HEAT (1995) is a remake, but not of the underrated 1986 Burt Reynolds movie HEAT (which was later remade as WILD CARD) – it’s Michael Mann’s second try at the story he turned into his 1989 TV pilot L.A. TAKEDOWN. Which was good! This is better. A controversial statement, but I stand by it.
It’s possibly Mann’s best movie, and certainly ranks high among crime movies of the ‘90s (which is saying something), in my view a masterpiece of the genre. It has that rare quality of feeling like a sprawling epic and a simple, intimate story at the same time. Like a Sergio Leone movie in that one specific sense.
It is pretty simple, in the same way that MANHUNTER is. You’ve got these two men who are on opposite sides of the law, which makes their lives pretty similar. They respect each other’s professionalism but, unlike John Woo characters, would sooner shoot each other than be on the same side. Pretty early in the movie, famously – legendarily, really – they suddenly parley, have coffee together and talk about it, kind of warn each other but both seem to enjoy talking to somebody else who gets what it’s like to live that life. At the time the hype was about Robert De Niro and Al Pacino doing a scene together – two titans had not come together like this since Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT – but now that novelty has long since faded and the scene still feels monumental.
The thief, the guy who “takes down scores,” is Neal McCauley (De Niro, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE), while the guy who chases guys who take down scores is Vincent Hanna (Pacino, THE SON OF NO ONE). McCauley strongly believes in that old school Jedi thing of not having attachments. You need to be able to drop your whole life in 30 seconds if the law comes. Some old con told him that and he repeats it all the time. Notably, nobody else he knows seems to follow that code, so it’s not the standard of the profession. It’s his own personal hang up.
Maybe it’s an excuse to avoid admitting that relationships are hard for violent people and adrenaline junkies. His closest partner Chris (Val Kilmer, DELGO) has a cool wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN), who’s tired of not knowing if he’s coming home or not, and also probly doesn’t like that he’s an abusive bastard, leaping over furniture at her and breaking things during tantrums. On the other side, Hanna’s wife Justine (Diane Venora, THE SUBSTITUTE) is really smart and hot, good at standing up for herself, and clearly frustrated that her husband only comes in briefly at random periods and won’t be emotionally open to her because he doesn’t want to be telling her about the fucked up crime scenes he’s coming from half the time. We see him comforting a murdered woman’s mother (Hazelle Goodman, TRUE IDENTITY) longer than we see him embrace Justine.
But McCauley meets a young woman named Eady (Amy Brenneman, CASPER) at the book store, he spends a night talking with her. Later, out to dinner with the crew, looking around at all their wives, he uncharacteristically decides to go ask Eady for a second date, and starts getting ideas, calling her his woman. She likes him too. Seems intimidated by him, though she thinks he’s a metal salesman.
Marriage probly isn’t the problem, but the family dinner turns out to have been a bad idea, because Hanna’s crew are on a roof across the street taking pictures, and McCauley was the one guy not already on their radar. Like Denzel wearing the fur coat to the boxing match in AMERICAN GANGSTER. But McCauley turns the tables in a great scene where he purposely gets followed by Hanna’s crew, gets them out in the open and takes pictures of them.
Holy shit, what a cast. I hadn’t watched it in quite a few years and of course I remembered many of the people who were in it, but more and more of them keep popping up. Along with De Niro and Kilmer in McCauley’s crew you got Tom Sizemore (PAPARAZZI) and Danny Trejo right around the time of DESPERADO, playing a character called “Trejo.” Kevin Gage (STEELE JUSTICE, G.I. JANE, CHAOS, LAID TO REST) plays Waingro, the psycho who turns an armored car robbery into a bloodbath for no reason, drawing McCauley’s ire but slithering away to cause other problems. Jon Voight (ANACONDA) plays their fence, Nate. Along with Pacino as Hanna you got an LAPD crew of Wes Studi (STREET FIGHTER), Ted Levine (THE MANGLER), Mykelti Williamson (MIRACLE MILE), and motherfuckin two-time World Kickboxing champion and inspiration for the movie THE DEBT COLLECTOR Jerry “Golden Boy” Trimble (THE MASTER, BREATHING FIRE, TERMINATOR WOMAN, STRANGLEHOLD, TODAY YOU DIE, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2). We barely see him talk, but it’s amazing to see such a pure b-action legend walking around with Pacino in one of his best movies.
Also you got William Fichtner (VIRTUOSITY) as money launderer Roger Van Zant. You got Natalie Portman (who had only done LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL) as Hanna’s troubled stepdaughter Lauren. Dennis Haysbert (NAVY SEALS) plays Don, an ex-con who will become their backup driver after not so much enjoying working at a restaurant for asshole boss Bud Cort (INVADERS FROM MARS). Tom Noonan (MANHUNTER, COLLISION COURSE) as another crime associate. Hank Azaria (GODZILLA 1998) as a dude Charlene cheats with. Jeremy Piven (ONE CRAZY SUMMER) shows up as an underworld surgeon.
It just keeps going. In many ways it’s timeless, in others it’s the ultimate 1995 time capsule: appearances by Henry Rollins (JOHNNY MNEMONIC), Tone Loc (POSSE) and I guess Everlast (WHO’S THE MAN?). Amazing.
