Written & Directed by Michael Mann
I’d always heard how good Heat was, but it was a film that I’ve circled around without ever sitting down and watching it, until now. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of Michael Mann’s, but I have appreciated every film I’ve seen, with Collateral being my favorite until now. I’ll just get this out of the way now, I loved Heat, so much. Christopher Nolan owes a significant part of his career to Mann, and I hope he has given adequate thanks for the aesthetic he has mimicked. This is a dense neo-noir multi-character novel turned into a movie that delivers on its themes and character arcs so beautifully & tragically.
Two men are traveling opposing paths, one on the side of the law & the other on the side of himself. Vincent Hana (Al Pacino) is a lieutenant of the Major Crimes Unit in Los Angeles, and he’s come across the site of a well-oiled and fatal bank heist. An armored car was flipped and broken into with only a stack of bonds stolen, all the cash left behind. Hanna knows he’s up against intelligent people who manage risk well, but someone in the group has been messier than intended. That crime was pulled off by Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro), an experienced and logical thief. He has fine-tuned his crew to be made up of top people, but his new hire, Waingro, snaps, and murders one of the armored car guards leading McCauley to take out the other two so no living witnesses are left. Waingro escapes from McCauley when he tries to off the man, but they continue on with their plan to extort money from the bank to get their bonds back.
Things continue in a downward spiral as Chris (Val Kilmer), the demolitions expert, is deep in gambling debt, and his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd), is on the verge of leaving him. McCauley encourages her to stay not out of friendship but out of the need for Chris to stay on track for one last big job before they all part ways. McCauley has also broken his own monk-ish code by getting involved with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a young woman he chances to meet and become smitten with. Meanwhile, Hanna’s personal life is crumbling as he becomes obsessed with stopping McCauley. His wife is drifting away due to his absence, and his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman) is having a mental breakdown from her absent dad and now Hanna’s lack of presence.
Heat is a movie about two people who have locked themselves in so tightly into their respective worldviews, ideologies, and careers that they are destroying themselves in the process. This becomes crystal clear in the middle of the film when Hanna and McCauley actually sit down across each other over a cup of coffee. They lay everything out, making it clear to the other person who they are. During this scene, I realized that while they were adversaries, neither one was the villain of the film, that honor belongs to some minor supporting characters. Hanna and McCauley see what they are doing as inevitable, they no longer remember how to stop the momentum of what comes next and so they are resigned to facing whatever the fallout might be.
Hanna also has a parallel in Chris. They are both family men whose careers have sidetracked their marriages and their relationships with their wives. By the end of the picture, both marriages are in total shambles. Hanna’s is more ambiguous, but I can’t imagine he and his wife will be able to go back to what they had. Chris is most definitely alone now, the consequences of his actions, finally making an impact. There’s another supporting character who, when he learns his wife has been killed, begs his friend for mercy to kill him. This small moment speaks to what happens with Hanna and Chris, they both know the woman they love is gone but doesn’t hesitate to keep going down the road that led them to misery. Like that coffee scene, it’s been so long since their life was anything but this endless pursuit they don’t know how to stop.
Heat is Michael Mann’s masterwork, he honestly could have retired after this one having brought together all the themes in his work in this single picture. The performances match the quality of the material with DeNiro delivering such a measured, intelligent character in McCauley. We’ve seen this character done as a cliche, but DeNiro adds the layers needed to give him depth. He also understands the role of the camera in Mann’s work and delivers some of the best close-up performing I’ve ever seen. Pacino is all about bombast and big physical motions while DeNiro simmers, taking in every angle, making sure any action is deliberately calculated. You can see the influence Heat had on the crime and neo-noir to come after, and it’s interesting to think about 1995 gave us this, Bad Boys, and Se7en, all hyper-stylized crime movies with very different authorial voices and themes about humanity. And all three have a profound influence on American cinema in the 2000s.