Michael Mann’s magnificent HEAT is a tragic drama par excellence.
I couldn’t believe it. HEAT, writer/director Michael Mann’s magnificent crime drama is now 20 years old. Watching it again recently, it felt as though it were made yesterday. Everything about it seemed fresh, urgent and vital. From the incredible ensemble cast headed by two actors absolutely at the top of their game – Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – to the unbelievable bank robbery and getaway sequence which in 1995 when the film was released, I’d never seen done quite the way Mann does it, to the breathtaking 7-minute diner face-off. It’s all amazing stuff and like all classics, you can watch it again and again.
The story, if you don’t know, focuses on the cat n’ mouse pursuit by Al Pacino’s veteran homicide detective Vincent Hanna of a gang of criminals, including Tom Sizemore’s tough Michael Cheritto and Val Kilmer’s volatile Chris Shiherlis (awesome) but lead by Robert De Niro’s phenomenally clever and extremely dangerous Neil McCauley.
That’s the big picture but inside it, almost like a hard-boiled James Ellroy noir, are a myriad of other characters, all with their own struggles, stories, and agendas. From the families of the cops that include Diane Venora’s changeable Justine Hanna and her vulnerable daughter Lauren (a great cameo performance from a young Natalie Portman) to the gangster’s moll of Ashley Judd’s loyal Charlene Shiherlis and the new woman in McCauley’s life, the studious, calm Eady of Amy Brenneman – all are caught in the crossfire of the relationship between the two men, slugging it out against a beautiful backdrop of Los Angeles, shot as you’ve never seen it quite shot by the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
And that’s not even mentioning the rest of the supporting ensemble, actors whose names now have become a veritable by-word for brilliance when you see them in a cast list – William Fichtner is the cool and corrupt money man Van Zandt, Dennis Haysbert is the not-so-lucky ex-con Breedan, Ted Levine, Wes Studi and Mykelti Williamson are fellow cops Bosko, Casals and Drucker, Hank Azaria is the sleazy wise guy Alan Marciano, Jeremy Piven is the kindly Dr. Bob and Xander Berkeley has a nice one scene cameo as Justine’s new squeeze, Ralph. And let’s not forget an almost unrecognisable but terrific Jon Voight as fence Nate. Mann really knew his stuff when it came to finding exactly the right actor for a role and with the help of the estimable casting director Bonnie Timmermann (spot on for other large cast features Quiz Show, Armageddon, and Black Hawk Down) hit the big time with this film.
At 170 minutes, HEAT isn’t a short movie but the length allows it to take its time in developing the story and characters – no finer example being the meeting of Hanna and McCauley for a cup of coffee in the famous diner scene – it’s like a great novel and Mann paces the whole thing to perfection with a team of 4 editors including the great William Goldenberg (going on after this to the likes of Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty).
There’s also the score by Elliot Goldenthal, a pulsing, techno-marvel that includes tracks by artists like Moby and that drives the narrative forward, never more so in the incredible calm before the storm bank robbery sequence – listen to the fantastic repetitive tones in the set-up when McCauley and his gang are stealing the money and then the brilliant use of silence before the epic sound of gunfire that ensues when the team try to make their escape.
I was lucky enough to discover when watching the DVD of HEAT, that the second disc of extras contained some of the best behind-the-scenes shorts that I’ve seen on a par with the 90 minute one on The Social Network. Made in 2005 to celebrate the movie’s 10 year anniversary, the documentaries total around an hour of interviews with Mann and the majority of the cast and crew, giving you a truly illuminating insight into how the film was made. Riveting stuff if you can get your hands on a copy.
“I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me.” says De Niro’s McCauley, delivering one of Mann’s best lines in surely one of his finest portrayals. HEAT just stops you in your tracks when you watch it and I challenge you to find a more exciting, well acted, well executed and ultimately tragic drama than this – it’s ace.