A team of thieves is planning an attack on an armoured truck in Los Angeles. Their leader Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his accomplices Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Trejo (Danny Trejo) are working on the final details, to do the job right, they hire a new partner, Waingro (Kevin Gage); the robbery, although planned to the last detail, becomes a bloodbath due to the mistake of the new one. The thieves only steal a batch of bearer bonds belonging to a corrupt financier, Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner). Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), an experienced lieutenant in the criminal police, is in charge of the robbery investigation. Hanna and McCauley are going to have a cat-and-mouse fight.
Heat was the film of public and critical recognition for Michael Mann. Until then, the director had already made reference works but had faced a commercial failure, Manhunter (1986), the first cinematic transposition of Hannibal Lecter’s misdeeds. However, Heat is the culmination of all the aesthetics, narrative, and thematic research of Michael Mann since his beginnings (he is the creator of the series Miami Vice).
The professionalism and rigor of the manic hero, as defined in the inaugural edition of Thief (1981), the disenchanted atmospheres and darkness of Miami Vice, the bluish and metallic urban images of Manhunter, the narrative density of the ambitious and little-known series The Incorruptibles of Chicago (1986 – 1988), form a grand and ambitious whole in Heat.
The film’s plot is also part of Mann’s personal journey. Initially, a TV scriptwriter (in particular of Starsky and Hutch’s first and best season), and already concerned with realism and passionate about crime stories, Mann made many contacts in the police or with former criminals such as writer Edward Bunker. It was through these contacts that Inspector Chuck Adamson told him the story of his pursuit of the thief Neil McCauley in the Chicago of the 1960s, of the admiration and respect that finally developed between the hunter and his prey until his deadly arrest in 1963. Fascinated by this story, Mann will first make a television film called L.A. Takedown (1989), whose format forces him to cut his ambitious 180-page script short. After the success of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mann finally had the opportunity to bring out all the necessary breadth in Heat, which was also the occasion for the real first encounter on screen – since they shared the poster of The Godfather 2 (1974) without crossing paths – of the two sacred monsters Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
In its premise, Heat is a classic story of cops and robbers to which Michael Mann brings dizzying depth. Throughout the story, the scenario will define the criminal Neil McCauley and the policeman Vincent Hanna as two sides of the same coin; the first scene of the attack on the van and the handling of the uncontrollable Waingro partner immediately show McCauley’s meticulous and unfailing determination. The same goes for the impressive and rapid reconstruction of the crime that follows by Vincent Hanna. Both are professionals dedicated entirely to what they know best, doing work for one and tracking criminals for the other. Such rigor is not without effect on their personal lives, McCauley thus imposes on himself an almost monastic life for which, as he will assert several times, he must not have made any bond that he could not leave in 30 seconds if the cops aimed at him, and the rigidity of Robert De Niro, his outbursts of cold violence and his constant vigilance perfectly express this idea.
Michael Mann’s heroes are never more captivating than when they deviate from their precepts and make themselves vulnerable by daring to expose their humanity (James Caan in Thief, Tom Cruise in Collateral). There is no need to highlight any aspect for the director, who exposes it to us visually in the scene where De Niro enters his empty apartment alone, puts down his gun, and explores the sea from his bay window while Moby’s synthetic notes rise. A moment of suspended melancholy, typical of Michael Mann, where emotion passes through the image, the camera remains in the lost gaze of the McCauley wave while the bluish tones of Dante Spinotti’s photo accentuate the twilight dimension of the sequence.
Vincent Hanna, for his part, will have paid for his thirst for justice with a sinister intimate life. Overwhelmed and unpredictable for the bullies who cross his path, he closes up and becomes taciturn, as if on a state of alert, when he returns to the matrimonial home in the face of the great despair of his wife (Diane Venora) and stepdaughter (Natalie Portman). “All I am is what I will pursue,” again in one line defines the character’s dilemma and the mimicry with his prey. If De Niro returns to an empty house after his misdeeds, Pacino dies and withdraws from his surroundings when he returns home, all his attention and energy being solicited by his profession, his priesthood. Pacino, in a more anxious and exuberant register, is formidable in terms of background (the character’s background in the script said he did coke without this being said in the film, which gives the actor’s performance that unconventional and excessive twist) and feverish presence. Around these two stars, Mann navigates with an impressive number of supporting characters that he manages to make exist whatever his time on screen; they serve to reinforce the story’s narrative breadth (its entire subplot with the financier Van Zant absent in the original TV movie), its authenticity (the taciturn mentor brilliantly played by Jon Voight) but also serve as an accelerated reflection of the problems encountered by the two protagonists.
