There are two sides to the battle as portrayed in Michael Mann’s epic crime drama Heat that grants it the title of being one of the best films of its own time. Putting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together for once after their share from The Godfather: Part II, what we have now is a different crime saga, but one within the streets of Los Angeles. Under the hands of any other filmmaker, Heat could almost have found itself falling in the same category as just about any other cops-and-robbers tale, but there’s a great sense of humility present in the way that Michael Mann is telling his own story that ultimately has made his work one of the defining works of its era. Michael Mann’s Heat doesn’t simply carry its own weight through a sense of the action, its strength lies inside the morality at play.
Al Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, and because of the position in which he works (an LAPD robbery-homicide detective), he is set up to look like a protagonist figure for the film. He is called to track down Neil McCauley and his crew after they performed a robbery, but a slip-up soon leaves evidence for Hanna to sniff onto. From this basic setup of character, it could be easy for any filmmaker to turn Hanna into a hero figure and McCauley into an antagonistic force, but Mann never lets his film succumb to this. We’re interspersed with moments of the lives of both figures outside of the chase which the film places in the center in order for us to get an idea that Hanna and McCauley aren’t figures who are different from one another. There’s no figure to “root” for, but we still have a great sympathy as it keeps going under Mann’s own eyes.
Hanna is a man who has been left broken as a result of his own morals. At his home, he has already suffered a number of failed marriages and is trying his best to care for his depressed stepdaughter. When we look at the life of McCauley, he isn’t much different: his life as a criminal has already strained his own romantic relationships and there’s a moment where the two of them come to recognize this about themselves. It’s the famous diner sequence, where the two come to recognize that their opposing morals have indeed made them the same person. It isn’t unfamiliar to the films of Michael Mann to have sympathetic characters inside the roles of criminals, but with Heat it’s where it finds itself most beneficial. Mann isn’t interested in forming a story where there are heroes and villains who are chasing one another after being left on the run, instead, it’s a perfect moment where we recognize humanity in what these people truly are.
What allows Heat to breathe out all the more is found within the fact that the heist isn’t the centerpiece, nor is it within the action scenes. Mann uses the landscape of the city in order to amplify the impacts of the actions, resulting in this conundrum we are left with. Aesthetically, it’s a pleasing sight because of the way Michael Mann weaves through this environment for it allows the film to breathe within its own pace, but the greater significance here is the fact that we are watching a foundation falling upon itself as different moralities find themselves clashing with one another. It gives the film an appearance almost surreal, but dreamy in such a way that it fits the film’s setting inside Los Angeles. A background that overwhelms its characters in order to find a greater significance some way or another, but the way Mann uses it in order to blur the lines of morality is breathtaking.
Then there comes the film’s notable shootout sequence, where a street just like any other inside of Los Angeles suddenly becomes a war zone. From one point of view it could easily be seen as one of the finest showcases of editing an action scene, because the quick cuts between cause and effect give the film a grasp on the frenetic nature of the situation at hand, but there’s something more being said by what comes forth. Mann has already established Hanna and McCauley as figures who are so greatly dedicated to the work that they do to the point it has almost damaged their sense of humanity because it has come to define their morals. In this moment, it seems like an implosion is present. An establishment as it falls upon itself, silencing all others inside and outside as they seek shelter for their own lives. Soon Heat finds itself becoming less about the set pieces provided for an action scene or the way each scene has been filmed, but rather instead the morality at its very heart.
Michael Mann’s Heat goes beyond what would be expected of the setup and instead provides a more thoughtful experience about morality and how it has ended up defining humans at the center of a city environment as it closes in on them. There are no heroes or villains at the center of Heat, just two conflicting ideas of morality as they come together for once, calling for empathy from the viewer – backed up with two of the finest performances from its two leads. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino turn in two of the finest performances to have come out during said era, just as Michael Mann has crafted one of the most beautifully poignant films of the period. Poetry all has found itself in full motion from every facet of Heat and it still remains the pinnacle of Michael Mann’s career. An obvious pick it may be, but it’s an impeccable achievement within itself, because there’s not a single second it wastes within the cat-and-mouse game at play.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Michael Mann
Screenplay by Michael Mann
Produced by Michael Mann, Art Linson
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Natalie Portman
Release Year: 1995
Running Time: 170 minutes