Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Rober De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd
The story goes that we are in our teenage years the person we’re going to be for the remainder of our lives. I don’t know how true that actually is, but I do know that routine is a hard habit to break. The characters in “Heat” are also fully aware of this. In the most highly publicized scene from “Heat,” the first ever scene shared by modern screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, their characters illustrate this point quite clearly. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is the L.A.P.D. lieutenant who has been tracking professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). As is the case with most movies’ greatest scenes, this one takes place in a coffee shop/diner.
Hanna and McCauley sit across from one another, knowing full well what they represent to each other, but in this short space of time they also come to notice that they’re not so different. Each man has his own relationship problems, Hanna closing in on the end of his third doomed marriage. McCauley’s problem is that he so strictly follows a maxim handed down to him that he is unwilling to commit to anything he can’t break free of in thirty seconds flat. Neither man might have these problems with women if they weren’t already married to their chosen paths. Each takes his turn admitting that they wouldn’t know how to be anything else, nor would they be willing to try. It is this stubborn recipe for loneliness that makes these natural born enemies closer to each other than with any friend or family member in their lives.
Equally as important to the story as its men are the women whom they string along. As both Hanna and McCauley’s chosen paths dictate that their lives run according to a certain established order, it is with the women in their lives that order turns to chaos. Hanna’s wife, Justine (Diane Venora) detests having to wait for hours for her husband to come home to a long-since cold dinner, and then share their bed with the deceased from his cases. His stepdaughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman, in only her second feature film role) is a troubled teenage girl in desperate need of a father figure. Her biological dad wouldn’t have the first clue what troubles his child since he never bothers to pay her a visit, even when he says he will. Vincent (though he certainly cares about Lauren) is no help either, consumed by his work at the L.A.P.D.
Unless I’m missing a key line of dialogue (which is plausible with a film that runs almost three hours long), I don’t think McCauley came into the events of “Heat” having ever truly been in love. That’s about to change once he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman). Like so many criminals who choose to keep their loved ones in the dark about who they truly are, McCauley allows Eady to believe he’s just a salesman. Such strong feelings develop between the two of them that McCauley will eventually have to decide if he can still abide by his “thirty seconds flat” rule. His partner in crime, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kimer) finds such a concept entirely impossible. He has a wife (Charlene, played by Ashley Judd) and son, and he can’t envision a scenario that would ever cause him to leave them. This, too, is a chaotic situation for McCauley, especially when he learns of Charlene’s indiscretion and demands that she make things right with her husband.
On the subject of chaos, so meticulous are the heists in this movie that the inevitable showdown between Hanna and McCauley would never have a chance of taking place if it weren’t for one poorly chosen accomplice, in the form of the loose cannon known as Waingro (Kevin Gage). McCauley is against killing anyone who doesn’t get in his way, a sentiment not shared by Waingro, whose decision to kill a couple of police officers during a heist is what initially draws the attention of Hanna and his subordinates. Actor Kevin Gage does a great job of projecting an overall creepy personality for his character. Waingro is the sort of guy who needs to be taken out of this world.
The movies of director Michael Mann can all be instantly recognizable for their soundtracks. Each one, “Heat” included, has an almost laid back, calming effect that runs contrary to the violent nature of the story (and making said violence all the more horrifying as a result). An exception to this would be the inclusion of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” at the climax of “Manhunter.” My favorite part of the soundtrack to “Heat” is “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” by Moby, an instrumental track which can be heard at the film’s end.
“Heat” ranks as one of the all-time great crime dramas. It’s a can’t-miss for the big shootout scene which concludes the second hour. By the end of that amazing exchange of gunfire, even Allstate insurance won’t help Dennis Haysbert’s character. But, in the end, “Heat” is such a big success because of its impeccable casting. Everyone here seems like fully realized characters. The actors playing them really know their shtick. None better than Pacino and De Niro, men who have been playing these types of roles since the 1970’s. Actors just beginning their craft today who take on the cops/robbers roles are undoubtedly well-versed in the films of Pacino/De Niro. Because of his turn towards comedy, it was the last time I was able to take Robert De Niro seriously untill 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” Sad as that sounds, it at least demonstrates that (like his “Heat” character) he is a man who is willing to break from tradition, take a risk and try something new, whether it is the right decision or not.