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The protagonists of Michael Mann’s universe have a sense of direction and an unyielding devotion to their chosen profession. “All I am is what I’m going after,” says the robbery homicide detective played by Al Pacino in Heat, though this line could easily be the mantra of the championship boxer in Ali or the professional assassin in Collateral. That devotion and that drive is the fuel that keeps them going, and provides a black-or-white moral compass in a world that remains mystifyingly gray. What comfort does that sense of direction provide when it leaves others behind in the disaster zone of a marriage or relationship, and what kind of a life is it when one constantly tells those he professes to love, “I’ll come back, but there’s something I have to go take care of first.”

Those are the questions posed by Heat, which uses the predator-versus-prey narrative of expert thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) outrunning dogged cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) to explore these remarkably similar archetypes of lone wolf masculinity. McCauley is introspective, self-contained in his “alone but not lonely” universe, a career criminal with a talent for big money scores. He has an allegiance and understanding with his crew, but no room in his life for any lasting connection. As he says repeatedly, he refuses attachment to anything he’s unwilling to walk out on if he feels the heat around the corner.

Hanna, on the other hand, is explosive and spontaneous. His interrogation of a suspect involves him bursting into song, then musing whether the suspect fell in love last night, then shrieking, “Gimme all you got! Gimme all you got!” He’s hungry for the chase and working all hours of day and night while his third wife (Diane Venora) passes him “on the down-slope of a marriage.” De Niro may have the better role, a tragic protagonist whose moral values get pushed to their limit, but Pacino has all the best dialogue. To wit, “You could get killed walkin’ your doggie!” and “She’s got a great ass! When I think of asses—a woman’s ass—something comes out of me!” rank up there with Al’s most memorably fiesty line readings. Hu-ah, indeed.

But these characters don’t know how to do anything else, and don’t much want to either. It’s a sentiment that lies in the tradition of American individualists (its no mistake that Mann previously adapted James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans). It feels good to be good at something. There’s something comforting about applying knowledge to the point where it becomes instinct, and if these guys weren’t cops or robbers we could admire them the way we admire the mechanic who fixes our car when it’s broken down. A person is attractive when they do what they like, and do it well. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to live with, as Hanna and McCauley prove time and again, unless you happen to be working with them and speaking their language.

McCauley’s crew includes Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), whose hard loving marriage is on the rocks because of an unrelenting gambling addiction, and Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), who has a family and kids but can’t resist the allure of pulling off whatever heist is planned next: a bank, a vault, an armored car. These men would perhaps be loathsome if they weren’t so capable at their jobs and so devoted to watching each other’s backs (standing by each other as capably and professionally as the marine corps). When in the act, they perform like nimble magicians; when the act is interrupted by cops, they’re a tightly wound fighting unit. Their relationships are much closer to each other than to their actual families.

But Hanna’s empathy lies with McCauley, offering the respect of one adversary against another. As the police close in on the master thief’s grand scheme, Heat follows parallel stories of pursuit and planning in the highly romanticized city of Los Angeles. Immaculately photographed in precise frames and a cool, controlled palette, Mann tells his story with an equally rigorous attention to the details of crime scenes, the mechanics of robberies, and even the inner workings of late night diners and nightclubs that these characters frequent. Throughout, one has a growing respect for Hanna and McCauley (and identifies with Hanna perhaps more because he represents the ostensible Good Guy), and one cannot wait for the fateful moment for these titans to meet. Hanna makes it happen by pulling McCauley over on the street and casually asking, “Whattaya say I buy you a cuppa coffee?”

The centerpiece scene of Heat is perhaps the simplest that Mann has ever choreographed, not relying on his stunning visual craftsmanship but instead on very simple over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups. Of course, the scene is a double thrill for audiences because it represents Al Pacino and Robert De Niro at the peak of their powers: both men middle-aged and seasoned from impressive acting careers, both eking out subtext so thick the scene takes place almost at a metaphysical level. Pacino’s sly impetuosity, contrasted with De Niro’s precision work contemplativeness and thousand-yard stare, is certainly a master’s class in great acting. Indeed, after Heat, these two masters were never so great again (Pacino came close with The Insider and moments in Donnie Brasco and De Niro did a good job coasting through Ronin, but they basically gave up the ghost).

The scene achieves greatness not because Hanna and McCauley offer memorably quotable threats to one another, but because the two men grow surprisingly intimate discussing not only their hopes but also their dreams. Hanna confesses he sees the victims of every crime scene he’s been to, staring at him silently with their black eyeballs. McCauley has nightmares of drowning (“You know what that means?” “Yeah—no time.”). The effect is disarming, perhaps because it gets to the root of what drives these men forward. Not the fear of being alone, but the fear of abandoning control over their destinies, which, of course, are interlocked.

The middle of Heat features one of the most spectacular gun battles in motion picture history, where the palpable threat of bullets whizzing through skyscrapers and blasting into the sides of automobiles is accompanied by a forceful and highly detailed sound design. But the effect of this dramatic shoot-out is heightened by the intimate diner scene that came before, just as Homer’s The Iliad offered glimpses of humanity before armies collided. Thereafter, Heat transforms into a movie about slow mounting doom as each character is locked into the inevitability of their often tragic fates. At the end of the story, one of the two titans will be dead, but after they have played out their game there’s a stroke that will either be praised as brazen machismo or the tragedy of being an American isolationist: cop and killer lock hands as one of them dies.

As with Homer, Heat is told on an impressive, unsubtle epic scale with a dozen highly dimensional main characters, at least four doomed romantic subplots (most poignantly between De Niro and Amy Brenneman as the young graphic designer who wins him over and causes his self-controlled emotional void to crack wide open), and vividly sketched supporting characters: Jon Voight reprises his Runaway Train persona, basing his character on criminal-turned-actor Eddie Bunker; character actor Tom Noonan has a spectacular cameo as a wheelchair-bound crime guru. There’s also an anecdotal subplot about a convict fresh out of prison (Dennis Haysbert) who is incidental to the McCaulay-Hanna narrative until one key crucial moment where he’s asked a typical Michael Mann question: “Are you in? Right now? Yes or no?”

Mann enjoys confrontations like that, where the characters have to make decisions right away, relying only on their intuitions and gut feelings. Life doesn’t always work that way, and often those life-changing events occur with barely perceptible slowness, but drama and poetry are intended to bring moral questions to the fore. When the films are good, they allow us the opportunity to reflect back on our own lives and values. The cop-versus-robber narrative, frequently existing for vicarious thrills and shoot-’em-up catharsis, here puts us into a place of wonderment: jobs versus families, risks versus sure things, support versus self-preservation. The characters in Heat aren’t so one-dimensional that they only choose one or the other, but they do make choices. And to those unwilling to commit, Vincent Hanna unconditionally roars, “Don’t you waste my motherfucking time!”

DVD | Soundtrack
Warner Bros.
171 min
Michael Mann
Michael Mann
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykeltia Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Tom Noonan, Jon Voight