Director-producer-writer Michael Mann has had a singularly remarkable career. No less so for the body of work that has spanned network television, motion pictures, and cable TV. Beginning when the then film school grad handed the helm to a documentary short of the 1968 Paris riots, Insurrection. That NBC footage no longer exists, as Mann disclosed in 2012, seems a shame given the road he’s tread in the fifty-two years since. One that’s led to a legacy that enthralls his fans to this day.
And one film, 1995’s Heat, may be the key to unlocking the fascination so many of us have with the man’s art.
HEAT part of a set of “annuals” in my household
My most recent revisit of the film marks the time since it became part of my viewing life; after first laying eyes on it at a small beach community cineplex as 1996 crept in. It finally got me off the snide to give this unique feature film an appreciation as it approaches its twenty-fifth anniversary this December. That’s soon to be the same age as my oldest born, which gives me some pause. Shouldn’t surprise I’ve used Michael Mann’s Heat as the inspiration for my blogging.
Not for nothing I’ve examined Mann’s work in the past — his feature film debut with Thief and his later Los Angeles revisit via Collateral. Even his remake of The Last of the Mohicans. The little I’ve done previously for this particular movie relegated to scrutinizing its opening titles sequence a few years back. Not much considering I delved into the meaning of my blog’s title when asked eight years old:
“It’s part of a piece of dialogue from one of my favorite films, Michael Mann’s Heat. It could be thought of as a throw away line by one of its main characters, Neil McCauley (portrayed by Robert De Niro), but it’s the capper. And it comes at a critical juncture of the film, after McCauley’s bank heist goes terribly wrong, and all his crew have been killed or wounded. The full quote goes, “He knew the risks, he didn’t have to be there. It rains… you get wet.” I admire it because it’s a small bit of words that speaks volumes. Hopefully, it’s what I strive to do with the blog, but I know I don’t come close.”
Perhaps, my high regard for it has held me back from expanding on why I’ve enjoyed the film for so long. Had already become an enthusiast for Michael Mann’s work early enough, given I caught his debut as a director with The Jericho Mile1, first-run in 1979 as an ABC TV movie. “God hates a coward”, as my father would say, so here goes.
This post will contend what Mann has done before and after Heat still traces back to this remarkable mid-’90s crime drama. Moreover, its subsequent influence with various motion pictures and filmmakers, the film’s spot-on casting, and use of the city of Los Angeles specifically, have ingrained it into many a psyche. Making it difficult to separate them in any discussion of the director. They and the film form a foundational, and perhaps, crucial juncture in Mann’s career.
At least in my opinion.
It may be cheating to recycle and update an old Amazon customer review I wrote in 2002 of the first barebones DVD sold to moviegoers, but let’s say I’m going more “green” these days. Traditionally, I’ve re-screened the newest copy (be it VHS, DVD or Blu-ray) I had on hand during past Spring seasons. But in the last few years, having attended a few L.A. theater revivals of the film during the Summer2 , and it’s changed when this old friend comes calling.
As I write this post, I even have Heat‘s closing musical piece, Moby’s God Moving Over the Face of the Waters, playing on my turntable. Yeah… I’m obsessing.
Perhaps, Mann’s Best
Writer-Director Michael Mann’s artful crime saga, Heat, is perhaps his best film work. My blogging colleague J.D. surmises The Insider is the “…ideal fusion of his artistic and commercial sensibilities”, and I very much see his point. Just the same, I remain partial to this, even as his other works continue to be reappraised more positively. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to concern myself with niggling facts and real timelines some (critics, too) point out with Mann’s later films3.
Heat‘s inspired, character-driven piece of movie-making mesmerizes through some fantastic lead and ensemble performances, and some stellar action sequences that set the bar from that point forward. To say nothing of Mann’s direction and storytelling that affixed the other prime character of the film, the City of the Angels, to it all. Indeed, I’m placing a thumb upon the scales, fairly or unfairly, for this quintessential ’90s film with regard to the filmmaker’s overall work.
