Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Michael Mann's Heat

Today, I finally got a chance to watch another of my movie annuals: 1995's Heat by director Michael Mann. It may be cheating to recycle (see below) an old customer review I wrote in 2002 for Amazon of the previous barebones DVD, but let's say I'm going more green. I don't know why I watch it during the Spring, but there it is. As I write this post, I even have Heat's closing musical piece, Moby's God Moving Over the Face of the Waters, playing on the computer. Okay... I'm obsessing.

Perhaps, Mann's Best

Writer-Director Michael Mann's 1995 Los Angeles crime saga, Heat, is perhaps his best film work. Without having to worry about niggling facts and real timelines to get in the way (and cause critics to point them out) like in later films (Ali or The Insider), this creative character-driven piece of moviemaking mesmerizes through great lead and ensemble performances, direction, and storytelling. All three aspects work wonderfully in this tale of two opposing "crews" who go up against each other on the streets of L.A.: a professional group of criminals led by master thief Neil MacCauley (Robert DeNiro) and LAPD's elite Metro Robbery/Homicide lead by Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino).

Both leads, as the story evolves, are cut from the same cloth: professional and dedicated to their chosen crafts--to a fault. Everything revolves around their jobs and nothing gets in their way, including the women in their personal lives: Justine Hanna (the very underrated Diane Venora) and the soon-to-be enlightened Eady (Amy Brenneman). It's the long-suffering Justine that nails her husband's true nature with her wifely realization:
"You don't live with me, you live among the remnants of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, 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."
And it's with that predator's sense that Vincent spots MacCauley's crew after the inital, spectacular armored truck robbery. He knows that a crew is in town who are good, skillful, and very dangerous ("At the drop of a hat, these guys will rock 'n roll."). Which is also the exact description of their leader. However, in this case, the master thief is also growing weary of his trade...and the emotional discipline it requires. "I am alone...I'm not lonely", he tells Eady after they first meet. His is a life that requires him be able to "walk out on in 30 seconds flat if (he) feels the heat around the corner." Neil is the moral antithesis for Vincent, but both will do whatever it takes to do what they do best. Eventually, both find out about the other half-way through the story.

The meeting on-screen for Neil and Vincent (a first for actors DeNiro and Pacino) is the movie's key dramatic sequence. This wary confrontation over coffee is one of the best moments put to film. It's not long, but it's one of those powerfully quiet scenes that resonates throughout the rest of the film. The irony of the situation is that each recognizes themselves in the other...and appreciate the professionalism they find. Both, through their conversation, also are cognizant of the fact that each will put the other down, permanently, if need be. By the time we get to the climatic sequence, with hints of Peter Yates' Bullitt airport chase, Heat's tense climax on the outskirts of LAX is another one of those great film scenes. Mann skillfully brings their chase and relationship to a poignantly moving close.

This film also has one of the best ensemble casts ever on celluloid: Pacino, DeNiro, Val Kilmer, Venora, Ashley Judd, Brenneman, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, and a young Natalie Portman. All of them giving excellent performances to an equally well written Michael Mann script. Filmed all over my hometown, and in some of the best and bad spots of Los Angeles, Heat makes great use of the locales with some breathtaking cinematography. It also has one of my all-time favorite action sequences, the Bank Heist in downtown (tragically, a real-life bank shootout in L.A. of hauntingly similar proportions would happen a couple of years later). At almost three hours in length, it takes a committment, but the viewer will be well rewarded with drama highly praised for its depth in character development and exciting sequences. This was not only one of the best films of 1995, it was one of the best for that decade. Okay, I've convinced myself... it is Michael Mann's best.


  1. And saying it's Mann's best is saying something. He's one of my favorite filmmakers, has been since 'Manhunter' - the first and best version. Good going, Michael, now I'm jonesing for a Mann film.

  2. Well, then you're like me. And, I can't wait until July 1st for Public Enemies.

  3. That should be a dandy all right. Interesting casting.

  4. Going green by resurrecting old writing, huh? :-) I do it too.

    Heat is in my movie collection. I haven't watched it in more than a year. Maybe it's time to pull it out.