Michael Mann's 'Heat' is, quite simply, a brilliant film that is spearheaded by two of the best actors of their generation, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It was touted as the first film in which these two acting giants would appear together on screen, and while their scenes together are indeed standout moments, everything else about the film is nearly as terrific, including the work of the tremendous supporting cast.
'Heat' is a crime thriller that tells the story of two groups of people. One is a group of thieves - experts at what they do, consummate professionals - headed by Neil McCauley (De Niro) and including Chris (Val Kilmer) and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd), Michael (Tom Sizermore), Donald (Dennis Haysbert), and Trejo (Danny Trejo). The other is a group of detectives working for the 'Robbery Homicide' police unit headed by Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and including Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson), Detective Casals (Wes Studi), and Bosko (Ted Levine). McCauley's group arrives in Los Angeles to carry out a few heists, and Hanna's group sets out to stop them - that's pretty much the plot, but it barely scratches the surface of what 'Heat' is about.
The film is essentially a character drama that just happens to also be a thriller about cops and robbers. Not only does it delve into the details of how these people go about their work, it touches upon all of their personal lives and examines the nature of their characters and how they interact with each other. While everyone gets some screentime, it's naturally McCauley and Hanna who are at the fore. McCauley lives by a Spartan code that allows him to be evade capture - "Do not allow anything into your life which you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner". He lives alone and claims not to be lonely, but his lifestyle is put to the test when he meets and falls in love with a woman named Eady (Amy Brenneman). Neil subsequently wrestles between his unwavering commitment to his career criminal ethos and his newfound love. Hanna is a man who is equally committed to his career, only he has chosen to attempt - wholly unsuccessfully - to embrace a family lifestyle as well with his third wife Justine (Diane Venora) and her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman). His zeal for his job overshadows his family and the hunt for McCauley causes a serious rift between him and his wife.
The irony of the film is that under different circumstances the two men could have been friends, so similar are they in character, and this is embodied beautifully in the scene in which they first meet. It is evident throughout that the two develop a respect for each other, though each is aware that if put to the test the other will not hesitate to pull the trigger. The characterization and writing are subtle, and the thematic material manages to avoid being heavy handed. Everything is presented with a believable, matter of fact approach. The different characters and their personal storylines interconnect elegantly with the overall story and weave a tight and cohesive narrative. Despite a stylish visual approach, the film is aesthetically grounded in reality. The heists also come across as believable, and even the spectacular shootout sequence outside of a bank, though unrealistic (automatic weapons don't carry THAT many bullets), has an air of reality to it. Unlike Mann's recent 'Miami Vice', however, 'Heat' doesn't take the realism angle too far; there's still a semblance of the cinematic that allows for thrilling set pieces and exciting shootouts filmed without a 'docu-drama' feel. This is a film that still embraces it's 'movie-ness', for lack of a better word.
Then there are the performances, which are as excellent as one would expect given the pedigree of the cast. Pacino and De Niro are front and centre and dominate the screen. Both of them create nuanced and well rounded characters who are intelligent, obsessive and meticulous. De Niro's McCauley presents a stoic, steely exterior but occasionally lets emotions through the chinks in his armour. Pacino's Hanna is more emotional and occasionally acts like a raving maniac, but it's a mania that appears to be controlled (or restrained) by his intellect. The rest of the cast are in supporting roles - no one really stands out because they are pretty much all equally strong. Apart from the cast members already mentioned, there are appearances made by the likes of William Fichtner, Jon Voight, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven, and Kevin Gage; pretty impressive!
'Heat' is obviously a film that made a strong impression on me. I like Mann's films despite their generally stoic, unemotional style (a style employed by Heat as well), and I think most of them are exceptionally well made. Of all of his films that I've seen, though, Heat is the one that resonates with me the most and I reckon it's his masterpiece. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a crime thriller that's worth watching!