A modern day Greek tragedy where deep character arcs intertwine to create a fascinating piece of film art. Characters based on real people are woven into a rich tapestry with fictional, yet just as believable personalities. Originally marketed as the first on screen appearance together of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Heat is so much more than just two great actors in their prime. Although worthy of both Pacino and De Niro’s incomparable talents, here is an ensemble cast where everybody has time to shine.
A deep, riveting plot provides a perfect foundation for the impressive cast to work on. It centres on career criminal, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), the head of a team of professional cons who specialise in meticulously planned heists.
A heist on an armoured vehicle goes disastrously awry when new recruit, Waingro (Kevin Gage), unnecessarily executes a guard. Waingro’s error leaves a trail of evidence which LAPD investigator, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) aggressively pursues. What follows is a deeply compelling game of chess between police and master criminals.
Watching such an excellent cast ply their trade with worthy material is exhilarating. So high is the quality of the acting, at times it feels like we’re watching a documentary. Listening to how the police examine a crime scene, seeing the planning and preparation that goes into such daring heists, the attention to detail is incredible. There’s a certain believability to Heat that makes it stick in the memory long after the credits roll.
The central characters are essentially both sides of the same coin. Both Hanna and McCauley are staunch professionals with a growing respect for one another, but their dedication to their work has negative effects on their personal lives. Vincent’s third marriage crumbles while Neil’s “30 second” rule forbids emotional entanglement, a rule that is put to the test after he meets graphic-designer Eady (Amy Brenneman).
The overriding theme of loneliness is not just limited to McCauley and Hanna, however. Hanna’s wife, Justine (Diane Venora) visibly wilts under the isolation caused by his absence. Vincent’s step-daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman) struggles with abandonment issues caused by her biological father’s apparent lack of interest, eventually leading to a suicide attempt. Eady and Neil’s relationship is based solely on a mutual fear of being alone.
The rest of the supporting characters are equally fleshed out. Val Kilmer’s Chris, a long-time colleague of McCauley’s, is a gambling addict who fears his wife and child will leave him because of it. Michael (Tom Sizemore) is a fiercely loyal crewmate with no real reason to be in the group other than to satisfy his cravings for the adrenaline rush. Waingro is an unhinged sociopath who secretly stalks and murders young prostitutes. Even Dennis Haysbert’s relatively small role as Donald Breedan is genuinely moving. An ex-con struggling to sustain a law-abiding life slips back into his criminal past, with heart-breaking consequences. This intricate diversity enlarges the already grand scope of the film.
A particularly memorable scene is the sit-down meeting between Hanna and McCauley. It seems strange for a film that was billed as Pacino versus De Niro that one of the best scenes is the two of them sitting down for a coffee, but it’s a perfect fit for their first on-screen appearance together. The similarities between the two characters is much more evident here. There’s a mutual respect for each other’s professionalism but, more importantly, there’s an obvious admiration. It’s almost like watching two brothers talk candidly about life.
McCauley and Hanna’s meticulous approach to their careers is eerily reflective of Michael Mann’s expert direction. Every shot seems to have been extensively deliberated over, every scene designed for maximum effectiveness. Each character is given enough time to flourish, with most reaching satisfying conclusions.
The pace of the film is deliberately slow for the first two acts. Intricately weaving so many characters in and out of the story must have been a daunting challenge, but Mann not only makes it look easy, he also accomplishes it in a way that doesn’t overload the audience with exposition. Everything is given enough time to sink in.
The impeccably filmed bank shootout is the turning point. It marks the beginning of the end and significantly increases the pace, leading towards a fantastic, fitting finale. Widely regarded as the most authentic shootout in film history, so much so that it has been used as a training aid for marines. De Niro and Kilmer excel in particular, perfectly executing retreat-under-fire tactics. There’s a real sense of danger here, nobody is safe. Key figures meet their end, giving the audience the feeling that nothing will be the same from here on out.
Michael Mann’s stylistic approach to film-making has been criticised in the past, but it adds tremendously to Heat. The fact that Mann had painstakingly built up a complex network of fascinating, real characters gave him free rein to unleash his unerring sense of style. And unleash it he did. Strong visual themes combined with a heavy reliance on emotive music made Heat stand out from its peers. A predominantly blue palette accurately conveys the sense of isolation and loneliness keenly felt by all characters. It’s cops and crooks with an art-house style that meshes perfectly.
An excellent example of art imitating life. A story of two men at the absolute peak of their respective professions is compellingly brought to life by, arguably, the two best actors of their generation. It’s rare for two indomitable thespians to be in their prime at the same time, let alone going head to head in the same film. But Heat isn’t just a vehicle for two men. It’s a deeply involving tale of pride, greed, love and loss. A tale that should be seen by everyone.
Mann’s masterpiece effortlessly combines big themes with big performances. A super-stylish spectacle that is a definite high point in the careers of all involved.