Remembering ‘Heat’ 27 years later

I thought gunfire had taken place in the movie theater.


27 years later, the first thing I remember about watching Michael Mann’s “Heat” for the first time at the Esquire 8 theater was the unusual sound during the now-famous bank heist escape sequence. A little more than halfway through the nearly three-hour film, Neal McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his band of crooks walk out of a huge bank in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. Following Neal out is Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), heading to a car driven by last second wheelman (Dennis Haysbert).

What they didn’t know is that Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his team of detectives (Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Jerry Trimble) are waiting for them outside the bank as they walk out. Shiherlis opens up his AR-15, and all hell breaks loose. What made Mann’s film stick out is the fact that he placed microphones carefully around the set of the shootout, which brought the scene to life in a way that previous films could only dream of. Most films in that era would use squibs, which are fake gunshot sounds added in post-production. Mann paid those employees, and promptly discarded their work.

The hot mics on set captured the ferocity of the assault rifles and high-tech weaponry, placing the audience in the middle of the action. Watching the film at the theater that still stands off of Clayton Road in St. Louis, I literally thought a machine gun was brought into the theater. Mann changed the game without using advanced special effects or some James Cameron-type visual device; he just used the real sounds of actual guns. Old school in the best sense of the word.

The amazing thing about “Heat” is that it has held up very well since its debut way back on Dec. 15, 1995. It doesn’t lose interest with each viewing, and that extends to the entire movie, and not just the famous gunfight. Mann had known though that it was the pinnacle of the movie, a set-off point for the plot where the good guys and bad guys clashed, pivoting the remainder of the film into a race out of LA. The aftermath, and events from six years prior, were laid out in Mann and co-author Meg Gardiner’s thrilling novel this year, “Heat 2.”

That novel, released this past summer, sits atop multiple Top 10 Books of 2022 lists, and is a best selling crime novel that could find its way into Hollywood production studios. What it did for me is transport me back to that thrilling first time experiencing the original. In the old setup of Esquire, there was no stadium seating or enhancements in the theater; there was a monstrous main theater and seven other smaller theaters.

The first time I saw “Heat” was in the original huge theater. The second and third time happened in smaller theaters. It was one of the first movies I not only saw multiple times in a big theater, but a real changing point for in regards to my adoration for the movies. Mann’s epic tale encapsulated everything I loved about the movies: a thoughtful cops and robbers collision in a big city. Instead of the supporting characters going unexplored and drawn up as caricatures, he wrote them as fully fleshed out people.

De Niro’s criminal wasn’t an evil human being. Pacino’s badge wasn’t the most noble soul. The way Mann wrote their characters as regular people who just so happened to be thrown together due to unfortunate circumstances (WAINGRO!) resonated with me due to its rise above the standard practice of cops and robbers. It wasn’t your usual play out of events; it was different and amazing.

Mann has repeatedly said that he saw Hanna and McCauley as two individuals who lived different lives yet shared a mutual understanding of how the world worked. They stood on opposite sides of the law, but that didn’t make them much different in their makeup. Mann went hard after this idea, instead of taking it for granted or using it as a gimmick. You don’t feel that more than during the movie’s other huge scene: the diner meetup.

Pacino and De Niro’s first time on screen together wasn’t just a quick chat or some forced confrontation. Listen to and watch that scene, and you’ll find a couple of guys shooting the shit while mixing in deadly threats. It hasn’t lost an ounce of sizzle.

I’ve watched it countless times since, each time breaking down a new scene or discovering something new. The novel added a few shades of interest to the movie, and vice versa. This past February, we watched “Heat” at the Galleria for my 40th birthday. This time, I was sure the theater hadn’t been invaded by gunmen. It was just a bunch of well-dressed men opening fire on each other in a regulated environment.

To me, it’s the greatest movie ever made. A genre film that shed that skin quickly, becoming something else: an iconic crime opus.

Watch it tonight. Trust me.

Image Credit: Warner Brothers Motion Pictures

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