Nate calls McCauley with the good news. "You're home free," he tells him. His out is solid, everything is set, he's on his way to the airport with his best girl by his side. He hangs up the phone, and their car enters a tunnel; the light inside is so bright, it's almost blinding. Then they drive out of the tunnel, back into the night, into the dark. Hesitation flickers across McCauley's face. He turns the car around. He has one more thing to take care of.
That is perhaps the defining moment of Michael Mann's brilliant 1995 crime picture Heat, the moment where we fully grasp exactly what Mann is up to; that he is no mere stylist, but a true-blue filmmaker with a gift of using his considerable visual talents at the service of a genuinely compelling and intelligent story. He had directed several films previous to this one (including the hit Last of the Mohicans and Manhunter, the first film to feature the character of Hannibal Lecter), but he was best known for his extensive work in television, specifically as the producer of the slick but seminal Miami Vice. Heat, in fact, had its roots in television--the script was a reworking of Mann's 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown (and he later produced a television series called Robbery Homicide Division that was essentially a TV version of Heat, with the film's co-star Tom Sizemore in the Al Pacino role). Heat, with its all-star cast, dense structure, and epic running time, proved him as a major Hollywood player; his next effort, The Insider, would garner him multiple Oscar nominations.
At the time of its release, though, Mann's coming of age was not the headline. The big story was that for the first time, acting titans Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino would share the screen (both appeared in The Godfather Part II, but in entirely separate timelines, with DeNiro playing the younger version of Pacino's father). Playing familiar, perhaps archetypal roles, DeNiro stars as master thief Neil McCauley, while Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, the LAPD detective on his trail. Our introduction to McCauley is wordless and strangely striking; as the credits role, we watched the goateed DeNiro exit an L.A. subway train and, wearing a uniform, stride confidently through a hospital, out the back door, and into an ambulance. Only upon repeat viewings do we notice that he opens the hospital door with his elbow, so as not to leave any prints. This guy's a pro.
We next see Chris Sheherlis (Val Kilmer, then white-hot off of his turn as Batman) at a construction supply outpost, picking up some explosives. Two more men, Cherrito (Tom Sizemore) and Waingro (Kevin Gage) share a tense ride in a big rig. Only when these men arrive at their destination do we realize what they're up to--in a tight, ruthlessly efficient action sequence, they take down an armored car in about three minutes flat, grabbing only an envelope of valuable German bearer bonds. These skillful opening passages introduce several characters without getting bogged down in extensive exposition; we first know them by what they do and how they act in a crisis. There will be time for proper introductions later.
For all of the crew's skill, the job goes awry due to the itchy trigger finger of Waingro, the sole outsider. "Their M.O. is that they're good," announces Detective Hanna (Pacino), surveying the scene, but he's good too--correctly piecing together how the job went down and where it went wrong, thinking out loud and banging ideas around with his fellow detectives (ably played by Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, and Jerry Trimble). Mann's primary fascination in Heat, it seems, is dedicated men who are good at what they do, both the crew of cops and the crew of crooks, how that draws those men together in those groups, and how it influences how all of them see each other. Hanna's relentless (some would say obsessive) pursuit of McCauley isn't rooted in any particular public need--he's no more dangerous than any number of ex-cons pulling down scores. But Hanna is fascinated by this guy, by his skill and proficiency, and sees that if he can take down a smarter crook, that makes him (it would seem to reason) a smarter and better cop. And conversely, if McCauley can elude this smarter-than-average lawman, his accomplishment is that much greater.
Both men's dogged work ethic takes a toll on their private lives and personal relationships. Hanna's about to lose his third wife, Justine (Diane Venora); they talk at each other, and past each other. "You don't live with me," she tells him. "You live among the remains of dead people." Both are ignoring Lauren (a very young Natalie Portman), Justine's daughter from a previous marriage, a troubled pre-teen ticking away like a time bomb. McCauley's romance with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a gentle graphic designer, is smoother but less honest--she thinks he's a salesman.
