Applauding the Sadness and Subtle Coherence of Michael Mann’s Heat

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Photo: Warner Bros.

I first saw Michael Mann’s Heat 20 years ago this month. It was opening night, and I had to sit off to the side of the very first row because we hadn’t arrived early enough and the theater — the Village VII, back when it was considered a fancy, state-of-the-art cinema — was packed. This was one of the most anticipated films of 1995, with a perfect storm of elements working in its favor. Mann had shown his action-movie chops and his flair for romance with Last of the Mohicans three years earlier. We ’80s kids knew him, of course, as the Miami Vice guy. Film buffs who’d been paying attention recognized him as the man who made Manhunter and Thief — brilliant thrillers that did poor business but accrued cult followings. There was also the small matter of Heat being the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino would share a screen together. Plus, the movie clocked in at nearly three hours. A major American auteur was clearly swinging for the fences. Attention had to be paid.

As soon as the end credits rolled, it was clear that Heat was a special film, filled with unforgettable sequences: the opening armored-car heist; the infamous coffee-shop face-off between master thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) and LAPD lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino); the climactic bank robbery that ends in a hail of bullets; the ethereal finale, set to Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Water.” And, of course, there were the hallmarks of Mann’s style: moody shots of characters standing against oceans of city lights and twilit skies; an authentic, immersive sense of place; the absorbing, well-researched dialogue.

And yet. And yet. And yet. There were elements in Heat that didn’t seem to fit, that stretched the movie in uncomfortable directions: a subplot about Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-con trying to get straight; a weird, dropped segue suggesting that Waingro (Kevin Gage), a disgraced member of Neil’s crew, might actually be a serial killer; Justine Hanna’s (Diane Venora) many speeches to Vincent about their failing marriage; a seemingly random story thread involving Justine’s young daughter Lauren’s (a 14-year-old Natalie Portman) anxiety attacks. One suspected at times that Mann was trying to weld onto an otherwise-solid crime thriller the expansiveness of a Dickens novel, and that his ambitions had gotten the better of him. I loved Heat the first time I saw it, but there was also a lot of Heat I didn’t quite know what to do with.

That may be one reason why the film, while acclaimed and a decent box-office hit, was more admired than adored. In his mostly positive review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “[A]s Heat progresses, its sensational looks pale beside storytelling weaknesses that expose the more soulless aspects of this cat-and-mouse crime tale … [It] is fundamentally hollow and its characters haven't much to say.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Heat is an ‘epic’ that feels like a stunt … like a grid for a crime thriller that was never filled in.” In another mostly positive review, Dave Kehr of the New York Daily News complained that “the film fills its nearly three hour running time with domestic drama,” and declared, “the sudsiness of the plot ultimately aligns poorly with the film noir framework.”

No surprise, most of these criticisms have faded over the years, as Heat’s supposed problems have revealed themselves to be virtues. This isn’t just a cops-and-robbers story or a standard neo-noir. It’s a movie about men and women, about loneliness and alienation. By pushing at the edges of the genre, by going beyond the thrills and exploring — maybe even indulging in — the emotional lives of his characters, Mann presents a distinct vision of the world, one where connections between people happen on an intuitive level even before they happen on a narrative one. His filmography has always explored such cosmic bonds, from William Peterson’s FBI man and Tom Noonan’s serial killer in Manhunter, to Colin Farrell’s undercover vice cop and Gong Li’s narco financier in Miami Vice. In a profile I wrote about the director earlier this year, I joked that “Unquantifiable Connections could be the alternate title of every Michael Mann movie.” Heat is still his fullest, broadest depiction of that vision to date. It’s a sea of unquantifiable connections.

One way to gauge how much those aforementioned seemingly inorganic elements add to Heat is to look at the film’s earlier iteration, Mann’s own 1989 TV-movie L.A. Takedown. A tight but not-very-good crime flick originally intended as a feature-length pilot for a series, L.A. Takedown is the basic cat-and-mouse drama of Heat distilled to its essence. Mann had written the script in the 1970s, basing it on real-life incidents related to him by veterans of the Chicago police force, and had then trimmed it for TV. But devoid of the later film’s diffuse approach to narrative and its expansive look at the characters’ lives, L.A. Takedown is soulless and uninvolving. (To be fair, it also doesn’t have De Niro and Pacino: Anyone who studies acting should watch the coffee-shop scenes from L.A. Takedown and Heat side by side; the dialogue is practically verbatim, but the way it comes alive with those two actors beautifully demonstrates the intangibles that great performers bring to their parts.) 

Heat’s title is a reference to Neil’s oft-repeated line, learned on a prison yard: “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.” This is also the organizing principle of the movie. Neil keeps his life mostly empty and devoid of any distractions, and Mann’s visual style echoes this dialectic between attachment and alienation. The director favors long lenses whose narrow depth of field makes his subjects pop out from the background. So when Mann shows Neil and Eady (Amy Brenneman) standing on a terrace at night, looking over an illuminated city, we sense that the lonesome career-criminal character has let this woman in somehow — that she’s joined him in his invisible cocoon.

