A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a soft-spoken, solitary and efficient bank robber, plans one last bank haul before he and his crew split forever. Trying to stop him is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), whose unwavering dedication to his job has come at the expense of a stable family life.
Why We Love It
Do you remember your first R-rated movie? Take your time to think about it – I’m not going anywhere. Got it? Do you remember how old you were when you watched it? Do you remember what you felt when the closing credits rolled and you had officially taken in your first “grown up” film? I remember very clearly. I was in 5th or 6th grade at the time (probably a late bloomer in comparison to some people reading this) and my brother, 7 years my elder, had accumulated a stack of VHS tapes that he had swiped when the video store for which he used to work went out of business. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon and neither of us had anything to do so he walked into his bedroom, emerged with a two-tape set and asked, “want to watch Heat? It’s the only movie ever to have both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in it.” Now, I was very young at this point and nowhere near the wannabe pretend self-important self-proclaimed cinephile that I am today, but even still, I could appreciate to some extent what it meant to have both De Niro and Pacino in the same movie. For a kid my age, it was the cinematic equivalent of Wrestlemania 6 in which Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior squared off for the first time in a championship bout. I was glued to the screen for every single frame of the film’s 188-minute running time and to this day I still can recall the first thought that passed through my head after Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) died with his hand clenched tightly in the hand of the lamenting Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino): “holy shit! R-rated movies are so much better than PG-13.”
Before Heat was made, Pacino and De Niro were collectively the stars of such films as The Godfather Part I and Part II, Raging Bull, Dog Day Afternoon, GoodFellas, and Carlito’s Way just to name a few. With the two Italian-American method actors in the peak of their careers, it would’ve taken a magnificent script of utmost perfect and a director with an ego as big as theirs to wrangle these two together. Enter Michael Mann. Though he had yet to step behind the camera for Academy fodder like The Insider and Ali, Mann’s impressive work with film and TV crime dramas (Manhunter, Thief, co-creator and producer of Miami Vice) showed he had the creative mind necessary to handle a cops and robbers movie of such scope and his previous feature, The Last of the Mohicans, which starred the phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis, proved that he could handle serious actors. All the pieces were in place for something big – huge, even. Fast forwarding to 14 years later, Heat stands out as a watermark in cinema history. That its legacy of being the only De Niro/Pacino vehicle has been tainted by the abysmal Righteous Kill, a.k.a., Fuck You, Pay Me is unfortunate, but to this day Heat still stands out as a spectacular film and arguably the greatest cops and robbers movie in history.
The draw of Heat, like its leads, is two-sided in appealing to both sides of the movie-going spectrum. On the one hand, we have the general masses that flood multiplexes every weekend and who couldn’t tell you what an f-stop was if their lives depended on it. As demonstrated by the recent box office receipts for Transformers: Revenge of Michael Bay, this side of the spectrum doesn’t require much from a film to be entertained and will often find satisfaction through fights, explosions, car chases, and other sequences of sensory overload. Heat will satisfy these folks in spades. Within the first 20 minutes, 4 masked men with M-16s have robbed an armored truck, executed the three guards, laid spike traps for responding police cars, destroyed the getaway vehicle and made off with $16 million worth of bonds. On top of that, as Hanna points out later when he responds to the scene, these guys are slick: they pricked a prime location to nail their target (two freeway on-ramps nearby), they were knowledgeable about police response time and efficient in their task (finishing the job in less than 3 minutes), they knew exactly what they wanted (all the loose cash was left untouched) and they don’t hesitate to get down to business (once one guard was executed, they didn’t hesitate to eliminate other potential witnesses).
In the film’s first two parallel scenes – the inaugural heist and Hanna’s responding to the scene – Mann shows tremendous craftmanship in establishing who the film’s primary players are, what they want, and what we can expect from them for the duration of the film without any dross, unnecessary exposition, or gaudy showmanship. Right away we know that McCauley’s crew is damn good at what they do and that Hanna is equally as good at what he does. Right away we’re hooked.
