By Carter B. Horsley
One of the greatest "crime" movies
of all time, this fast-paced, extremely intense thriller combines
sensational acting by Robert de Niro and Al Pacino with great
action sequences and very stylish direction by Michael Mann, who
also wrote the script and became famous for the "Miami Vice"
The movie basically takes the side of the criminals,
led by Neil McCauley, played by de Niro, who matches wits and
skills with Detective Vincent Hanna, played by Pacino. While it
brims with action and violence, the guts of the film focuses on
the professionalism of de Niro and Pacino and how they come to
respect one another.
What raises this film way above its genre are
the quite marvelous passages in which the camera lingers on de
Niro's and Pacino's faces for silent moments of retrospection,
reaction, decision-making. Their nuances are terrific and the
denouement of the film is extremely moving.
De Niro and Pacino are psychological buddies
and kindred spirits, albeit on the wrong side of issues. Both
are perfectionists and heroic, and both are men deeply advanced
into the mire of their emotional lives and the epitome of their
professional careers. The movie presents them coldly but with
such underlying passion for the pathos of their lives that while
it offers no real catharsis for their predicaments it is strongly
uplifting in its presentation of them as humans who achieve a
self-efficiency far beyond most mortals, a self-sufficiency created
not only through their past sufferings and pain but also their
inexorable drive to serve their self-appointed ends.
Both command immense respect and loyalty because
of the authority of their minds, a master thief and a master detective,
both running in the fast lane. In Steven Spielberg's "Saving
Private Ryan," the lead character played by Tom Hanks manifests
extreme courage and determined leadership and in "Heat"
de Niro and Pacino, in different sort of war, display extraordinary
courage and leadership. It pits equals against one another and
both are tragic. It is, of course, an unfair comparison because
Spielberg's film deals with a much higher morality and historical
events of memorably broad significance. "Heat," however,
poses almost more interesting moral dilemmas based on personal,
not national, codes of honor and obsession. "Saving Private
Ryan" has a much more clear-cut morality, which is not meant
to undermine its devastating emotional impact, but "Heat"
deals more effectively in a more modern, multifarious morality
of individuals seeking personal catharsis rather than grand causes
such as saving the world for freedom or democracy.
Indeed, de Niro and Pacino portray individuals
who are far from perfect in many ways, and their frailities perhaps
make the movie more powerful than it deserves to be. De Niro,
for example, is cold-blooded and ruthless however brilliant and
alert he is. Pacino, on the other hand, refuses to give up the
pursuit, and given the carnage the de Niro and his gang perpetrate
he clearly has no choice but to go all out as opposed to the mean-spirited
doggedness of Jean Valjean's detective pursuer in "Les Miserables."
Various reviewers have used such adjectives
as "riveting," "edgy," eloquent" in their
reviews and they are right. This film is so engrossing that one
hardly notices that it is almost three hours long. Its scenes
switch from terrifying action to poetic reverie and throughout
it is adult and very sophisticated and its cinematography is superb.
There are three important female roles, the
women of the two leads and of one of McCauley's gang, Chris Shiherlis,
played with fine intensity by Val Kilmer. Diane Varone plays the
very frustrated third wife of the detective who needs more attention.
Ashley Judd plays Shiherlis's wife in a smaller role that requires
considerably subtlety that she delivers. Amy Brenneman plays the
woman who comes into McCauley's life and discovers that her artistic
and emotional life is about to be broken apart. They are all studies
in despair, very attractive women who have fallen for the wrong
guy and whose lives are in disrepair. Interestingly, they are
in different stages of dealing with the harsh realities of their
lives. Varone has the most dynamic personality and her future
at the end of the film is perhaps the most optimistic. Judd is
resigned to her doom, but at the end she is true to her heart.
Brenneman is the most confused and is only just making her commitment
to her man as the film ends.
All of the main characters save the detective
are full of yearning, seeking either the one last great score
with which to retire comfortably, or the release from the traumas
of living with desperate characters. Pacino's Hanna, alone, seems
resigned to his existence and persona, a cop with crimes to solve
and criminals to catch, because it is what he does best, just
as robbing is what de Niro's McCauley does best.
The movie is famous for a scene that brings
together Pacino and de Niro for the first time in a film, a strange
cat-and-mouse truce at a luncheonette arranged by Pacino who pulls
over de Niro on the highway and invites him for a cup of coffee.
It is strangely poignant as these two antagonists size each other
up, most visually, and become comrades in the gladiatorial sense,
acknowledging that doom will lie in the path of their next confrontation.
It is a scene that must have seemed irresistible to the producers
and indeed it is fascinating to see such great actors together,
each showing powerful restraint and respect without bravura. The
film, however, does not need the scene, but is not impaired by
it. A worse distraction is the attempted suicide of the detective's
daughter as it comes in the middle of the film's climax and is
unnecessary, even if it does led to a bittersweet meeting of the
detective with his wife that hints that perhaps they will find
a "way" to continue.
The movie has too many convenient set-ups,
but even so the power of the script and the action and the movie
is far too compelling for them to significantly affect the film's
impact as it propels forward with startling action.