The intricacies of those relationships--and that of Chris and his bitter, philandering wife Charlene (Ashley Judd)--are a tip that we're not dealing in a conventional, good guys/bad guys narrative. In its style, and in its broad strokes, Mann's screenplay is like a modern Western. But in spite of his borderline-monochromatic color scheme (it is a film of whites, blacks, greys, and cool blues), there is no "black and white" in this film. Hanna is a driven law enforcement officer but an abusive and angry guy; McCauley has a criminal mind but a romantic soul. Throughout the film, he contrasts the simple aesthetic properties (the black and white hockey masks in the truck job, the sharply conflicting light and dark of the airport tunnel and the bright runway lights) with the various shades of grey that his characters dwell in.
Mann uses the picture's expansive length (it clocks in just shy of three hours) and the considerable skills of a robust cast (there are so many good roles, they were able to fill them all with first-rate actors, and give everyone at least one great moment) to sketch in the kind of details and complexities too often left out of standard cops-and-robbers pulp. On its initial release, it was billed as "a Los Angeles crime epic," and that's an apt description--it is a dense, layered, sprawling story.
The construction of Mann's screenplay is ingenious. He introduces Hanna and McCauley separately and keeps them apart for a good ninety minutes of screen time. It's a smart framework on a basic structural level, and would work even if the two actors filling the roles weren't icons. But the fact that this the film co-stars DeNiro and Pacino means that Mann's script is playing on, and toying with, audience expectation--they're each on a course that charts them towards the other, but that face-off is drawn out and delayed as long as possible, making their eventual sharing of the screen even more exciting. When that deservedly legendary scene arrives, it is somewhat awe-inspiring; these two contemporaries (and, presumably, sometimes rivals) have finally met their respective matches, and they bring out each other's best work.
Elsewhere in the film, the duo give a hint as to the kind of work we could expect from them in the coming years--in some ways, it is a study in contrasting acting styles. Though Pacino is top-billed, he does turn in the weaker performance; we're seeing the beginnings of the "shouty Al" turns that he would too often trot out in the ensuing decade-plus ("GIMME ALL YA GOT!" "I hear she got a... GREAT ASS!"). I can see what he's doing intellectually (most of those moments come in interrogation scenes, when the character might be prone to theatricality, and there's some chatter that we were to believe the character might have or have had a drug problem), but it doesn't always play; that said, those moments are fleeting and don't take over the entire performance. DeNiro, on the other hand, has seldom underplayed so effectively--he seldom raises his voice and projects genuine danger with just a look (and watch the way you can see the wheels turning after he drives out of that bright tunnel). That less-is-more approach lands perfectly here, though we find him sleepwalking through more and more performances in the years following.
It's hard to write a review of Heat that doesn't turn into a list of great scenes--the tight-as-a-drum bank robbery scene, the thrilling shoot-out in the L.A. streets that follows, the tense attempts at reconciliation, escape, and pursuit that take up the third hour (this may be one of the most cleanly-executed examples of a classic three-act structure in recent memory). There are a couple of minor misfires in Mann's script, sure (some of Venora's dialogue is too on-the-nose, and the story thread that implies that Waingrow is a serial killer proves to be a dead end). But by the time it reaches its powerful closing images, we're witnessing Mann at his very best, capturing and defining male camaraderie and rivalry in a moving, definitive fashion. Heat is one of the great American films of the 1990s.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
According to the press materials and box copy, the new 50GB Blu-ray disc sports "new content changes supervised by director Michael Mann." I have to tell you, in all candor, that I've seen the film about a dozen times (though, admittedly, not in a few years) and I couldn't detect the changes (which shorten the running time by less than a minute). Online research has turned up a couple of very minor tweaks. Point is, Heat fans have no reason for despair; Mann has not done the kind of extensive re-tooling that he did for the home video releases of some of his other efforts (like Ali and Miami Vice).
