Michael Mann again, although this time with a film that is far more assured, more confident and even more stylish than Manhunter. Whilst talking about that film I commented that nearly all of Mann’s pre-occupations were present in that film – with Heat everything would be catalysed within one near three hour epic that if there was any justice would have totally re-invented the way films were made, unfortunately whilst it was moderately successful the studios decided that this level of dedication was too unwieldy, even on large scale productions like this. Now it looks like a grand experiment – although one that only Mann himself seems keen to continue.
Experimental? Yes, Heat did things differently from nearly every studio film before. For a start it was shot completely on location – there are no studio bound shots in it – heightening the sense that this was happening in a real city to real people. Massive collaborations with both the Police Department & ex-criminals for research, action sequences where the participants were forced to carry all of the equipment they’d need and learn to scope out banks, all filtered through a cool, clinical eye of a director trying to stamp a mark permanently on the genre. Some of these now seem common place (the research element in particular), but I can’t think of a film of this scale since that has been shot entirely on location. Mann has his first in the bag.
Of course, he needed a selling point – and boy did he get one. DeNiro & Pacino had previously never shared screen time together, sure they’d both been in The Godfather Part II, but because of the way in which their characters had inhabited different time periods they’d never shared the screen together. Heat changed that, although not in the manner we all expected. Mann realised that his selling point could be just that, it didn’t matter how they met, just that they met. Other directors would have them constantly come across each other, a series of acting duels from different sides of the coin (they both share the same character, or at least mirrors of the same character). Mann dials the film down from its frantic pace to a simple scene in a coffee shop – the two screen greats of the seventies reduced to staring at each other across a table. It’s a master class in understated acting (and the two last truly great performances either would give), no histrionics or grandstanding, just a simple conversation about what will happen should they ever meet again. Watch how DeNiro never takes his eye off the door once during the entire sequence, that their hands never leave the table or move, neither gives anything more than is needed at that very moment. It makes there second meeting all the more emotional, although I’d still argue that come the end the wrong man dies – DeNiro has arguably lost more at that stage anyway, him retreating into the night having killed the one man who possibly understood him may have had a far deeper resonance after the end credits. As it is, the ending feels a little too similar to Bullitt, and perhaps a throwback to older, Hays Code days.
Elsewhere there are career best performances from Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo and Val Kilmer, the latter almost eclipsing DeNiro & Pacino as a hot head second-in-command. If anything the only thing it suffers from slightly is the typical issue with Mann films (Public Enemies exempted), poorly underwritten parts for women, although Ashley Judd makes the most of what could have been a thankless role and possibly delivers the most quietly devastating moment in the film with a single hand motion. In all honesty it’s difficult to say that anyone is working at anything other than their best here, both behind and in front of the camera.
Even without the top notch direction, stunning performances and superb location work Heat would still be remembered for the frankly unmatched bank-robbery sequence at the centre of the film. Over a fifteen minute period (stunningly set to Brian Eno, all ticking clocks and low tech rumbles) Mann sets out the perfect bank robbery going perfectly wrong. Seen on a large screen it was nothing short of astonishing (and deafening), as DeNiro and Co. enter the bank and proceed to rob it only to be interrupted on leaving into a confrontation that explodes into a gun fight. Mann almost becomes the documentarian here, shooting the whole sequence almost as if through the lens of a newsman caught in the middle, eschewing the normal heroics for close shots, and the impact of bullets all around. Reportedly Mann had the cast only able to use the ammo (blank firing) they were capable of carrying and if they ran out of shots by the end of the sequence then it was back to the beginning – the effect shows, the entire sequence unfolds with a sense of urgency and accuracy that raises it above the norm.
Heat was a highpoint in what I still consider one of the best months of cinema in the last twenty years (we saw Seven, Heat & Casino all delivered in the same month), and in all honesty I still consider it probably my favourite film of the nineties. Watching it now it doesn’t seem quite as deep as it did initially, the problems are more apparent to see, but it is a blisteringly good example of the modern crime genre before everyone began to follow the Tarantino mould – unconcerned with its pop culture significance, it’s wider impact on the genre and more concerned with telling an epic tale with solid storytelling and a deep understanding of cinema. Still highly recommended.