(Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Home Video)
Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat has achieved a peculiar sort of polarity: People either love it or … not hate it, but just don’t see why it resonates so satisfyingly with the rest of us. When it was first released, this cops-and-robbers epic was hailed in some quarters for its galvanic shoot-outs and for its cinema-historical moment: the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared the same scene. Others shrugged and said, Hmmm, kind of long. But with the release of Heat on a two-disc DVD, the film can be reappraised as one of the greatest thrillers ever made—and as a glorious metaphor for the soul-deadening results of taking one’s job way too seriously.
Both Pacino’s cop, Vincent Hanna, and De Niro’s thief, Neil McCauley, are driven loners who are pushing their loved ones away: in Hanna’s case, wife (Diane Venora) and stepdaughter (a tender, young Natalie Portman); in McCauley’s, Amy Brenneman. As these two chase and evade one another, Heat never feels as long as it is, because Mann shaves away conventional exposition to plunge us right into the middle of a scene. The writer-director—who explains in the DVD extras that he spent decades researching and honing his scenario, much of it based on real crimes—should have gotten more credit for eliciting the last two straightforward, non-hammy performances De Niro and Pacino have given (which is not to say that Pacino’s great,unsettle–the–suspect–by–singing–“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” moment isn’t hambone heaven). There are also hard-boiled performances by Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer, neither known for the sere control they evince here.
Heat detractors niggle about Mann’s women, whom I find admirable. But if Mann got a lot of praise for Collateral, Heat is where he worked out a bedrock aesthetic, blending good guys and bad into a universe of steel-gray ambivalence.