Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Surely two of the best actors of all time? Yes, they have both made some bad choices - particularly of late - but their abilities have still been tested and evidenced on many an occasion. Who can forget DeNiro's opening salvo during the late Seventies, tour-de-force performances in the likes of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter? And Pacino may have become famous for his trademark 'shouting' behaviour but what about Serpico? Carlito's Way? Godfather?
These days they have become unreliable to say the least, seemingly unable to pick the right movie or provide the right performance, their recent collaboration on Righteous Kill being an example of just how bad things have become. But back in the mid-nineties, when they were arguably still pulling off some decent work, they teamed up for the first time under the Directorial hand of now-acclaimed auteur Michael Mann for the classic crime epic masterpiece, Heat.
“I do what I do best: I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.”
Neil McCauley is a consummate professional. His elite band of armed robbers are the best at what they do: punctual, clinical and - consequently - very successful. Their latest enterprise, meticulously planned and carried out, goes slightly off the rails when a new member of the team - Waingro - gets carried away and kills a security guard. Faced with a murder rap just for their involvement in the robbery, McCauley does not hesitate in executing the other guards, but also does not forgive the mistake made. But in a botched attempt to clean up the mess, they let the psychotic Waingro escape. Now wanted by the Robbery-Homicide Police Task Force for the murders committed on the job, McCauley and his team have to pick and choose their work carefully, staying under the radar for fear of getting caught.
Lieutenant Vincent Hanna is heading up the investigation and after three failed marriages it is clear that the only thing he is truly dedicated to is his job, and he is most certainly determined to bring to justice McCauley's team. In the mix, he is also investigating murders carried out by a viciously psychotic serial killer, who may just be the same man who messed up on McCauley's last job as well. With one last big heist on the cards, the clock is ticking. Is Hanna going to catch the criminals or will McCauley and his crew to get away free?
“Our problem is take the bank or split right now, do not go home, do not pack, nothing. 30 secs flat from now we are gone on our separate ways, that's it...”
Right from its thunderous first act heist, where we are introduced to the close team of criminals, perfectly executing a crash and bang assault on an armoured truck to get their hands on a tidy number of bearer bonds, Heat establishes itself as a professional crime thriller. From every in-your-face camera angle to every gesture or word passed between the men, you are simply thrown into the world of armed robbery, feeling the thrill of the 'job done right', the shock of the random acts of violence unnecessarily committed and the regret over what it makes them do to as a consequence. You know that this is just a job for these guys - this is what they do, and they do it well. It is not that you have sympathy for these guys: they are still killers, but that does not stop you from affording them a certain amount of respect and even admiration for their efficiency and professionalism. It's not that you want them to continue to rob and kill, but you certainly do find yourself hoping - even willing - them to finish off with this risky lifestyle, rather than get caught or, even worse, get killed.
On the flip side of the coin, although interestingly enough not that far away in terms of methodology and professionalism, we have the Robbery-Homicide Special Tast Force who are hot on the trails of these armed robbers. Just as determined and dedicated to getting the job done, you see their take on the crimes committed, their matter-of-fact assessment of the situation, and you also see their opinions of these kinds of crimes versus the random acts of psychotic murder and violence as perpetrated by the serial killer who is on the loose at the same time. It is not quite a matter of Robin Hood versus the evil Sheriff, but there are certainly degrees of evil set up in this tale. For the serial killer we see that there is a desire to execute capital punishment upon him - anything but death would almost be too lenient. Counterpointing this, you almost want the armed robbers to just quit their lives and get away, or at the most get sent to prison, death being a last resort through the eyes of the cops chasing them.
“We want to hurt no one. We're here for the bank's money, not your money. Your money is insured by the federal government, you're not gonna lose a dime. Think of your families, don't risk your life. Don't try and be a hero.”
