Michael Mann (Public Enemies, Collateral) gave us his most celebrated film with Heat back in 1995. With a two hour and forty five minute run time, it will be daunting for some to complete this film in one sitting - but those who can manage the task are in for a treat.
Writer/Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer
I saw Heat for the first time when I was approximately sixteen years old and I failed to appreciate the finer aspects of the movie the first time around. For passive viewers (like myself at a younger age), the film is nothing more than a typical action movie; now, I see a movie that provides a closer look into the minds of two men who have devoted their lives to a discipline and refuse to back away from it, regardless of the consequences. The film stars Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, a lifelong thief, and Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna, a robbery homicide detective trying to track down McCauley's crew. Notable in film history, Heat is the first movie in which De Niro and Pacino share screen time in the same scene - even though they first appeared in the same movie (The Godfather Part II) together back in 1974, they were never featured on screen at the same time in that film.
Also lost on me at the time of my first viewing was the wealth of talent gathered in the ensemble cast. Names like Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert, Jeremy Piven, Danny Trejo, Hank Azaria, and Natalie Portman meant next to nothing back then. Now, these names can be found on the roster of the Hollywood Impact Players (TM), a superstar acting squad I just invented. Every one of these actors does a great job here - turning in performances that are arguably some of the best in all of their careers (with the exception of Portman, who was too young to really have a substantial role). There are even some appearances by lower-tiered actors Tone Loc (Blank Check, Surf Ninjas) and William Fichtner (The Dark Knight) for those of you on a cameo-hunt.
With Heat, Michael Mann crafted what must be considered one of the best crime dramas of the past fifty years. Its current ranking (#133) on IMDB's Top 250 List reflects that assertion. Not only is the writing stellar, but the visual motifs established by Mann and longtime cinematographer Dante Spinotti are simultaneously subtly placed and elegantly displayed. My favorite example comes late in the movie - not too much of a spoiler here - when McCauley (De Niro) is riding with his girlfriend in the car at night, on their way toward the airport to leave behind his life of thievery. He gets a call from Jon Voight's character, giving him the location of a fellow criminal who screwed him over earlier in the movie. The girlfriend asks what the problem is, and McCauley says everything is fine; they're home free. For this brief moment, they drive through a pure white tunnel, almost blindingly bright. This represents an utter peace that McCauley has never felt prior to this moment, a serenity that he will never again experience. It's all too brief, though: they plunge out of the tunnel and back into the darkness of night, McCauley's face gets grim, and he swerves onto an off-ramp at the last second to take care of unfinished business.
This is not a movie filled with cliched one-liners or unnecessary car chases. Every plot point is planned, every camera angle meticulously set up to capture each moment as Mann the mastermind desires. His ability to capture beautiful shots of Los Angeles at night is unparalleled, seen to a lesser degree here than in 2004's Collateral, but still gorgeous in Heat. Mann has proven that he is truly an auteur, someone not willing to pump out studio-infected crap for a quick buck. This is an admirable trait, to be sure; something far too little directors are willing to take a stand for these days. But Mann's films aren't exactly the most bankable in the market (for this summer, that would be the meh-fest Transformers 2), so it's hard to predict if we're going to be seeing this type of ballsy "fight the man" filmmaking very much longer from him. [To be clear - Michael Mann is certainly not an "independent" filmmaker, nor is he a staunch opponent of the studio system. He merely commands a respect from the studios not to tinker too much with his projects while he's involved in them, and refuses to take part in material he doesn't respect himself.]
Back to the movie. The now-famous gunfight on the streets of LA, which I have posted below in video format, is something to behold. Laying the groundwork for later gunplay in Public Enemies, Mann takes the time to create this sequence and work with his sound designers to ensure that when a gun goes off in a Michael Mann film, the audience will feel like they are present in the midst of the anarchy.
It's amazing how many similarities there are between Heat and Public Enemies. Both feature:
1. A mostly "one on one" conflict between a bank robber and an officer of the law.
2. Of those two actors, one is actually a good actor (De Niro/Depp) and the other is a guy who yells a lot (Pacino/Bale).
3. A stellar supporting cast.
4. A bank robbery (with a similar speech surrounding the idea that the robbers want the bank's money, not the citizens' money).
5. An ensuing gunfight with excellent sound design.
6. A female love interest who tips off one of the characters of police presence (Ashley Judd/Marion Cotillard).
The list goes on.
Small trivia: Heat is apparently too realistic - the real life North Hollywood Shootout occured two years after the film's release and was similar to the gunfight shown above. Also, Keanu Reeves was initally signed to play Val Kilmer's role, but when Kilmer made time in his schedule to shoot Heat and Batman Forever at the same time, he was hired. Kilmer. What a badass. Until next time...