But for two men to be so good at what they do requires some type of sacrifice, some type of compensation for which the two can atone for their amazing set of skills. In this regard – in showing the consequences both men face on a daily basis for their chosen paths in life – Heat stands head and shoulders above other crime films. Sure, a lot of movies about cops and/or robbers will show some type of black to contrast the white (the cop’s partner, who was also his best friend got killed, the robber’s love interest finds out he’s a robber, the cop’s family is in danger, etc.), but Mann makes sure that the audience realizes and accepts that when it comes to both breaking the law and upholding the law, there is no such thing as black and white. Instead, there are just many subtle levels of gray. McCauley, though good at what he does, insists he can never get attached to anything or anyone in case he was to run at the drop of a hat. So what happens when he starts to fall for Eady (Amy Brenneman)? And what happens when she finds out who he really is? On the flip side of the coin, Hanna is a devoted husband and a loving father – when he’s actually around the house. A cop doesn’t develop Hanna’s reputation or resume of failed marriages (3 by the time the film finishes up) by being a constant presence at home. Heat, better than any crime film I can think of, clearly conveys a constant sense of high stakes not just because of how the lives of the main characters will be effected, but how the consequences trickle down to all those around them too. At two separate points in the film, we see both the law and the outlaws at dinner gatherings with friends and family. Recalling these jubilant scenes after the blood has spilled at the end make it seem like they were scenes from a different film; or that maybe we only hoped they were because of how much division has been caused since then.
And the performances – oh Lordy the performances! Forget for just a moment that Heat features Pacino and De Niro when they actually cared about their craft and not about paychecks and focus on the supporting cast. Clocking in solid and nuanced performances are also Tom Sizemore as McCauley’s muscle, Ashley Judd as a conflicted lover, Kevin Gage as the masochistic thug who betrays McCauley, Natalie Portman as Hanna’s emotionally disturbed step-daughter and Jon Voight as, well, a crusty old guy. Also, for those of who out there who like to bash on Val Kilmer, I submit to you this film as Exhibit B (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang would be Exhibit A) that Kilmer is a talented actor who can handle drama and action at the same time. Thanks to Kilmer, the character of Chris Shiherlis is equally frightening in how quick his temper flares and endearingly pathetic in how devoted he is to the woman, Charlene (Judd), who can’t stand his abuse. But yes, let’s be honest, Pacino and De Niro are the center of attention with Pacino, in my opinion, stealing the show. There are some classic Pacino rants (“GIMME ALL YOU GOT! GIMME ALL YOU GOT!”) as well as some quiet nuggets of wisdom from De Niro (“We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.”)
Moment We Fell in Love
THE Scene. Based on a real-life occurrence in which a Chicago detective once met the real Neil McCauley under non-violent circumstances, this is what everyone who wanted a film with both De Niro and Pacino wanted to see. During the second half of the film, Hanna pulls over McCauley on an L.A. freeway and approaches the car as McCauley readies a pistol in case he has to use it. “How ya doin?” Hanna inquires. “What do you say I buy you a cup of coffee?” Less than a minute later, the two titans of method acting are sitting face to face on screen for the first time in history. Their characters are openly challenging, but not openly antagonistic towards each other and indeed as the conversation progresses, they even come to respect each other. “And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away,” Hanna tells McCauley, “I won’t like it.” Though neither of them have any illusions about whether they’d literally and metaphorically pull the trigger when the time came, it’s this scene that makes Hanna’s facial expression all the more telling after McCauley lies dying before him at the end. He respected this man so much, is it possible that he took no joy at all in doing what he had to do? No black and white. Just gray.
As universally lauded as this movie is (I’ve yet to meet one person who’s seen it and not thought it was great), I am actually surprised by how still relatively unknown it is. I regularly run into people who have never even heard that this movie exists even though they’ve seen/heard of Raging Bull, The Godfather and other movies featuring the two leads. Even more surprising is how overlooked it was in the past. Look up Heat on IMDB and check out its awards page. Notice the Oscar nominations and wins? None. Notice the Golden Globe nominations and wins? None. Val Kilmer couldn’t even snag Most Desirable Male from the MTV Movie Awards. However, similar to great overlooked films of the past such as Blade Runner, Children of Men and my previous entry, Groundhog Day, Heat seems to be a film that needs no statues or plaques to justify its greatness. It’s just great. The two greatest living actors thought so when they read the script more than 14 years ago at least and thank God for that.
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