Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Dennis Haysbert, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Tom Noonan, Jon Voight, Danny Trejo, Kevin Gage
Michael Mann may be the best example of style over substance in the last half century. Whenever watching his films, there are always a group of males dedicated to one alpha working to pull off something. There’s another group of males dedicated to another alpha working to prevent them from pulling off that very thing.
In the midst, there are a smattering of relationships with women who, while strong, could never understand what their men are doing. This is because women represent that last vestige of soft that the men left behind as little boys. They’re around to give the men something soft and to watch the kids…and to tell the men they need more from them than they are getting. They won’t get it.
Heat is billed as the first time Pacino and De Niro face one another in cinema. For that, it’s kind of an underwhelming scene in a diner. As such, it’s still worth the price of admission. On a bad day, these two can light up a screen, no matter the size of the screen or the scene.
The story has its roots in history, updated for Los Angeles of the mid-nineties. I won’t go into the details, other than to say it wasn’t the first time Mann had tried making the story. The initial attempt was a tv show that didn’t make it past pilot stage.
The story has the set of criminals led by Neil McCauley (De Niro). His team includes Kilmer, Sizemore, Trejo and Gage. In the first heist of the film, Gage goes rogue, pushing the robbery into murder territory. Then he escapes before he can be taken out.
Pacino is detective Vincent Hanna. He is brought in with his team, including Williamson, Studi and Levine to figure out what the first heist meant and what the crooks plan to hit next.
The clue is a bum overhearing the word “Slick.” It’s pretty thin, but it’s enough to get the two teams in close proximity through the second act. From this point it’s two middle aged pros flexing their acting muscles while their subordinates react accordingly.
The strength of this film is in its remarkable cast. Even people halfway down the credits have significant lines of dialogue when following their leads. There is even a significant subplot for a backup getaway driver and his wife that is given more screen time than one might deem worthy for the role.
For such a basic plot, it is interesting throughout in all scenes not involving the women. Brennaman, Judd, Portman and Venora are all there to be disappointed, scared or vengeful. They sit by and watch the more important men ponder about bigger things. It takes a special kind of actress to be in one of Mann’s films. There will be no real reward.
Pacino is great as Lieutenant Hanna. The actor filmed all of his character’s scenes as if the were on cocaine, though just shy of the stuff he used for Scarface. He is a mixture of goofiness and rage that is not available in any other actor I have witnessed. He swings between rage and calm discussion often in the same scene. Still, he makes the ridiculous plot more interesting than most actors could have done. He completely grabs the self-awareness award when he tells his soon to be ex-third wife:
“All I am, is what I’m going after.”
De Niro is good, not great. He’s in charge at times, confused during others, and vengeful all of the third act. He is hard to grab onto as a protagonist, especially when the bodies start to pile up. More sympathetic is Kilmer’s slightly psychotic Chris with his former prostitute wife (Judd). We understand his motivation throughout and we feel his complete disappointment when he ultimately has to make a choice to benefit them both.
The production of the film is like any Michael Mann venture. It’s pristine, heavy on the blue shadows at night, and relentlessly macho. There is a reason that men like his productions. It’s probably not for reasons of self-improvement.
This director’s edition feels like a more complete version. It’s still more than a little silly. The last flight, on the tarmac of LAX is the result of the one rash decision that De Niro makes in the whole film. It leads to an understanding between the two antagonistic protagonists that is only something those two men can understand. Or something like that.
If you watch one Michael Mann film, make it The Insider. If you want to see a second, try Heat.
(**** out of *****)