Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

24Mar11

Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Al Pacino (Vincent Hanna), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight (Nate), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto). Screenplay by Michael Mann. Directed by Michael Mann. Rating: 15. Running time: 170 minutes.

Heat may look like a generic cops and robbers vehicle, but the names attached should be sufficient for you to refrain from such stereotyping. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were still in the habit of choosing good material back in these days, and Michael Mann rarely takes a foot wrong when it comes to this overdone genre. That trend continues here, with a film that could so easily be bland but is in fact rewardingly thoughtful.

De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a practiser of pure, bare-bones egoism if we’ll ever see one: he actually has no commitments to other people. His rule is to stay detached from anything he could not walk out on in thirty seconds flat if he sensed the heat around the corner, and don’t think for one second he’s joking. His crew take down score after score, leaving LA dry and them rich, the purpose of which is unclear: what does Neil do with his stolen money? His apartment is as basic as his life. He’s a machine on autopilot with no obvious purpose but to keep on going.

The same applies to Vincent Hanna (Pacino), the workaholic LAPD officer who devotes his life to stopping such men rather than living for himself or his wife, similarly robotic but with the uniform on his side. The characters are worthy of the actors embodying them here, sufficiently rich to make this much more than a mere three hour action fest. Mann takes his time developing their attitudes and motives, sprinkling various subplots around them to make Heat’s scenes and dialogue not merely exist for the sake of furthering the plot towards the next bank heist.

By the end we think we know what Neil and Vincent are going to do, even if the former verges on breaking his golden rule and showing signs of humanity. The thrills are thrilling here precisely because we recognise the people involved. Heat would never work as a video game in the way something like Hard Boiled would. It has too many intricate plot elements and intelligent characters to substantiate its array of gunfire. We need more action films to be smart like this.

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