But that huge cast is mostly supporting these two lead characters going head to head. And along with a double character study it’s a double procedural. Like in THIEF, Mann shows us individual steps of preparation for a heist, knowing it’s way more interesting if we just get to watch it come together and figure out what they’re up to instead of have it explained to us too much. Meanwhile, we also see the steps of Hanna and his team trying to trace the path backwards from one heist to its perpetrators, then go forward to what their next one might be in order to catch them in the act. Making a profile based on the details of the opening armored car robbery, looking through databases for known felons who fit the criteria, pushing informants for tips, following hunches, surveiling suspects. Whichever crew I’m watching, I get invested and root for them to pull it off, but at least one side’s gonna have to lose. These guys are way too stubborn for a Toretto and O’Connor ending.
Honestly I feel bad for them being so much better at their jobs than living lives. I like the scene where Hanna comes to the apartment and Justine has a guy over, Ralph (Xander Berkeley, T2). So often Berkeley plays a sleaze – in fact he played Waingro in L.A. TAKEDOWN – but here he’s like oh, sorry man, I didn’t know she was married, I don’t want to be in the middle of this. Unfortunately Hanna has a gun and terrorizes him while giving him permission to “ball my wife.” And you just know that up to this point Ralph could not believe his luck scoring way out of his league with Justine. I think Mann made the right choice, but it would’ve got a big laugh if he cut to Ralph’s reaction when she says, “Now I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you.” Poor Ralph.
Eventually Hanna’s crew catches McCauley’s on the way out from a bank robbery, leading to the other legendary scene, the massive shootout on the streets of L.A. Like the diner scene, it still feels like a megablast even after a couple decades worth of movies aping its then groundbreakingly authentic feel. To me most of the best movie shootouts – your John Woos, your JOHN WICKs – have some grace, poetry and outlandishness to them. This one succeeds by going completely in the opposite direction. It’s all about the loud, deadly power of these weapons, the sheer madness of pulling one out and firing it in public, the absolute nightmarish barbarity of blasting those monstrosities in the middle of civilized society, thoughtlessly killing and maiming your enemy, while knowing you’re just as likely to blow away some random innocent person you didn’t even know was running by on the sidewalk or cowering behind a car that thing can cut through like a knife through butter. I’m sure the scene gives some people a boner, but to me it’s a rush because it’s so terrifying, so perilous, so inhuman it takes your breath away.
After the shells stop clinking and the smoke clears, the surviving combatants scatter, attempt to slip out from between the walls that are closing in on them, and still try to find time to fit in some relationship goals and side grievances. Hanna correctly bets on McCauley coming for revenge against Waingro before he skips town. Waingro is a great villain – going Mr. Blonde during the first robbery, scurrying away before McCauley can execute him in a diner parking lot, disappearing to the outskirts of the story but popping up long enough to reveal that he’s also a serial killer with Nazi tattoos. So at the end when McCauley blows everything by going to kill Waingro before leaving, we get it. Fuck that guy.
That’s one of the many highly potent scenes. Eady has learned the truth about McCauley, has started to get used to it, has somehow agreed to go on the run with him. They’re in the car headed for LAX, Nate calls and tells McCauley where Waingro is, and you look at his face as he sits there and tells himself no, I’m not that stupid, I’m home free, I did it, I’m getting away with it, I’m living happily ever after, not throwing it all away at the last second, and meanwhile you know for fucking sure that yes, he is that stupid, he can’t help himself, he’s gonna risk it all to try to kill this guy. Sure enough he abruptly swerves in traffic and tells her he just has to take care of this one last thing.
Poor Eady sits in the car outside the hotel with what I imagine is a knot the size of a football in her stomach, likely questioning her life-changing decision, definitely wondering why he’s taking so long, what the fuck he’s doing in there, why all these emergency vehicles are pulling up. I bet for half a second it’s oh no, are they gonna block us from pulling out? and then it’s oh shit, are they here because of him?
And then it’s the pivotal moment when McCauley’s made it safely out of the building and Eady is right there in the car but then he sees Hanna. Between everything set up and everything going on on the actors’ faces, without anyone saying a word, we’re sent on an emotional journey. We see McCauley doing exactly as he told Hanna he would – spotting him “coming around that corner” and knowing to “just walk out on her.” But we also see that it’s hard for him this time. He hesitates. And we see Eady – who has made such a huge leap of faith in learning he’s a criminal and agreeing to throw away her entire life to flee the country with him within, what, a day? – realizing holy shit, this motherfucker has the audacity to just ditch me!? And we feel the heartbreak but also a sense of relief on her behalf, whether or not she has any herself, because this is gonna be better for you in the long run, lady! You don’t want to be an international fugitive, you don’t want to live with a murderer, or you don’t want to see him get shot in a few minutes, or get yourself shot in the crossfire if you’re with him. This right here is the best possible outcome for you, I’m afraid.
Anyway, great job Michael Mann. I’m glad you got another chance to tell that story, to get it out of your system, get some closure on it once and for all. Unless you some day decide to write a sequel/prequel in the form of a novel and then adapt it into a film. And if that happens maybe it’s not out of the question to finally become a TV series some day. And then you will have finally made it.