Why Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ is still a classic, 25 years later

Twenty five 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.

Dec. 15, 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 and 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. Film-addicts who always needed an escape from the real world. Every week, we’d see at least two new 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 movie. “Heat” was no different.

De Niro’s Neal McCauley was the world’s greatest bank robber. He had an impeccable crew of imperfect men who could steal better than most, meaning they could get away clean and make it look professional. Val Kilmer, in one of his truly great roles played 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). Danny Trejo as the driver. Dennis Haysbert, known to many as the All State guy or Pedro Cerrano in “Major League,” as the second getaway (and doomed, 25 year spoiler alert, sorry) 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.

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 or have made a deal with their souls in exchange for luxury.

Pacino is on his third wife (Diane Venora) when the film begins. She has a troublesome kid(a very young 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 guys like McCauley around. His drug is chasing these bad men around the city. Going home is a breather that leads to boredom. A letdown. Something that doesn’t equal the thrill of the hunt. Great detectives are like great writers: they’re always chasing that genie in and out of the bottle. It’s homework for life.

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, and disguises its character study as a mainstream action film. 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.

Warner Brothers

Filming a scene where Hanna’s crew ambushes McCauley’s crew’s after a bank robbery, 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 25 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. The filming and direction is visceral and done honestly. It’s a relentless experience.

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 of how intensely 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” and “Thief,” 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 plenty of muscle tissue. 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 actually shared the big screen, is so well-played and scripted. The actors don’t try to chew the scenery. They just let the dialogue dance right off their tongue and allow their eyes and gestures to do the rest.

Heat (1995)
Directed by Michael Mann
Shown from left: Al Pacino (as Lt. Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (as Neil McCauley)

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 bastard 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 can 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 song, “God Moving Over The Face of the Water,” still brings a tear to my eye because it follows through on everything the rest of the film taught and led you to. It doesn’t make these men perfect or immovable. In the end, they were simply humans making choices. Sometimes, deadly ones.

Warner Brothers

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.


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