25 years ago, Michael Mann’s “Heat” changed the way people envisioned action films. The effect hasn’t lessened a single bit in the time since its release.
By using an action-packed aesthetic, one with the visceral power of that bank heist sequence, Mann was able to produce a deeply poignant character-driven drama with one of the best casts ever assembled. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen for the first time along with Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Danny Trejo, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson, Natalie Portman, Hank Azaria, Kevin Gage (WAINGRO!!!), and many others getting in their shots as well.
At just under three hours, “Heat” defined what a thinking man’s action drama could do, going deeper and becoming more introspective with its characters and contents. It blurred the lines between cop and criminal, showing how similar two completely different people can be in their lives and how they operate. Pacino’s relentless detective going full tilt, family life be damned, in chasing down criminals like De Niro’s thief, who lived by a code until a resilient woman (Amy Brenneman) walked into his life.
Mann’s adoration for Los Angeles and its skylines and visual mood swings played a huge role in setting the tone for the film. Elliott Goldenthal’s score pumped energy into the dramatic scenes and action sequences, heightening the suspense and pushing the viewer closer into the story. The scene with Pacino and De Niro at the now closed Katie’s Diner has so much power due to the dialogue, acting, and the understated setting-but also just that faint idea of a musical undertone.
Why am I talking about “Heat” today? Well, there’s two reasons. First, since it’s my favorite film of all time, taking 20 minutes to ruminate about its greatness is never time wasted to me. Second, “Avengers: Endgame” co-director Joe Russo made some great comments in an interview with Polygon this week about Mann’s film and its impact 25 years later.
In the interview where Russo was promoting “Extraction,” the new Netflix film starring Chris Hemsworth that he wrote, the Marvel director mentions how the bank heist scene was the most visceral experience in a movie theater he has ever had. Due to Mann’s direction and how he took advantage of a budget and great cast, “Heat” set the bar for how action films could dig deeper.
Here’s one of the best quotes from the story from Russo:
It’s unique circumstances for a filmmaker to be in like Michael Mann was when he made Heat, where you can get that level of budget and that level of cast to commit to an action film with that depth of character. Traditionally, action films as mass entertainment are calibrated in such a way that there’s not a lot of room for character depth, right? Your character is put into a situation, they have to be like just likable enough, they have to have just enough conflict or just enough character flaws to advance the story.
But Heat was really a character study that that was blended with one of the more groundbreaking action films that have ever been made.
Russo makes a direct hit here in dissecting the difference between Mann’s film and your random run of the mill action cops/robbers flick. “Heat” elevated all the action aspects of the genre while pumping in nuance and conflict into the character’s lives. That’s what makes it stand the test of time and reverberate for film fans 25 years later.
The bank heist and airport chase at the end are signature action delights that don’t waver with time, but it’s the provocative dialogue-driven moments that make the film different than the rest. Pacino’s Vincent Hanna telling his soon-to-be ex-wife (Diane Verona) that he can’t help who he is or how he does things. “All I have is what I’m going after. I need it. It keeps me on the edge, where I gotta be.”
How many films can you point at multiple actors, perhaps up to 5 or 6, and say this role is arguably one of the best of their career? Pacino, De Niro, Kilmer, Sizemore, and the rest fall into that category. How about Ted Levine and Wes Studi at a pair of detectives on Hanna’s team? Everything in Mann’s film is authentic, well-thought out, and precise. It’s easily Mann’s most precise film to date.
I’ve watched it over 20 times. The theatrical experience stands out as one of my most fond moments watching with my dad. We were at Esquire on Clayton Avenue, and the film was in one of the smaller yet still spacious auditoriums. While a common film fan would have wanted to see this on the biggest screen possible, I think the smaller screen gave the film more of a gut-punch feel to the viewer. Everything was more compressed, the gunfire rung around the room harder and more frequently. I left the theater wanting to ask my dad a hundred questions and watch it again. Mind you, this was 13-year-old me pleading for a commentary on the film.
Mann’s commentary on the DVD/Blu Ray matches any postscript a filmmaker can attach to a film. The little juicy details, behind the scenes notes, and overall insight is unmatched. If you don’t own the film, go own it for the commentary track alone. It’ll change the way you look and see the film.
Russo made a good point in that interview about “Heat” and movies’ lasting impact decades later.
It’s true auteur, action filmmaking at a length and a pace that … it’s hard to convince a studio to release the movie that way, and requires somebody in Michael Mann’s position to do that. So I think that’s why it’s still such a touchstone. It’s a different era of filmmaking.
The best films never lose their impact. They keep getting better, marinating in different ways for the viewer to take in. What Michael Mann achieved with “Heat” in 1995 was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s an all-timer.
Show some self-respect and go watch it again. That is, if you can spot the heat around the corner.