These aspects work extraordinarily in this tale of two “crews” who collide across a cityscape noted for its picturesque sprawl and film noir bona fides. A nonpareil ground for pitting a professional group of criminals led by master thief Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) against LAPD’s elite Metro Robbery/Homicide unit, under the command of Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). Each stalking game on the famed but treacherous terrain.
As all his aficionados well know, the 1995 feature film was Michael Mann’s remake of his reworked television film, L.A. Takedown (1989)4. And while the earlier film follows a similar story-line, with confrontations set here, and remains very watchable, not too critical to say it’s not nearly as unforgettable. Kudos to Mann for realizing what the original lacked in character and merit, and to seize the opportunity to remake it. “Who Dares Wins”, I’d reckon he’d say5.
And it’s what he revamped with a new cast, honing the script’s ensemble and leads for the better, while heightening his craftsmanship, that distilled the subsequent film into a masterwork.
“A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a… a marriage? ” ~ Neil McCauley
In the years since one can plainly see why Michael Mann was drawn to the two main characters. The real-life Chicago police officer and criminal the story was based on6 had the common trait movie fans have seen with the director himself. Both cut from the same cloth; each professional and dedicated to their chosen craft. To the point of fault, as the story evolves and viewers witness. And maybe that’s the open secret to the film’s popularity among its throng of followers.
Pulled to that recognizably rigid male expectation for themselves and others that also makes and breaks relationships. Evidenced by McCauley’s violent reaction to Waingrow’s mistake during the opening scene, which costs lives and attracts the eye of law enforcement. Likewise, Hanna’s reactive swat of SWAT officers when they think they know better than him, and his exasperation when one gives away the surveillance of the next score to Neil by carelessness.
Include Chris and Charlene Sirherlis’ testy relationship in this, too.
It’s that focal point, revolving around their pursuits where nothing gets in their way, that makes the women in their personal lives collateral. Accent on Vincent’s current wife Justine Hanna (the very underrated Diane Venora) and Neil’s soon-to-be enlightened girlfriend. Those who fill the solitary void that comes with all of this. Eady (Amy Brenneman) may well come to terms with Neil’s métier, but it’s the long-suffering Justine voicing her wifely realization that nails both men’s real nature:
“You don’t live with me, you live among the remnants of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey … and then you hunt them down. That’s the only thing you’re committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through.”
Too often Mann has been criticized for his portrayals of women in his projects, yet it’s the opposite sex7 in the film, even though they aren’t front and center, who really cut to the core of the story and their men. Furnishing honest appraisal of such masculine professionalism and disregard they may not want to hear. And without this insight, and these female characters to espouse especially, Heat would just be another conventional crime thriller. Give credit to where its due.
Despite this, that same critical quality makes Hanna and McCauley both sympathetic and vulnerable to those who love and oppose them. Contradictory, given their trade-craft hinges on violence. Each key to the film’s compulsive narrative.
It’s how Vincent recognizes in McCauley’s crew, after its spectacular armored truck robbery, the danger they represent. Given their skill, perhaps operating right-under-their-noses. Who, “At the drop of a hat, these guys will rock ‘n roll.” That tangible predatory sense of those involved made Heat something else; “…a film known here as much for its chess match pairing of Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro as for its use of greater L.A. as the chess board.”, quoting L.A Taco.
Michael Mann uses this faculty to expound on the emotional cost of being that kind of hotshot.
And in this case, the committed cop’s counterpart is growing weary of his trade…and the discipline it requires. “I am alone…I’m not lonely”, Neil concedes to Eady after they meet. The toll his vocation requires of him; something even Vincent will concede, “That’s pretty vacant…” While McCauley is positioned as the moral antithesis for Hanna, matters little when the commitment is to do what they do best. Best exemplified when they come face-to-face.
The on-screen summit for Neil and Vincent, a first for actors De Niro and Pacino8 clearly is the movie’s pivotal dramatic sequence. The wary confrontation over coffee one of the best moments put to celluloid. Not lengthy, but it’s a powerfully quiet scene that resonates throughout the rest of the film. And honestly, in Mann’s filmography, as well. Yes, others have used the irony of characters sharing the same attributes, on different sides of the law, before. But not like this.