The film begins with McCauley's gang making
a sensational robbery of an armored truck that almost goes smoothly
until the newest member of the gang, shoots and kills one of the
guards and then the others.
McCauley quickly establishes himself as highly
disciplined, unsentimental and very intelligent.
Hanna, on the other hand, is intuitive, manic
and is a workaholic who acts on instinct.
McCauley's fence is played with considerable
seriousness but not without affection by Jon Voight. He tells
McCauley that the bearer bonds his gang has taken from the armored
car belong to a Las Vegas entrepreneur who will be reimbursed
by his insurance company but will probably also be willing to
pay to get them back so he actually benefits from the heist. McCauley
agrees to this plan, which in reality he should not as the entrepreneur,
Roger Van Sant, played with appropriate swarminess by William
Fichter, plans a double-cross that does not work because McCauley
is too smart and foils the double-cross and kills Van Sant's men
and then tells directly threatens Van Sant on the phone telling
him that the money is no longer important. The gang member who
screwed up the smoothness of the armored car heist, Wayne Gros,
defects to Van Sant's side offering to help protect him from McCauley.
Perhaps because he is slightly frustrated by
the failure to get the extra money from Van Sant, McCauley with
the help of his fence plan another score, a major bank heist.
The detective, however, has gotten on their trail and ordered
round-the-clock surveillance of them to surprise them in their
next heist. McCauley, however, picks up on the surveillance and
one of the movie's great scenes is when the detective and his
squad are standing in a large open area near an oil refinery and
the detective realizes that they have been "made" by
McCauley, who is photographing them from afar. Hanna is amused
and his respect for his opponent goes up several notches.
McCauley's gang then robs a bank in downtown
Los Angeles and the robbery, which involves millions of dollars
in cash, goes well except that Hanna mobilizes his forces and
they arrive just as McCauley's gang is leaving. What ensues is
a major gun battle in the streets that is frighteningly realistic
and very violent.
Shiherlis is seriously wounded and McCauley
manages to escape with him and with much of the money. He contacts
his fence to change the escape plan and manages to get Shiherlis
to a doctor.
The detective realizes that McCauley is changing
his escape plan and has only a few hours before he loses him.
He lets word out on the street where the defector, Wayne Gros,
is holed up in an airport hotel with the hope that McCauley will
Perhaps too neatly and a bit out of character,
McCauley, who learns of the defector's location through his fence,
goes after him after he kills Van Sant as a piece of business
that needed to be attended to.
Shiherlis, meanwhile, decides he wants to see
his wife who is staked out by the police and she manages to alert
him just in time.
McCauley picks up his woman, Eady, and tells
her they are "home free," but then decides he has to
take care of one more thing, the defector, and drives to the hotel
where he is staying and tells Eady to stay in the car and keep
McCauley then uses his ingenuity to create
a diversion for the defector's stake-out squad and finishes the
defector off and then calmly leaves the hotel to join Eady when
he sees that Hanna is approaching, alerted by the stake-out squad
that the hotel is on fire.
McCauley realizes he has no time to join Eady
in the car and runs away onto the grounds of the airport with
Hanna in pursuit to the ultimate climax of the film.
The staging and filming of all the major sequences
is spectacular and the editing surprisingly restrained so that
the scenes have much more impact than the popular rat-a-tat-tat
cutting of many action films.
While the film will be compared to some to
"The Wild Bunch" and, to a much lesser extent, "Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," it rises way above the crime
genre because of the magnetism of the principle actors who are
superbly supported by the other major actors, and because the
ending is lyrically touching.
"Heat" is thrilling, not so much
because of its fantastic action scenes, but because of the adventurous
daring of its characters living their lives at the ready, safeties
off, for the impestuous moment.
One may think heroically but not be sure how
one will really act in a crisis. This movie is full of crises
and they are momentous, furious and fast and one does not know
what will happen.
De Niro would make a somewhat similar and also
excellent though not as great a film, "Ronin,"
a few years later, in 1998. His career and Pacino's are littered
with portrayals of violent men on the edges of accepted society.
They are their generation's Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney,
but they bring even greater depth and complexity to their roles.
In "Heat," Pacino has more opportunity to display his
emotional range, but de Niro's is no less impressive in the more
narrow-minded perseverance of his character. Together they are
magnificent theatrical marvels of tremendous energy and presence.
Here, one might say, were two men of dedication
Here, however, one must add, is a film that
despite its wonderful characterizations revels in violence. McCauley,
we feel, is only after the money and really doesn't want to hurt
anyone, but when caged he is brutal and ruthless and he cannot
overcome his desire for revenge.
The film's peculiar quality is that one is
rooting for McCauley. Even Hanna is full of respect for him. One
admires him as a tactician, a professional. This is not "Bonnie
and Clyde" playfulness and foolishness. This is about sophisticated
expertise, about doing something well.
The conqueror here, then, is not to be hailed,
but forgiven and perhaps pitied, as he is, and perhaps we are,
caught up in these mortal coils….