Neil Macauly (De Niro) is a professional thief who lives by a strict code. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) is a cop who has picked up Neil's trail. Both their worlds are collapsing, but they cannot go against their natures, putting them on a collision course.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. This slick, highly charged crime thriller is creamed with the first ever on-screen pairing of uberthesps De Niro and Pacino (they never shared the screen in Godfather II). A tantalising prospect in itself. That Michael Mann's film is an extraordinarily intelligent, stylish, violent, realistic study of moral decay and human nature in the City Of Angels, makes it doubly important. Heat proves one thing absolute. If you put great actors in a great script with a great visionary director in control, then you get a great movie. It's as simple as that.
Mann, as writer, has concocted a duel. On one side the cop, Vincent Hannah (Pacino), the dogged hunter prone to bursts of unwieldy emotion, possessing a sixth sense at second guessing his prey. His foe, the robber, is Neil McCauley (De Niro), icy cool, rational, brilliant, psychotic head of a gang of heist-kings equipped with automatic weapons and never-say-die obsessions. The battleground is a LA shorn of glamour. This is a moody, expansive cityscape, shot in earthy pastels, a twilight world of twisted morals, crumbling relationships, and dying dreams. Compared to your average studio movie it could be the surface of the moon. The film's sense of environment is peerless.
As Hannah and his crew of besuited cops close in, McCauley and his crew - an impressively edgy Kilmer, and reliable class from Tom Sizemore - plan the big score, taking a downtown bank under the very eyes of police surveillance. What lifts this beyond being yet another crime thriller, is Mann's dedication to creating inner-life for all the characters. The film flits between a maze of credibly defunct relationships: Pacino in an imploding marriage (to Diane Verona), De Niro falling for the quiet Amy Brenneman, Kilmer's volatile marriage to Ashley Judd... these characters have dimension. There is a genuine sense of loss for those who die, and understanding for those who strive.
Mann, who induced mood aplenty with Manhunter and visceral action with Last Of The Mohicans, here amalgamates his fetishes. Heat spills sobriety of feeling before (enhanced by the sleek synthesised score) erupting in moments of nerve jangling action. The bank job, true to form, goes haywire, resulting in a ferocious, thumpingly loud gun battle more Beruit CNN-style.
Pacino and De Niro are shapeshifters extraordinare, and they strike admirably different courses through the film (De Niro's vulnerable mastermind is the winner by a hand) and although they only meet twice in the film, the scenes are crucial and hair-tinglingly charged. And the huge support cast - including a transformed Jon Voight - fill the overabundance of subplots with shape and colour. There is too much going on, for too long, but by the end everything slots neatly into place, and the parting shot carries a cool poignancy that hovers in the mind for days.
Heat packs more into one cop movie than the entire genre output of the last five years. It is a big film with big themes, and if it never quite makes the profundity it so hungrily seeks, it still goes straight to the head of the list of essential viewing. You've rarely had it so good.