Heat is a 1995 crime-thriller film starring Robert DeNiro, (Neil McCauley) Val Kilmer, (Chris Shiherlis) Tom Sizemore, (Michael Cheritto) and Danny Trejo (Trejo) as a group of professional; bank robbers and heisters, based out of Los Angeles. After a disastrous armored truck takedown in which all three innocent security officers end up dead due to the involvement of a psychopath named Waingro, played by Kevin Gage, Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) makes it his mission to track him down. The film also stars Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, and Amy Brenneman as Hanna’s wife Justine, Shiherlis’ wife Charlene, and McCauley’s love Eady, respectively. Natalie Portman also appears as Hanna’s emotionally troubled stepdaughter Lauren. This cult classic crime film was written and directed by Michael Mann, director of the crime caper Thief and the psychological thriller Manhunter (one of the earliest reviews I wrote for this blog).
Heat may at first come off like a normal, run-of-the-mill crime film, but there are elements here that make it one of the best films in the genre. DeNiro and Pacino give wonderful performances here, and Val Kilmer, as was usual in this era, is incredibly charismatic and likable here. Portman’s character of Lauren is annoying and unnecessary, however. I don’t think it’s her acting that is a problem, it’s more the character she’s portraying. She is emotionally distraught over misplacing barrettes and spends most of her scenes having an emotional breakdown over nothing. I understand and appreciate the struggles that psychologically or emotionally troubled individuals go through on a daily basis, but in a film with a lot of subplots that work well, this is one that doesn’t.
It is made abundantly clear that both McCauley and Hanna admire one and other. McCauley respects Hanna’s tenacity and dedication, while Hanna sometimes straight fanboys over the crew’s proficiency, organization, preparation, and knowledge. It’s true that this crew operates with style, class, and knowledge, and that part of it, the clockwork way in which the crimes are planned and perpetrated, is actually a very interesting aspect of this film.
Mann’s script (as with most of the other films he’s written) is filled with moments of empathy. Nobody on the other side of the law in this film is a bad person, really. In fact, I find McCauley as empathetic as Hanna. McCauley and his crew are not psychopaths or degenerates, they’re just guys who are good at robbing banks and stuff. It’s their job, it’s how they provide the means to provide for their families with a high quality of life, just like Vincent Hanna. Heat includes a notable and oft-quoted diner scene wherein Hanna and McCauley discuss the mutual respect they, in fact, have for one another.
I feel for both men in that scene, no doubt in part because of the acting skills they honed making their bones in The Godfather: Part II. Although both their roles in that film were acclaimed and nominated, the two men, who followed strikingly similar career paths, never shared screen time until this scene. Pacino and DeNiro, like their characters here, are two strikingly similar men with strikingly different lives.
Heat is also just plain old jaw-droppingly awesome. In addition to the diner scene, Heat also has a frantic, crazy, just straight up cool shootout scene. Not usually one for CG, the action/crime sequences of Heat are comprised of entirely practical effects. The big shootout scene in Heat is known for being one of the, if not the, most realistic gun battles captured on film (not counting documentaries, obviously). In order to make the scene more realistic, ex-SAS Sargent and author Andy McNab was hired as a technical adviser and weapons trainer. He designed a curriculum in which the actors trained with real weapons and live ammunition for three months before shooting the robbery scene for the film with blanks. Filming was all done on location, with Mann not wanting to use sets or a soundstage, most likely in keeping with the realistic feel and nature of the film. The explosions in the film are also very realistic. There’s no gigantic orange fireball; here they are very subdued. Mann and company paid very close attention to technical detail, and that attention pays off.
This film is very presently-focused. We are given simple, cursory backstory on all the major players in the film. We don’t know how this crew got together or why they’re such a slick, well-oiled machine, and we don’t really know why Hanna has the drive he does to catch criminals. We don’t need to know. That information is not necessary to the narrative. A good backstory isn’t what connects us with characters, it’s a good story, and the story of Neil McCauley, his crew, and the men dedicated to stopping them is a really good story.
Heat tells a story as old as time; there’s a group of criminals, and there’s guys who have to stop them. The story has been told before Heat in 1995 and has been and will be told countless times in the infinite amount of time after Heat in 1995, but nobody has managed to tell the story better than Heat did in 1995. Mann has even attempted to retell this story in 2009’s Public Enemies, and it wasn’t even close to Heat. (For the record, I’ve only seen it once and remember enjoying it, but it wasn’t Heat.) Despite the fact that it sometimes does have too much going on at points, it is a really intense film that should keep you extremely entertained throughout it’s admittedly long 170-minute runtime. I usually don’t like to play favorites, because the question I get asked by everybody when I say I’m a movie buff is “What is your favorite movie?” That’s a very definitive question, and as someone who has seen quite a few, I don’t like to answer it (although I answer with The Usual Suspects). However, I can definitively say that Heat is one of my favorites.