There are a handful of cinematic subjects that seem to bring a general sense of goodwill among my acquaintances, and one of them is Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995). There’s almost a sense of glee whenever anyone brings up the subject. The film’s title represents the term used by criminals to describe the law enforcement menace lurking just around the corners, and the movie is filled with characters from both sides of the equation, led by the ultimate homicide detective Vincent Hannah (Al Pacino) and the ultimate score taker Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). “Heat” is one of those particularly eventful entries that takes place mostly during the wee hours of the night, like “American Graffiti” or “The Warriors,” and it is populated with people living under their own rules and convictions that turn out to be a little too hard to adhere to.
“Heat” is one of those rare movies that promised the moon and the stars and delivered in every imaginable way. And yet, its status as a truly great film, on par with its main protagonist’s best efforts, derives from something deeper, as it tends to occur with features of this caliber. Like Robert Rossen with “The Hustler” many years before, here is another director achieving moviemaking greatness by making a film about people who have a knack for perfection, regardless of the worthiness of their profession or whatever side of the law they just happen to reside on. This attitude runs so deep that Pacino’s character just can’t help sharing his most personal stories and philosophies with an opponent who is clearly a sociopath.
“Heat” is the greatest heist movie ever made. It includes the best bank robbery scene ever filmed (by far) and also the most influential (think of “The Dark Knight” and “The Town”). Every part, no matter how small, is cast with a great actor. Mann drops them into the most believable environments with hardly (if any) filming taking place in studio sets, achieving a level of authenticity not unlike that which Spielberg once accomplished by dropping his plastic shark into the real ocean. In "Heat," Mann displays an uncanny ability to capture the sights and sounds of places and situations that make his characters and their activities utterly believable. He conveys an incredible knowledge and level of research on how his characters came to be: the cell block where they met, the particulars and drawbacks of the jobs that they are forced to take on, the bars where they come upon their next assignments and so on. Watching “Heat” recently, I was struck by how very little of the film has aged: not the fads, the pace, or the attitudes. It is 25 years old and it looks as if it could have been made yesterday.
Mann deals in excruciating detail with a good amount of his characters, even most of the supporting ones. Case in point, it’s hard to believe that with such a busy finale the director would still find the time to deal with the plight of Vincent’s stepdaughter, a relatively minor character. But this scene is crucial in order for him to reach closure with his third wife Justine (Diane Venora). Maybe Mann goes a little too far when he includes the timeline of a serial killer into an already convoluted movie, but the upside to this approach is that we really get to know these people. Take for instance the much anticipated first meeting between both leads halfway through the movie. This scene obviously provides some excellent dialogue and truly memorable quotes, but it's the great sense of anticipation that Mann has achieved beforehand that endows it with that electricity in the air.
Our gradual empathy for "Heat"'s characters is also why the action scenes are so effective. Consider the superb bank robbery sequence and forget the technical wizardry behind it, like the unforgettable echo of shots fired relentlessly through that plaza. The main reason it achieves such a fever pitch level is because the audience has already become deeply involved with these people. So when they are shot one after the other, every one of those moments becomes truly affecting regardless of the fact that we are dealing with criminals who have left countless law enforcers in their wake, left their patrol cars looking like Swiss cheese, or gone as far as using an innocent child as a human shield.
We get to know these people so well that, near the end, long before McCauley realizes he can’t stop himself from taking an ill-advised detour to kill an opponent, we are fairly sure he will end up making the worst possible decision. Despite these characters’ genius, preparation, and discipline, there’s also a good deal of sheer luck involved, which makes their outcomes all the more poignant. Just think of how the casual mention of the alias “Slick” brings unimagined consequences to so many throughout the movie, or how many lives would have been spared if a clumsy law-enforcer hadn’t leaned against a metal wall.
To better understand why “Heat” is more than just a great action flick, it's helpful to contrast it with some of Mann’s later entries. His “Collateral” (2004) almost feels like an extension to “Heat,” taking place in the very same universe and also during the night. The main characters in both of these movies are people on opposite sides of the law, who reach a complete understanding of one another and would probably be friends in normal circumstances. I’ve always found it curious that “Heat” opens with the night shot of a train arriving at a station and “Collateral” closes with one leaving such, giving both films a joint bookends feel.
“Heat” is the rarest of films where a sense of communion is reached by its two protagonists. What makes it truly transcendent is that it tends to bring a similar bond among those who watch it.