The storyline itself, despite bearing a passing resemblance to many of its ilk from decades of cinema, is arguably one of the most accomplished works of art in the genre, interweaving numerous different character and story arcs, and bringing them all to conclusion. The tale is almost Shakespearian in nature, as we see how one minor act right at the start has a ripple effect over the course of the movie which is doomed to end but one way. The decisions made along the way are almost inevitable for these characters, their natural reaction to the events that unfold, and it is with great sorrow and tense desperation that you watch the scenes play out to what is a foregone conclusion. You want McCauley's team to quit while they are ahead, but you know that they are going to go for that one last job, and you want McCauley himself to walk away while he can - but you know that he is not the kind of man to leave loose ends. It is truly tragic, and utterly compelling, exactly what makes up an all-time classic.
This is Director Michael Mann's second time around with this particular story, so he probably does not deserve all of the praise associated with the success. He made the 1989 TV Movie LA Takedown with a bunch of unknown actors, originally with a view to it being the pilot for a TV show. Although over a decade later he returned to TV for a spin-off show called Robbery-Homicide Division, in the interim he chose to remake this botched TV movie into the now-classic crime epic that we know of as Heat. With almost identical characters, story and even dialogue, it is difficult not to credit the success of the remake as being thanks to the input of some truly quality actors, and not because the Director 'got it right this time'. That said, considering he shot LA Takedown in two weeks, on a tiny budget, the $60 Million that he had to play with for Heat must have made a considerable difference.
"Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."
Still, you can't help but be overwhelmed by the acting talent on offer here. For the first time ever we get DeNiro and Pacino working together (at least in the same timeline, unlike Godfather Part II), and wow, it was most certainly worth the wait. Pacino is on fiery form, stomping around at speed, varying his speech from whisper to shout in a fraction of a second with volatile outbursts that only Pacino is capable of. Some criticise his portrayal of the determined, hyper-energetic, Lieutenant Vincent Hanna as being just another trademark shouting role for the actor, but when you realise that the original draft for the character included the fact that he was a cocaine addict, maybe it becomes clearer to understand where Pacino got his inspiration from. And for all the criticism railed at the performance, it is a far more memorable one than the thousands of indistinguishably stoic cop heroes that we have seen over the years.
DeNiro has always been my favourite of the two actors - perhaps because I think he has shown us a greater range over the years, or perhaps because I absolutely love the way in which he totally and utterly gets absorbed into a role. The epitome of method acting, he simply becomes Neil McCauley here - clinical, professional, focussed and resolute in his actions. He is the undisputed leader of his criminal band of brothers, he is clearly in charge, always one step ahead, able to both plan things out meticulously, and think on his feet to improvise a superior outcome. His matter-of-fact reaction to events across the course of the movie is to be held in awe - and respected - and he is certainly one of the coolest anti-heroes on the planet.
“I am double the worst trouble you ever had.”
Of course, notwithstanding their individual performances, Heat works so supremely well by having these two master actors oppose each other - the best at what they do, each one side of the same coin, watching these two play cat-and-mouse across the course of this epic is exactly what this movie is all about. Based on the real-life experiences of one of Mann's long-time police collaborators - even down to the famous coffee-shop meeting scene - the criminal element may be glorified somewhat in this affair, giving it the same air of grandeur that Mafioso tend to get in gangster movies, but the characters still seem cemented in reality. And the film cleverly compares the 'just doing my job' behaviour of McCauley to the 'psychotic for fun' behaviour of one of his new crew members, the clearly evil Waingro.
And we don't just get DeNiro and Pacino. Simply every other character in this movie is played by a recognisable actor - and each and every one of them distinguish themselves from the crowd. McCauley's crew are comprised of Val (Tombstone) Kilmer, Tom (Natural Born Killers) Sizemore and Danny (Machete) Trejo, whilst Hanna's unit includes Mykelti (Ali) Williamson, Ted (Silence of the Lambs) Levine and Wes (Last of the Mohicans) Studi. I've never seen Tom Sizemore play such a sober, restrained character, and Kilmer is excellent as the gambling-addicted member whose family life is going off the rails, his wife - played by Ashley (Twisted) Judd - also getting a fair amount of screentime, and facing off against a venomous DeNiro over her infidelity to Kilmer's character.