Neil starts to find it increasingly hard to disengage from the world over the course of the film, and De Niro’s performance goes from stoic and terse to almost tender and human. Near the end, when he finally has to leave Eady stranded in a car as he flees the cops on foot, there’s a surprised, haunted look on his face. As promised, he’s walking out on his attachments, but it’s too late. Not only is the heat too close, but Neil has fallen in love. He walks, and this time, it hurts.

Pacino’s veteran cop Vincent has the opposite problem. He doesn’t have Neil’s luxury of living in monklike anonymity; he accrues emotional baggage. His wife is frustrated and ready to leave. Her daughter is troubled, even suicidal — thanks in part to the neglect of the adults in her life. But that doesn’t stop Vincent from immersing himself in the underworld, looking for action and meaning. “All I am is what I'm going after,” as he puts it. And if Neil moves closer to Eady over the course of Heat, Vincent moves farther away from Justine.

There’s an almost comic contrast to the way Mann shoots Vincent’s scenes at work and at home. When he’s out investigating, the camera practically stalks him into chop shops, crime scenes, and nightclubs, whereas at home, it’s all cold, hard angles and Antonioni-esque spaces. Pacino’s performance shifts, too. When he’s talking to informants and suspects, he’s a shouting, raving lunatic. (“Cause she's got A GREAT ASS! And you got your head ALL THE WAY UP IT!”) At home, he’s brooding and bitter, and his delivery slows to a crawl. Mann originally conceived the character of Vincent as a cocaine user, which might account for Pacino’s shouty antics, but we can understand why the drug use was cut; it’s redundant. We already understand that Vincent looks for stimulation on the street to keep himself sharp.

Oddly enough, the character most attached to his personal life is Neil’s partner in crime Chris (Val Kilmer), who has a family to support and is still very much in love with his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd). (“For me, the sun rises and sets with her,” he tells a skeptical Neil.) Perhaps even more ironically, it’s Charlene who saves Chris at the end, by warning him away from the ambush waiting for him. The moment when she does so — one of the most Michael Mann things Michael Mann has ever done — perfectly encapsulates the director’s idiosyncratic style. Charlene stands on a balcony, looking down at Chris, her new flat filled with cops lying in wait to take him down. All she has to do is identify Chris for them. Instead, she gives her husband a little smile and makes a small hand gesture, waving him away. Chris’s face sinks, and Mann cuts to one of the most stomach-churning music cues in all of cinema, a grinding, almost industrial lament that is at once lyrical and terrifying.

The perversity of this moment cannot be understated. Here’s a three-hour crime thriller filled with shoot-outs and bodies dropping left and right, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and its emotional climax might be a close-up of Ashley Judd’s hand gently waving at Val Kilmer. This, too, represents Neil’s dictum about attachments. With this gesture, Charlene essentially saves Chris’s life and also casts him out of hers. To her, both the cops and Chris are the heat; she’s the one effectively walking away. If you’ve been watching Heat solely as a standard-issue cop thriller, this moment will make little sense. If you’ve been watching it as a tale of men and women, and of the way they break into and out of each other’s lives, this moment will ruin you.

When one sees Heat that way, as a film about relationships, other elements suddenly click into place. Neil’s getaway driver, Trejo (Danny Trejo), betrays the crew because some goons Neil crossed earlier had taken his wife hostage: “I can’t feel nothing. My Anna’s gone, she’s gone,” he wails, after Neil finds him lying in a pool of his own blood, his wife dead in another room. Even Waingro’s abandoned serial-killer story line gains a twisted sense of purpose: Paranoid and psychotic, he can only engage with the world through violence. The other men in the film destroy the people they’re with spiritually, whereas Waingro destroys them literally.

But over the years, the moment in Heat that has come to stand out the most for me is an exchange I initially overlooked completely, in one of those subplots that once seemed trivial. It involves ex-con Donald Breedan trying to make an honest living after his release from prison. He’s taken a job in a diner, working for a corrupt manager who’s got him by the balls. After Donald’s first day at work, his wife, Lily (Kim Staunton), comes by to pick him up, and she meets the boss. She then understands her husband’s pain, and shows a patience that humbles him. She asks him if there’s any way he can bear along with this lousy job until she can find him a better one. Don briefly bucks up. “Ain't a hard time been invented that I cannot handle,” he says boastfully. But his mood shifts suddenly, and he quietly asks her, “What you hangin' with me for, Lily?” She replies, “Because I'm proud of you.” To that, he gives a bitter chuckle and asks, almost on the verge of tears, “What the hell are you proud of me for?

It’s the most haunting moment in this film, in part because it’s the most self-reflective any of these men manage to be over the course of its 170-minute running time — yet that moment is echoed in one way or another all through the film and its tangled network of connections and emotions. Heat may have been billed as a cop thriller, but its timelessness rests on its portrait of broken men, the unfathomable patience of the women who love them, and the human wreckage they all leave behind. Twenty years later, it still breaks your heart.