Michael Mann directs Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Val Kilmer in this sprawling crime drama that explores a cat and mouse game between LA’s Robbery Homicide division and some expert thieves, both led by fanatical obsessives.
Whisper it but I’m pretty sure outside of movie journalism Heat was considered a bit of an unspoken disappointment on initial release. It didn’t receive one notable awards nomination, zero Oscars, not even nods. The US box office was middling, saved by the international market. The much hyped onscreen pairing of Pacino and DeNiro happened teasingly halfway in – a subdued coffee shop conversation rather than a big face off / showdown and then they do not really touch base together until the drawn out, dialogue free foot chase finale. Pacino is full ham here (albeit gifting us the most entertaining performance of his career) and many of his improvised excesses became punchlines. The support cast of Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Ted Levine were about to squander their reputations with poor choices within and without the industry. Jon Voigt is probably the only actor who perceptibly benefited from being cast in one of the most critically lauded studio movies of all time. You could even say the same for leads if you were being exacting. A three hour runtime was unheard of for a mainstream action release in the 1990s. After a couple of high calibre takedowns, the final drawn out moments of violence can be seen as underwhelming and minimalist. I knew as a teenage movie fan Heat was very good but I wasn’t ever sure it was a “great”.
Time has been kind. Not being an instant favourite means I’ve only rewatched it once a decade since. The undeniable qualities become more prominent as my expectations mellow. DeNiro is decisive as the consummate professional, the man whose code is a hard shell that he slowly shatters against his best instincts. That coffee shop scene is a thing of wonder – didactic, playful and bristling with chemistry. Why Bobby never got nominated is anyone’s guess? The heists when they happen are convincing, pummelling endurance tests. You are right in the shit but Mann’s bold and masterful storytelling chops mean you are never lost in the carnage. His visual sensibilities is of a clean urbanised world… designer suits, starched collars, pressed shirts. The sodium glare of LA at night is more magical and romantic than the stars in the sky. The immaculate streets of corporate uptown are waiting for the violence to upend them. You’ve never seen so many shades of grey.
What works best about Heat is it feels like a native metal movie. The purest form of a sub-genre just sitting out their in nature. This is THE cops and robbers movie. There are others but they all feel like spins or alternates or pollutions of this epic. Heat is the real deal. The dedicated police and the ‘professional’ criminals both are the uncontested titans at what they do, likewise they admire and never underestimate each other. As we see McCauley’s crew snake out of a series of ever closing loopholes, we watch Hanna’s squad draw closer and closer. Each side is given equal screentime, each member their vulnerable moment, your sympathies and identification are equal as viewer. You want DeNiro to escape and yet justice to be done, Pacino to get his man while we naughtily marvel at the thrill of the score. Three hours is room to breathe, the simplest of plots to grow detail, overgrowth, life. As immersive 2for1character study or existential action movie or macho acting masterclass Heat is “sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.” “Drop of a hat these guys will rock and roll…” It is climbing… Shit, a decade’s time and the below score will be that rare 10.
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