The story’s emphasis on their unique competence brought it to another level by weaving the sacrifice of such expertise on its players. One remunerated with those they love in Mann’s updated treatment of the material.
Vincent Hanna: “So you never wanted a regular type life?”
Neil McCauley: “What the fuck is that? Barbeques and ballgames?”
The pair also cognizant of the fact their analog will put the other down, permanently, if need be. So by the time the almost three-hour film reaches the climactic sequence on the outskirts of LAX, with its hint to Peter Yates’ Bullitt airport chase, it’s that understanding of Neil and Vincent that’s on everyone’s mind as it unfolds. Heat‘s expectant, on-the-edge culmination is another of its utterly taut sequences that sear the movie to the viewer’s chest with its depiction.
I daresay, none of the director’s works, before or after, have reached the same profound connection this superb epic had with its viewers.
With equal skill, Michael Mann brings their chase and relationship to a poignantly moving close few expected from an auteur known for his tactically realistic action pieces. Small wonder studios and a number of filmmakers have tried to copy the film over the years, with varying degrees of success9. But as Cinephilia & Beyond made clear in its authoritative re-examination, Heat is a “…Meticulous Masterpiece of Both Style and Substance”, but one that also transcended genre.
Why it remains on top.
Made so with the help of one of the best ensembles ever: the aforementioned leads augmented by Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, and Mykelti Williamson. Plus Last of the Mohican‘s Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, the often overlooked Kim Stauton, William Fichtner, L.A.’s Danny Trejo, Manhunter‘s Tom Noonan, and a young Natalie Portman. Each weighing the conflicts of this distinct time and place set out by Mann’s well-thought-out script.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck.”
Filmed all over my hometown, and in some of the best and bad spots of Los Angeles, with nary a sound stage in sight. Heat makes great use of the locales through Dante Spinotti‘s grand cinematography and Mann’s penchant for memorable imagery. All powered magnificently by a definitive ’90s soundtrack that age has only made better. Incorporating one of my all-time favorite action sequences, the downtown Bank Heist 10, pulsed by Brian Eno’s compelling Force Marker.
It could be said the film is tied tragically to a hauntingly similar real-life bank shootout in L.A. that occurred a couple of years after its release. Such is its legacy, and we Angelenos know full well you can’t make stuff like this up. At 170 minutes in length, it takes a commitment, but the viewer will be well rewarded with drama highly praised for its depth of character and exciting, iconic scenes. This not only one of the best films of 1995 but also one of the best that decade.
Okay, who am I kidding… Heat is Michael Mann’s best.
- I highly recommend reading J.D. Lafrance’s fine review to see why the feature made the impact it did. ↩
- Chronicled the 2016 Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences screening of Heat here, also see John Rieber’s take, and would take it in at the grand Village Theatre in Westwood a year later; both with Michael Mann in attendance. ↩
- Also a big fan of Michael Mann’s director’s cut (165 minute) of Ali that deleted about 5 minutes of footage from the original and added approximately 14 minutes of new material in; still waiting on the release of his second alternative version he did for the film’s television release. ↩
- Also known as L.A. Crimewave and Made in L.A., and originally filmed as an unsuccessful pilot for an NBC television series, it was reworked and aired as a stand-alone TV film. ↩
- And given the former British special forces personnel (Andy McNab and Nick Gould) he’s used to train the cast of Heat and Collateral, the SAS slogan would be appropriate. ↩
- Fictionally retracing Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson tracking down ex-con Neil McCauley in the 1960s. ↩
- Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette character does similarly in Mann’s male-dominated Public Enemies (2009) film. ↩
- Both starred in The Godfather Part II but because they are separated by time and era, up-and-coming mafia chieftain father (De Niro) never shares a scene with his grown son (Pacino) who succeeded him. ↩
- 2010’s Takers and Den of Thieves (2018) being only the most recent barely disguised remakes of Heat, which still don’t measure up. What is best you ask? Easily, it’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). ↩
- A sequence I recall former cop and crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh vocally railed against after the film’s release since he thought its depiction glorified LAPD officers getting shot to hell by criminals. ↩