Michael Mann made a marvelous movie. Heat (1995) holds up as one of the best, if not the best, action crime films of all time. It is an astounding accomplishment in its blend of exceptional cinematography (Dante Spinotti), twisting but thorough story, understated score (Elliot Goldenthal), the meeting of two giants of cinema, thrilling action, and classic images all while being intelligent and mainstream. Virtually every other crime film shows us that this is not easily done and yet Mann makes it look easy. How simple would it have been to rely on the idea of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen for the first time, cut a two hour movie, and have done? Heat clocks in just ten minutes shy of three hours and is terrifically engaging. There is so much in this movie that stands as the final word, that there isn’t much room for those who want to bridge intelligence and entertainment.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is the leader of a crew of robbers who take down scores with precision and energy. Chris (Val Kilmer) and Michael (Tom Sizemore) are his right and left hands while Trejo (Danny Trejo) is the wheelman and Nate (Jon Voight) is something like their agent. They need an extra man to knock over a security truck and they’re landed with Waingro (Kevin Gage) a sleazy sociopath who kills a guard and brings on the heat in a big way. Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) takes up the case with his own crew of detectives (Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, and Ted Levine) that match up with their criminal counterparts almost exactly. Hanna has a wife (Diane Venora) and step-daughter (Natalie Portman) while McCauley has Eady (Amy Brenneman), but neither is fully committed. They do what they do. “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” They both seek out the heat.
The story is a good one, but if you give a competent writer three hours, they’re going to fill it with a good story. Mann is more than a competent writer. His dialogue is somewhere between Mamet and the work of those legions of hacks you’ve never heard of that write the Bourne movies or whatever. So, it’s stylized enough to be charming but not so tortured that you notice anything.
What is different is the cinematography. I wouldn’t say that it is flawless, but it does meet most of its ambitions. It brings out the city of LA and the darkness in a way that accepts and slightly molds its iconic nature. The movie is in widescreen (2.35 : 1, rather than 1.85:1) and keeps the camera very close to the actors. Much like the writing, it walks the line of style and simplicity. The final scene, however, is all controlled style with almost every shot belonging in the biographies of those involved. Mann and Spinotti know when to move and when to stay still and it’s fabulous. I do wish there was a little more light in the final shot, but the music is perfect and we know what we’re looking at. Even the ambitious crane or helicopter stuff or the occasional slow motion never seems like a gimmick or an intrusion. It isn’t strictly utilitarian, but possibly just dynamic enough to keep the circulation going.
Much is made of this being the first on-screen meeting of Pacino and De Niro, acting giants of the same generation coming together at the peak of their careers. It was awfully prescient of them to realize that it was the peak of their careers since the two haven’t really come anywhere close to a movie as strong as Heat since (nor, incidentally, did Val Kilmer). Such a meeting was fraught with peril—the possibility of over-acting, over-writing, or both must have loomed large. And yet, those fears were unfounded in 1995. In 2008 and occasionally in between, notwithstanding.
These guys are at the top of their game in Heat and their shared scenes are not a clash of titans so much as two very good actors sharing a good scene. Pacino spent so much of his energy in Heat that every performance afterwards looks like he’s trying to catch his breath. De Niro had about three more years of films in which he was wholly competent before his characters slowly began to lose the plot. “What?” For Kilmer, this is possibly his most restrained role ever without a single cheeky one-liner to his credit. In a way, it’s miscasting, but in another way it’s his finest work.