Image for EMPIRE ESSAY: Heat

A Los Angeles crime saga, "Heat" focuses on the lives of two men on opposite sides of the law - one a detective; the other a thief.


regular cinematographer Dante Spinotti, presents a unique vision of the City Of Angels. Filmed across 65 separate LA locations (and no soundstages), this is an urban milieu almost space-age in Boil it down, its abstract beauty, but hard and long, emotionally desolate, a blank and Heat is canvass against which the simply cops dispossessed act out their chasing robbers desperate dramas. Nothing Yet from this anchors people — all the houses are stunningly angular, magnificent architectural vacuums free of personality.

Against this alien landscape the characters seem startlingly real. A web of very unsentimentalised relationships spans across the movie as the array of characters traverse the spillage of their actions whichever side of the moral divide they inhabit. The stories of 18 characters are woven together (there are hints of most fundamental of crime tenets is built one of recent cinema's most exciting and profound treatises on the genre by one of Hollywood's few modern auteurs: Michael Mann. Taking the skeleton (although this was conveniently hushed up for the cinema release) of his inferior TV movie LA Takedown (1989), Mann manages to encompass layers of character and theme, as well as action and extraordinary cinematic technique, to create a coruscating picture of the causes, consequences and human costs of crime in a fragmented modern world.

As a backdrop Mann, utilising his Altman's Short Cuts here) with sublime intricacy, even as the central thrust, obsessed cop Vincent Hanna (Pacino) tracking crack thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) is played out.

The film gained immediate credence for pairing these two acting colossi for the first time (they didn't share screen time in The Godfather Part II). Ironically, and pertinently, they share little screen time here. Three scenes, in fact, in a near-three hour epic. Yet the famous coffee shop sequence is the foundation for the whole film. On the surface just a superficial conversation — two guys shooting the breeze — it's actually the delicate dance of two disparate souls finding a connection. "It was take 11," recalled Mann at the time. "There were some harmonics and nuances that are almost impossible to describe. The interplay is like two master musicians playing a duet."

The film discovers the most honest relationship in the understanding between the principal foes. They are yin and yang, a mirror image of one another. One based on emotion, all hot-wired reaction and gut instinct. The other is controlled and risk-averse, an individual with his emotions tightly reigned in. With sublime irony, expectations are laid back to front—the cop is the wild cat, adrenaline junkie; the thief the nerveless thinker. Two polar variations on the obsessive 90s' male, and it is through Hanna's understanding of his foe that he will finally snare him.

We are also presented with their respective relationships: Hanna's dysfunctional marriage with Diane Venora's Justine, McCauley's new-found, optimistic affair with Amy Brenneman's Eady. Each will flounder: Hanna's lost to his devotion to the street, McCauley's because his own "heat" philosophy will be cruelly put to the test. Amazingly, Mann also never loses track of the lives of his coterie of supporting players. Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Jon Voight and Natalie Portman are all on peak form. Served by a taut, intelligent script (written by Mann, the original draft going as far back as pre-The Keep in 1983) if, at times, unbelievably articulate.
Heat, though, is not just a moody talkfest. It is an electrifying thriller, suffused with high quality, visceral action, empowered by the director's trademark fusion of music and image.

From the cool, downbeat opening, the tension never lets up for three miraculous hours. The scuppered bank heist that finally sends McCauley into tail-spin is masterful work; Mann co-ordinating (with the able assistance of ex-SAS operative-turned-author Andy MacNabb) a stunningly realistic gun battle through the streets of Downtown, LA, as cops and robbers swap automatic gunfire. Like a ferocious Western, it is chaotic, nasty and fractious; innocents are caught in the crossfire, sheer desperation taking over from standard movie-machismo postures. Indeed, so intricate was the choreography, it took three weeks to shoot.

Michael Mann makes films about men: strong, individualistic men. Yet with Heat, for all the strength on display, the final note is one of human frailty, a need just to connect with another. Set in an outer ring of LAX airport, as jet-planes howl overhead indifferently momentarily illuminating their chase, the opposing forces conclude their duel. But there is no gratification in victory, no triumph. Capturing the essence of Mann's masterpiece, McCauley, his life bleeding out of him, holds out a hand to his killer Hanna, who, of course, takes it.

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Intricate study suggesting that cops and robbers ain't so different after all.