Heat (1995) dir. Michael Mann (Rated R)
By: Adam Freed
Nearly fifty years ago Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II released to overwhelming critical and audience appeal. Its young star Al Pacino used the 1974 masterpiece in addition to his groundbreaking work in The Godfather (1972) and Serpico (1973) as a springboard into superstardom. In short, Pacino had earned the Hollywood blank check. He could do anything he wanted, accept or reject any of the mountain of offers laid at his feet. The path Pacino followed was a curious one. Other than the masterclass he conjured in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Pacino spent the rest of the 70’s and 80's primarily on Broadway in lieu of chasing box office returns.
By the time Al Pacino had signed on to reprise his role as Michael Corleone in Coppola’s Godfather sequel, there were whispers floating about the magnetism of another young Italian American actor fresh from a scene devouring performance in upstart director Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Robert De Niro became Francis Ford Coppola’s primary choice to play the prequel role of family patriarch Vito Corleone. Lightning struck twice in 1974, just as Pacino had cemented himself as a household name, De Niro’s undeniable talent and charisma forced Pacino to share his spotlight. The irony of their shared stardom is that the only film in which they had coexisted on set, they never shared a single frame on screen. Playing father and son in a non-linear generational story never allowed for their talents to be captured simultaneously. Unlike Pacino, post Godfather Part II, De Niro spent the 1970’s and 80’s establishing himself as the greatest actor in the world. With career defining performances in Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Raging Bull (1980) by the dawn of the Reagan era, there was no longer any debate who sat atop the throne as Hollywood’s greatest living actor.
While the Pacino vs. De Niro “debate” raged, Director Michael Mann was quietly acquiring space within the tiny crime drama community that up until the 1980’s had been left mostly ignored. Mann used small, cult hits Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986) to sharpen his directing blade and create a truly unique visual style. By the time he was presented with his first big budget opportunity, Michael Mann was ready to fly. His groundbreaking film The Last of the Mohicans (1992) proved to the world that no story was too big, and through its star Daniel Day Lewis, no actor too difficult for Mann to maximize their talents. With the gift of hindsight, it should be no surprise to film historians that by the mid 1990’s the triumvirate of Mann, Pacino and De Niro were ready for their inevitable intersection.
Heat (1995) became the serendipitous vehicle of this triple unification. It was Pacino who was first targeted by Michael Mann to play the role of Vincent Hanna, a Los Angeles police detective armed with an obsessive and corrosive personality whose only redeeming quality is his steadfast pursuit of society's worst. Once Pacino signed on, it became clear that Heat, a tale of equal and opposite obsessive pursuits, required an actor to play criminal mastermind Neil McCauley that could match blows with Pacino’s Hanna. Robert De Niro leapt at the opportunity to, at long last, share the screen with his on again off again Hollywood rival. And so, the legend of Heat was born.
In Michael Mann’s gritty yet glittering Los Angeles there are only heroes and villains, cops and crooks. But through his epic vehicle, Mann takes the time to paint his canvas in a way that proves that these dualities are really not all that different from one another. Hanna, despite three failed marriages, is just as lonely in his obsessive pursuits as McCauley, a disciplined bachelor who, until recently, had adhered to a monkish lifestyle, prioritizing only the successful outcomes of his criminal enterprises. In Mann’s Los Angeles the cinematic skyline of city lights outshine the muted stars above. It is in this azure saturated world, adjacent to reality, that the inevitable clash between Hanna and McCauley must occur.
Bolstered by two of the most iconic action set pieces in crime saga history, Michael Mann’s epic still holds the belt after nearly thirty years for creating visceral and engaging urban warfare, so tactile and overwhelming that it is impossible to forget. The militaristic movements of McCauley’s crew, played to perfection by Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Danny Trejo never ask audiences to engage, rather force entry into their minds and hearts as if witnessing a traumatic event. Despite Mann’s obsessive dedication to screen time for the ancillary characters who pull Hanna and McCauley away from their equal and opposite pursuits of one another, Heat still hums. Hollywood is littered with films that have attempted to take bites at the epic apple of Mann’s creation. Fine facsimiles like Inside Man (2006), The Town (2010) and Den of Thieves (2018) have scratched the decades-long itch that Mann placed in the hearts of crime epic fandom, yet never quite satisfy like the original. Perhaps this is because unlike more modern recreations of the mono e mono crime story, there are no winners or losers in Heat. Only those who are relieved of their earthly burdens and those tasked with carrying them forward.
Target Score: 10/10 There has never been, nor shall there ever be a film that engages and perfects the genre the way that Mann's epic does. Blistering performances by Pacino & De Niro elevate engaging source material into a stratosphere of unmatched proportions.