Heat hits Blu-ray hard with a 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer, and this reviewer couldn't have been more impressed. First and foremost, the richness and depth of the black levels are downright astonishing--as mentioned above, this is a film that's heavy on blacks and grays and shadows, but nothing gets lost in the 2.40:1 image. Take, as an example, the scene where Pacino returns to a darkened restaurant to meet up with Venora; here we have two dark-haired actors, both wearing black, in a dark room, but their figures are crystal clear, the lines of their clothing and hair plainly seen against the dark backgrounds. The disc also captures the clean immaculate whites of DeNiro's apartment nicely, to say nothing of that white-hot tunnel scene. In fact, in places the image is too good--the green-screen work in the balcony scene between DeNiro and Brenneman was always a little dodgy, and the clarity of the transfer doesn't do it any favors. It's not the most vividly saturated disc you'll own (as we've covered, the color palate is pretty muted), but the details are sharp, the textures are rich, and the slight touch of grain assuages any fears of DNR. This is a first-class catalog release.
The Dolby True HD 5.1 track is no less impressive. From the rumbling of the subway train chugging into the station at the beginning of the film to the roaring of the departing planes at its end, the mix is absolutely stellar. The opening heist is a winner (the sounds of the explosion and ensuing smashing glass are flawless), while the surround audio in the street gunfight is a knockout, a cacophony of machine gun fire, squealing tires, crashing bumpers, and shattering glass. But the mix isn't merely active during those big action beats--Pacino and crew's crime scene investigations feature plenty of surround action (I especially liked the squawking radio in the front right speaker), while the barking dogs before the Torena interrogation gave me a bit of a start. Sound pans nicely during several chopper scenes, and the thumping bass of a House of Pain song in a dance club scene gives the subwoofer a workout. Most importantly, dialogue never gets lost in the rich soundscape. Only one issue: many of the dialogue scenes get mighty quiet, so you'll probably find yourself jockeying the volume control pretty frequently.
Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish, and German tracks are also available, as is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Portuguese track. Subtitles are also offered for eleven languages.
The good news is that all of the bonus features from the 2005 special edition DVD have been ported over; the bad news is, there's nothing new for Blu. First up is Michael Mann's excellent Audio Commentary, a thorough and engaging chat with the writer/director, who discusses the practicalities of making the film and the various technical aspects, in addition to adding some insightful and intelligent analysis of the characters and the themes. This one is well worth a listen.
Next up are three solid featurettes, profiling the making of the film from beginning to end. "True Crime" (14:44) details the inspiration for the story, as Mann talks about his background and his friendship with Chicago detective Chuck Adamson (also interviewed); Adamson was the inspiration for Hanna, and told Mann about his relationship with the real Neil McCauley (Mann didn't even change his name!). It also details Mann's beginnings as a filmmaker and constant interest in the interactions between cops and criminals. "Crime Stories" (20:25) delves into the writing of the Heat screenplay, including how it morphed into and out of L.A. Takedown. Mann and producer Art Linson also discuss the casting of the iconic leads, while Pacino and DeNiro recall their entrances into the film and the motivation behind some of their acting choices (unfortunately, DeNiro is only seen in old clips from the film's initial theatrical release). Several members of the supporting cast and crew also chip on their involvement and the picture in general. "Into the Fire" (24:00) covers the extensive research of the actors and technicians (including the extensive gun training for the actors) , as well as rehearsal, shooting, and post-production.
The film's most famous scene is the focus of the featurette "Pacino and DeNiro: The Conversation" (9:55), which features behind-the-scenes footage, clips, and stills, as well as interview clips with Mann, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, the producers, film critic James Wolcott, co-stars Voight, Sizemore, and Judd, and, of course, the gentlemen themselves. It's a good piece, with some interesting analysis (particularly by Mann). In "Return to the Scene of the Crime" (12:02), location manager Janice Polley and associate producer Gusmano Cesaretti take the cameras on a guided tour of the film's Los Angeles locations, with matching clips from the film.
Next are eleven Deleted Scenes. Most are very short (under a minute) and extraneous, though we do get a lot more of Tom Sizemore, as well as a masterful scene immediately before the bank job that clears up some slightly murky storytelling. The expected Trailers and TV spots close out the extras.
Heat is an uncommonly rich and intelligent studio picture that transcends its B-movie roots, thanks to an A-list cast and a filmmaker taking full advantage of his chance to shine. The lack of new Blu-ray content is disappointing, but the top-shelf audio and video presentation (to say nothing of the bargain price tag) makes this one a must-buy.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.