How does it hold up after so much time?
Heat is one of those films that seems to be standing up to the passing of time better than many others. Crime dramas are a dime a dozen, and while there have been many excellent films, this is one that truly shines.
Michael Mann knows how to make a stylish film. I have argued that his recent films are favoring style over substance, but Heat is where he is able to have his cake and eat it, too. Heat shows that complex characters can thrive in a relatively simple story. A crew of career criminals led by Neil (Robert De Niro) is hunted by relentless detective Vincent (Al Pacino). After a botched robbery leaves three armored truck drivers dead, Vincent takes the case and through sheer luck gets on Neil’s tail. As Neil and his team work toward completing one last heist the stakes are incredibly high.
If the story sounds similar that is probably because it is. Not only does every bank robber movie more or less follow this thread, almost every detective drama does, too. The characters in Heat are what sets the film apart. Both Pacino and De Niro are at the top of their games. The film casts them in black and white (or good and evil) and then works to undermine these binaries throughout the entire movie. The differences between criminal and cop alter in interesting ways. Both men are deeply flawed, and the brief interactions the two have at the coffee shop (a now famous scene in cinema) shows a sort of deterministic hell that both operate within. Neither can escape themselves or each other, and it is clear that their paths will ultimate coalesce in a violent confrontation.
Aside from interesting leads, the film boasts excellent performances by the co-stars. Chris (Val Kilmer) is a desperate criminal who gambles away all of his money, much to the ire of his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd). The couple is trapped together, and despite Charlene’s attempts to escape, she seems as doomed as Neil and Vincent to play out the scenario she finds herself in.
The relationships in this film are damaged and work as a manifestation of the stress that comes with being a criminal, or chasing one. Vincent’s wife Justine (Diana Venora) is given some of the best lines concerning this problem. Vincent is not married to her, but to the criminals he hunts. Sure, he does a great job catching the bad guys, but he seems to have no life outside of that. His relentless pursuit of Neil is out of duty, interest, respect, and something that seems similar to being a kindred spirit.
The film also offers a harsh look at the entrapment of the criminal world. Donald (Dennis Haysbert) is trapped in a shit job and if he complains his corrupt boss will say he showed up work drunk to his parole officer. Donald is eventually drawn back into crime, and the film presents this scenario in a way that illuminates the attraction and desperation needed to commit crime.
Aside from excellent characters, Mann also provides excellent action. The now famous bank shootout is one of the most electric action sequences in any movie. No music, very little CGI, no stupid camera cuts, and a strong adherence to realism makes this a lot more intense than any comic book film fight scene—ever. The gunfire is loud, and the chaos that ensues must be seen to be fully appreciated.
The story has a lot of balls in the air, and does a good job keeping them all balanced. The pacing, acting, and just about everything happen without a hitch for the majority of the film.
Michael Mann’s conclusions seem to always be a bit problematic. The foot chase between De Niro and Pacino just doesn’t fit within the rest of the film. It was two men working within their systems against each other—here it is just the two men. What, Pacino wouldn’t have a cop come with him? I get the desire to have these two actors have an individual showdown, but it just doesn’t mesh as well as everything else. What is unfortunate is that the final ten minutes can slightly sour the rest of the experience. Instead of a gripping drama with intense action sequences we end as though the whole thing was just a silly action movie.
I would like to give this movie a perfect score, but that ending just drives me nuts. Heat is one of my favorite movies, and I think everyone should see it. Perhaps the end won’t bug you as much as me. 9.5/10