The 1990s featured a spate of big films about crime and criminals, many starring some of the greatest actors working in Hollywood. Films like Goodfellas, Casino, A Bronx Tale, Ronin, Donnie Brasco, and Cop Land helped to define an era of the genre, and few actors were more important to this era than Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Michael Mann’s Heat features both of them, at the peak of their abilities, and thanks to Mann’s memorable neo-noir style, Heat manages to be among the standouts of the genre.
Michael Mann has become known for his mastery of neo-noir, and Heat is a perfect encapsulation of his abilities. At nearly three hours, Heat could feel long and drawn out in lesser hands; in the capable hands of Mann, Heat never seems to let up, filled end-to-end with the cat-and-mouse story of master criminal Neil McCauley (De Niro) and LAPD lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino). It’s a damn good looking film too, giving us a vibrant Los Angeles that takes advantage of the wide streets and bright sun.
It’s easy to see why Christopher Nolan, in his conception of The Dark Knight, was inspired by Heat; not only does Heat share much of the style and feel, not only is the cat-and-mouse chase replicated in The Dark Knight, but even some of moral quandaries imagined in the two films are shared.
Heat has a cast that is truly to be reckoned with; beyond the two A-list headliners, it’s a cast that features a laundry list of actors in supporting roles – Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner (who also appeared in The Dark Knight), Natalie Portman, Hank Azaria, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Piven, and even more. Beyond being a who’s-who of “Hey, who’s that?” type actors, Heat manages, through its lengthy running time, to allow many of these supporting actors to have more than just their face on-screen, giving them actual moments to act out. It’s almost generous in the way that the screen time is doled out too so many up-and-comers.
Of course, Pacino and De Niro are the stars here, two titans near their peaks. If Pacino goes a little over-the-top at moments, De Niro makes up for it by keeping things low-key on his end, delivering a tightly wound performance that highlights his ability to convey a lot of emotion without having to overact. In a film like this, we normally wouldn’t get to see these two actors together until late in the film; however, Mann makes the smart decision to have the two face off over coffee at a relatively early juncture. Seeing these two titans talking to each-other in a casual setting, each knowing the other is out to get them, they size their counterpart up and both are impressed by what they see. There’s a mutual respect between cop and criminal here, with both knowing this is the job of a lifetime. Though on opposite sides of the law, cop and criminal have more in common with each-other than with anyone else.
The action here is doled out deliberately and carefully, with Mann using his extended run-time to build tension and allow these scenes to breathe. It’s patient film-making, with Mann completely in command of tone, completely comfortable in this world.
The interesting tension here is, of course, the role that women play in the world of Heat. The wife who just wants her husband to spend more time with her, one girlfriend who doesn’t know the world of crime she’s getting into, another girlfriend who knows exactly what kind of world she lives in, the daughter who misses her absent father. If this film could be faulted, it’s for not spending enough time fleshing these women out, making us understand their motivations, their personal lives. As depicted, we don’t get to see the internal lives that these women experience, just how they’re impacted by the crime around them. Mann is, of course, right to allocate his time as he chooses here, but it’s easy to imagine that the original idea for Heat, a TV show entitled L.A. Takedown, might have been able to more adequately flesh these stories out.
The influence and importance of Heat is clear, its strength as an individual piece of film-making unassailable. Michael Mann is an intriguing director partially because of some of his failures and misfires later on in his career, but Heat is no misfire; it’s a true classic.