Hanna abides, but he has nightmares and failed marriages to show for it. Lauren, so beautifully and terribly framed in her bathtub, is spared because the failure isn’t directly hers, though she nearly joins Hanna’s cavalcade of accusatory dead. The universe is never so clear in Heat as when Nate is saying goodbye to Neal, wishing him luck on the assurance that he won’t go after the obvious trap that is Waingro’s hotel. Neal and Edie (Amy Brennaman) drive through a tunnel, bathed in heavenly white light, home free for a life of peace in New Zealand. Mann gives McCauley a sign, but he’s already broken his code to be with Edie: what’s one more sin?
It’s fitting that a film filled with people who care about precision and procedure are led by Mann. Heat is his equivalent of a perfectly-executed armored car heist, minus any hot-blooded Waingros making a mess of things. Everything from the opening heist to the final airport shootout is perfectly wound and calibrated, showcasing a clear sense of method and geography. McCauley’s crew aren’t talkers, so the viewer isn’t told what’s happening, but, as always, that’s unnecessary in the first place. Heat’s a sonic achievement alongside its visual prowess, as it contains easily-conjurable effects. The blast of the rifles during the centerpiece shootout. Waingro’s big gasp after McCauley pops him in the chest. The doof cop breaking silence during the gem repository stake-out. Away from the action, Mann loses none of his expertise with quieter scenes that take place in diners or McCauley’s barren, bathed-in-blue apartment. Mann is specific and planned whether he’s choregraphing a drive-in shootout or a meeting in a bookstore.
The magnetic pull of Mann’s reputation seems to have pulled in half of Hollywood. In addition to the aforementioned assemblage of talent, Hannibal Lecter bad guys Tom Noonan and Ted Levine play wonderfully against type, Mykelti Williamson is selling all kinds of shit, Hank Azaria’s being a perfect slimeball with a thing for asses, Tone Loc is saying ‘slick’ and ‘slope’ and ‘Cherito’ as only this one person is capable of, and even Danny Trejo is turning in a great performance. Ashley Judd is the odd woman out for a brief period, but it turns out at this point in her career, she was just much, much better with a look than with a line.
All praise must be given to the titans at the center of Heat, before they descended into parody of themselves. This is arguably De Niro’s last great performance, with his later work in Jackie Brown or Cop Land as possible counterpoints. McCauley’s a simmering pot of intensity for the majority of the film, but there’s just enough in the film to soften him. Williamson’s Drucker throws an off-handed comment about the ‘gladiator academies’ that are California’s prisons, and McCauley put in his training there. There’s a universal agreement amongst the characters that the prisons grind men up, turning baby Dominicks into grown Cheritos. After time there, McCauley’s shell is thick, but not so thick that he can sell a perfectly worded line like ‘I am alone, I’m not lonely.’ There’s still a softie in there somewhere. De Niro knows where he’s hiding, and he can find him when needed.
On the other side is Pacino, who I think gets a bum rap for the two or three giant line readings he gives. These are hammy, but they also each occur when he’s speaking to an informant or someone he’s trying to turn into an informant. His yelling is calculated to be unsettling, and judging by Azaria’s face when Hanna mimes stuffing his head up a woman’s ass, it is indeed unsettling. Working with informants is in direct opposition to Hanna’s admiration of McCauley, the juxtaposition of people whose only code is survival at other’s expense and McCauley’s monklike professionalism. He hates them, and while his outbursts are disarming affectation, they also barely hide his antipathy. Hanna’s always wearing a mask of verbiage and mannerism, even around Diane, a necessity that he says keeps him on the edge, sharp, where he’s gotta be. The handful of times Pacino drops that mask, like in describing his nightmare or in the way he trails off, too exhausted to fight with Diane about the cold chicken, more than make up for the hamminess, which I’m totally fine with, by the way.
For as much as Heat is packed with peak filmmaking and a cast doing superlative work down to the 20th person on the list and a monumental meeting between two of the most iconic products of Italy since Romulus and Remus, it holds a special place for me in the small moments. There is some nostalgia here for me that is validated by Heat holding up as well as it does, but this was one of the first films to hit me emotionally in non-flashy moments. It’s one thing for Braveheart to primally work on a teenager just waking up to the power of film. It’s another for Dennis Haysbert to do more with a rueful chuckle than Mel Gibson does with a yell of Freedom. Heat was one of the first films where a nuanced subversion of masculine tropes rang out for teenaged me, where I could be moved to tears by something other than a bludgeoning climax. Heat represents emotional growth in my cinematic life. It’s a burly, appealing action flick, sure, but there’s a surprising amount of grace in between the rifle fire and prison tattoos. This is an all-timer. It’s just outside of the A+ thanks to a wholly unnecessary extra scene with Waingro, but Heat is as strong an A as there is. A