23 years after it came out guns blazing in theaters, I can still spot Michael Mann’s Heat around the corner. It’s my favorite movie of all time and let me tell you why.
December 15th, 1995. My dad and I attended the film on a chilly night at Esquire on Clayton Rd. They didn’t put Heat in the big auditorium. Something less was. I couldn’t wait for the film. Al Pacino. Robert De Niro. Trading cinematic punches over a nearly three hour crime drama about cops and robbers. You couldn’t draw it up better.
My dad and I were cinephiles. We were addicts who always needed an escape from the real world. Every week, we’d see at least two films. Maybe three. I’ve learned some of the greatest lessons in life from the thousands of questions I have asked my dad after a show. Heat was no different.
De Niro’s Neal McCauley was the world’s greatest bank robber. He had an impeccable crew of imperfect men. Val Kilmer, in one of his past truly great roles, as Chris Shiherlis, the gambling junkie who could crack a safe and fire a semi automatic gun like no other. Tom Sizemore, before the crazy fallout and direct to DVD redundancy, as Michael Cheritto (I pronounce it just like Tone Loc does in the film). Danny Trejo as the driver. Dennis Haysbert, known to many as the All State guy or Pedro Cerrano, as the second getaway and doomed driver.
Pacino’s up all night bloodhound detective Vincent Hanna and his team of badge carrying jackals go after McCauley and his crew. Among them, Wes Studi’s Casals, Mykelti Williamson (aka Bubba from Forrest Gump) as Drucker and the unforgettable voice of Ted Levine as Bosko. Four suits chasing four thieves in the night.
Every actor puts in their best work in, going for broke.
Each crew had internal imperfections. De Niro chases the simple life with Amy Brenneman’s artist and pays for it. Kilmer’s Chris can’t stop gambling away everything, including his wife (Ashley Judd). All of them have either wives or kids attached to their madness. Housewives who don’t know any better.
Pacino is on his third wife(Diane Venora) who has a troublesome kid(Natalie Portman) and their relationship is rocky at best. Bosko, Casals and Drucker all have wives. Everybody carries a certain amount of juice with them on the job but as Pacino deftly points out, he keeps it all at an arms distance.
“I told you, when we hooked up, baby, that you were gonna have to share me with all the bad people and all the ugly events on this planet.”-Hanna
Hanna’s life is that way because he spends all of his time chasing McCauley around. His drug is chasing these bad men around the city. Going home is a breather. A letdown. Something that doesn’t equal the thrill of the hunt.
Mann’s film is a classic and sets itself apart from the other hundred cops and robbers films because it’s authentic and feels real at every moment. There are zero special effects. All the guns are real and sometimes, the bullets are even real. For a gunfight that still thrills during every viewing, Mann unleashed over 2,000 squibs on downtown Los Angeles.
Filming a scene where Hanna’s crew ambushes McCauley’s crew’s escape, hell is truly unleashed. M-4 assault rifles, shotguns and various handguns are fired. Several cars are destroyed. It’s a riveting scene and stands out among action scenes from the past 20 years. Maybe 50 years. Watch it and everything sounds brutally realistic. The guns seem to ring off the corner of the room you are sitting in. Guns are actually reloaded and jam too, making the scene even more real. The damage they do stops men and doesn’t just hinder their movement. Everything is real and done honestly.
Mann’s Heat influenced other filmmakers like Christopher Nolan’s opening bank scene in The Dark Knight (fun fact, William Fichtner is in both films). His action scenes are always mentioned in other commentaries because if how visceral they are filmed and are portrayed on any television set across the world. Mann expertise in crime films goes all the way back to Manhunter, but Heat is his masterpiece.
The film holds up so well over the years due to the well-thought-out story lines in between the action. The plot had muscle on it. For all the acclaim it gathers(and for good reason), the action only takes up about 25-30 minutes of the film. Everything else details the messy and honest lives of cops and high level criminals. How marriages fall due to overly dedicated detectives staring into the abyss of tragedy and violence. How hopeless a criminal’s engagement with a woman or his kids can be with jail or death right around the corner. No one in the film is evil. Well, everyone except for Kevin Gage’s Waingro, a despicable killer who helps bring Neal’s crew down.
The Hall of Fame coffee shop scene between Pacino and De Niro, which represented the first time the two titans of film shared the big screen, is so well-played and scripted. The actors don’t try to chew the scenery, choosing to bounce the ball back to each other on a basketball court. They just let the dialogue dance right off their tongue and allow their eyes and gestures to do the rest. A pro’s game.
Vincent telling Neal, “You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. If I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor (guy) whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.”
And Neal responding with, “There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.”
Hearing those words make the hair on my neck stand up to attention and applaud. They still dazzle with conviction after all these years.
In the end, Heat taught me that good and bad people can have respect for each other, even when they are forced to face off. They may have chosen a different walk in life, but they can understand what makes the other tick and decide how to fight it or avoid it. All the while, these two men also fought themselves in a way. How your decisions in life mold your future or destroy it, like a rock going through a window.
The final scene, supported perfectly by Moby’s earth shattering score, still brings a tear to my eye because it follows through on everything the rest of the film taught and led you to believe. It doesn’t make these men perfect or immovable. In the end, they were simply human beings making choices. Sometimes, deadly ones.
You’ll never see another cast like this either. Pacino, De Niro, Kilmer, Sizemore, Judd, Venora, Portman, Studi, Williamson, Levine, Trejo, and Brenneman. Jon Voight as McCauley’s partner in crime, the man who set him up with guys like Tom Noonan’s Kelso. Fichtner and Henry Rollins. Jeremy Piven as the doctor who helps out McCauley by giving him the shirt his daughter bought him. Hank Azaria as Judd’s lover and the man who created one of Pacino’s greatest funny moments. Haysbert as the ex-con who put his life in McCauley’s hands. A hitter’s list of actors who were at the top of their game and brought it. Everybody brought something unique to their performance.
Watch Heat. Do it for me and yourself. Show some self respect. Movie addict or not, you will find something in it you love or cherish. You will respect it or be blown away by it.
23 years later, it hasn’t lost any heat on its fastball.