Despite having an orderly family life, Michael Cheritto cannot do without the adrenaline rush of the robberies while Chris seems unabated to a normal life, sinking into the game and in conflict with his wife (Ashley Judd). In Heat, Michael Mann refrains from resorting to the fateful facet of typical thriller destiny, bad luck has nothing to do here, and the characters are subjected to a certain vision of life according to their behaviour. It is the micro-events, by which they deviate from their initial choices that will cause their loss. McCauley, by letting Waingro escape at the beginning of the film, thus provokes the tragic unfolding of the last part and will distance himself from the entire rigor that defined him at the beginning to go in search of revenge and expose himself fatally at the end. We also think of the parolee, Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), breaking his good resolutions for the worst in an instant. Mann defines these conflicts by a contrasting mimicry in the opposition of his two heroes. McCauley and Hanna finally confront each other in the calm of a bar, having already measured each other and appreciated each other’s abilities in their respective fields, the viewer will not have a confrontation but a statement from each of them to go all the way regardless of the consequences, because that is simply their job. Two professionals face each other, cold and determined, so distant, but so close at the same time.
The director refuses to accept a general shot that separates them in the image, preferring a field/centerfield that reinforces the idea of the back of the same piece for each of the protagonists, the intensity and connection being such that the gestures are reflected from one to the other (Pacino retaking a movement of head from De Niro and responding to him), the dialogues repeating themselves with De Niro’s cold calm or Pacino’s nervousness. The apocalyptic shooting during the big heist scene puts the words into action in a piece of bravura in which the urban chaos has rarely been more virtuous.
Leaving his wounded daughter-in-law aside, Pacino probably leaves his marriage forever but ensures the possible capture of De Niro. The latter forgets his pure logic in order to take revenge, thus revealing his true nature and falling in love with a young woman (Amy Brenneman) who will accompany him in his escape, breaking the precepts of elemental survival that he had so rigorously imposed on himself (Mann remains for a long time in his impassive face and in his boiling mind as he makes the wrong decision). The result could only be fatal in a sumptuous final chase. Mann loses us brilliantly, far from the concepts of good and evil, only to show the human being before his contradictions, and the spectator finally no longer knows who he wants to see emerge victorious from this confrontation. We find this emotion in the weightlessness of the superb final shot where, once again, De Niro and Pacino have never seemed closer and farther away by the sheer force of the image. Heat is a masterpiece, a thriller by Michael Mann at the height of his art, and repeats the continuation of his career with urban nightlife in Colateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006).
Many of Heat’s shots evoke sequences from Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, and this is no coincidence; Heat is Peckinpah in his frontal approach to the genre, almost a western that buries once and for all an inevitable outdated mythology, opening the doors to a new world that mythical figures no longer understand. To convince yourself of the reality of this bias, you can take a look at Lieutenant Vincent Hanna who makes fun of his wife’s ex-husband’s postmodern, ultramodern, shitty cradle. In the end, Mann seeks to capture in subtle touches the condition of overwhelmed and disillusioned human beings, trapped in a professional world that remains, contradictorily, their only subjugation.
But to let oneself be carried away by Heat’s multiple beauties, in order to capture its own substance, is to understand that one of its main glows lies in the characterization of one of its protagonists, Los Angeles. Rarely has an urban atmosphere served so well as substance and form in a feature film. At the same time, the city of Los Angeles, in which a thousand lights shine, is the cradle of a trap where hope has no right to be. L.A. has never been so well adapted to the melancholic and desperate thoughts of a Michael Mann who, to paraphrase Gérard de Nerval, knows that “melancholy is a disease that consists of seeing things as they are”.
Heat is an absolute masterpiece that, together with Scorsese’s Casino, leaves its indelible mark on the pages of the history of cinema in the 1990s.
Ruben Peralta Rigaud
Editor of cocalecas.net, Collaborator of SensaCine, Listin Diario, Revista Cineasta, Nota Clave, Cultura Colectiva and Ritmo de la Manana. Member of OFCS, FFCC, MPAA Rotten Tomatoes, BFCA, ICS and FIPRESCI