At first glance, you might see the outlines of familiar cliches and think Michael Mann’s Heat to be something it’s not: you see Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna as a kind of supercop, a crusader with well-honed detective skills willing to break whatever rules are necessary to nab the bad guys; you see Robert DeNrio’s Neil McCauley as a master thief, pulling off insanely complicated heists and outsmarting the detectives pursuing him. But Mann uses those genre staples only as a basic framework and elevates the story to something much more: Heat is a perceptive character drama hiding in the well-worn clothes of a more traditional cops-and-robbers movie.
Heat features Pacino at his most gonzo and eye-popping and DeNiro at his most smoldering and internal. Pacino’s Hanna keeps himself on the edge, he says, because that’s where he needs to be to do his job effectively; on the edge of what, he never says, though his relationship with his wife and step-daughter teeters precariously on collapse. Pacino imbues Hanna with his usual Pacinoesque unsettling intensity, which, honestly, has started to wear on me; I feel like Pacino keeps going back to the same tools in his toolbox over and over again. But the intensity works for Hanna, who tries to hold onto a normal life but is willing to sacrifice that it in pursuit of justice.
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DeNiro’s McCauley walks the other end of the spectrum: his life leaves no room for surprises or complications. Neil has to be prepared to leave his entire life at a moment’s notice if the cops are onto him. At one point McCauley refers to one of his crew as a “friend,” and we’re left to wonder exactly what that word means to someone like McCauley–certainly Cerrito (Tom Sizemore) had been part of McCauley’s crew for years, but could they truly be considered friends? It’s doubtful that Cerrito knows McCauley any better than the audience gets to know him over the course of the film’s three-hour running time.
The pairing of Pacino and DeNiro in the same picture was one of Heat‘s major draws when it was released in 1995–both are considered to be among the very best American actors of the late 20th century yet had never shared the screen before (their characters were separated by fort years in the one movie in which they both appeared, The Godfather, Part II).
DeNiro and Pacino have only one scene together, apart from the climactic chase sequence, and that one dynamite sequence has already come to be considered a modern classic. While sitting over coffee in a busy diner, Hanna and McCauley spell out their intentions toward each other and in doing so discover both a kinship and a mutual professional respect. Both men recognize that the other has dedicated his entire life to his job and both have suffered for that dedication. Each man recognizes that the other is very, very good at his job and that a final conflict, while regrettable, is likely unavoidable. My first thought was that in different circumstances, these two men could have been–should have been–friends, but I then realized that wasn’t true. McCauley and Hanna are almost too kindred in spirit: there can be only one alpha dog in any pack. They are what they are, and what they are is both deeply similar and diametrically opposed.
The Los Angeles of Heat clearly inhabits the same stylistic space as the Los Angeles of Mann’s Collateral from last year: the wide, flat, clean landscapes reinforce the isolated natures of these characters. Dozens–if not hundreds–of movies set in Los Angeles are released every year, but very few suggest the expansiveness of the city they way Mann’s movies do. When McCauley sits with Eady (Amy Brenneman) high in the hills above L.A., looking down over the endless carpet of lights below, we can’t help but be reminded of the inescapable fact of Neil’s persistent personal detachment; he’s alone even in the company of this woman he cares for.
What Heat really revolves around is the notion of family: the price the family of a police officer or a criminal frequently must pay; the way co-workers substitute for family in the face of those difficulties; the limitations family can place on people in those professions. More than most heist films, Heat pays close attention to the families of both its good and bad guys. In the world of Heat, family (or the promise of it) leads to suffering, to betrayal and to salvation.
In similar sequences, we see dinner parties featuring the families of both Hanna’s crew and McCauley’s crew. We get the sense in both cases that these people are friends, that they’ve known each other for years–they’re united by more than just their husbands’ or fathers’ jobs. We see in Pacino’s eyes how desperately Hanna loves his wife and how that love comes in second to the job. We see on DeNiro’s face how badly McCauley wishes he could allow himself the connection his mates have and how unwise he thinks those connections are. And because we see these familial bonds, when members of each side are lost our first thought becomes: “Oh, man, that poor guy’s family.” And the fact that we think about each character’s family as much as we do the death of the character himself demonstrates exactly what elevates Heat above the standard heist thriller.