Then there's the nasty Waingro, played by the little-known bit actor Kevin Gage, who is extremely convincing as the volatile psychotic and William (The Dark Knight) Fichtner as a weasel of a corporate suit who gets on the wrong side of DeNiro's gang. Also, in quite a sympathetic story we have President Palmer from 24 - Dennis Haysbert - as a recently released convict who is trying hard to stay on the right side of the law, despite all odds. The main leads get their respective love interests, DeNiro partnering up with Amy (88 Minutes) Brenneman in what seems like a slightly rushed romance, and Pacino getting lumbered with a pain of a wife with the perpetually moaning Diane (The Insider) Venora. I mean, who uses the word 'detritus' whilst having an argument with their husband?? Much more interesting is the role for a young (not long after Leon) Natalie Portman as the step-daughter who gets caught up in the dissolving marriage between Pacino's Lieutenant and his painful wife. Portman has always exhibited great range and depth of performance, even at a young age, and this is another prime example of why she was never going to be just another pretty face in Hollywood.
“You don't live with me, you live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through.”
There are almost too many names to mention really, as I haven't even touched upon an almost unrecognisable Jon (Midnight Cowboy) Voight as well as cameos for a bearded Tom Noonan from Manhunter, Rocker Henry Rollins, comic actor Hank Azaria and Jeremy Piven from Entourage. It truly is an all-star ensemble cast, and Mann loves dressing many of his cast members up in flashy suits (or police gear) and having them march around as a unit - whether in the middle of an operation, tracking suspects or just going to dinner. It is very cool indeed, and every single actor brings something to their role, adding to the overall impact of this epic crime drama.
Aside from being an all-time classic, probably in many highly regarded Top 100 charts, and despite being famous for marking the first on-screen collaboration between DeNiro and Pacino, Heat also has that memorably insane gunfight in the third act. When I say memorable, I am underplaying its significance, as it has gone on to be used to teach military units the professional way to survive an armed ambush. I'm not really surprised, as the scene - and much of the gun-handling within the movie - was supervised by our very own Andy McNab, ex-SAS, now acclaimed author. It really shows, and consequently Heat has some of the best cops-and-robbers action sequences ever committed to celluloid.
It should be noted that this is new Blu-ray release technically has a new cut of the movie on it. The back cover reads 'new content changes supervised by Director Michael Mann' and it has caused a great furore across the forums because fans are wondering why on earth the Director would feel it appropriate to tinker with his already-perfect cinematic masterpiece some fifteen years on. Well, I was one of those fans, and I have to say that what he has done to change this movie is barely noticeable. We are literally talking about three or four lines, a couple of second-long edits in what is still a three-hour epic. Honestly, I was even slightly relieved because he has removed that terrible 'detritus' comment from Hanna's wife's speech halfway through (see above) so maybe the edits were not so bad after all. Also, from the 'she's got a great ass' Pacino comment we lose his rhetorical 'ferocious, ain't I?' line, but it's no big deal, even if I don't agree that cutting it out made the scene flow better. I still think he probably should have left well alone, but fans should rest assured that there's no significant damage done at all to this cherished classic.
“You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we've been face to face, if I'm there and I gotta put you away, I won't like it. But I tell you, if it's between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.”
Compelling, absorbing, tense and character-driven, yet packed with outstanding action sequences, immensely quotable, at once tragic and yet satisfying, and featuring master actors Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino going head-to-head, Heat is a classic from start to finish. It is not only in my personal top 3 movies (alongside Leon and the little-known Japanese film Sonatine) but it is also generally held in high regard by the majority - and you can see why. Mann and his excellent cast have crafted a fantastic, broad crime thriller that is pretty much perfect in its realisation. Highly recommended.