Part-Time Review: Heat (1995)


Heat is Michael Mann’s cat and mouse crime epic pitting a crew of professional thieves headed by Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley against L.A.’s head of homicide and robbery Lt. Vincent Hanna played by Al Pacino. Believe it or not, this is the first time iconic actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have ever shared scenes with another (they were in different timelines in Godfather Part II), a fact that the marketing played up greatly. In its attention to both the thrill and the details of criminal life / detective work - this film makes an incredible entry into a 1995 trilogy of crime films - Heat, Casino, and Se7en. 

Pacino plays Lt. Hanna with intelligence, confidence, and aggressiveness. I love how the film takes time to show Pacino and his team meticulously running down leads, catching breaks, and trying to outsmart the criminals. De Niro plays Neil as a buttoned up criminal mastermind who meticulously plans his scores following a set of principles and he’ll ruthlessly strike down anyone who threatens those principles. When an early hit on an armored car sees one of his crew unnecessarily take out a guard, necessitating all the guards being taken out, Neil doesn’t hesitate to try and take out the new crewmember (with the rest of the crew’s agreement and understanding.) The number one principle, and the reason for the title of the film, comes from a quote from Neil, “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.” 

A great principle for a criminal I’m sure, but also a great sub-text of defense mechanisms for broken characters as well. Unsurprisingly, every major character is tested on this principle in their home life: De Niro, Pacino, and Kilmer are all tested. Are they willing to have relationships that they wouldn’t drop if needed to protect themselves? Are they willing to let a potential major score go if needed to protect themselves? Of course, we learn that it is an impossible way to live your life for both sides of the cat and mouse game. The stress it causes for both sides will inevitably lead to a breakdown and that’s the tenor of the infamous coffee shop sit-down between Pacino and De Niro. 

Look, I’m a sucker for action films that use some kind of principle to like “heat” for the action and the drama – as long as the film brings the action goods as well. Michael Mann brings the goods here and not just in the epic final shootout everyone remembers. First, Mann understands that this is every bit a Goodfellas and The French Connection style crime saga but with a professional crew of bank robbers subbed for mafia and a contemporary setting for the past. In other words, it feels like a grounded version of something like John Woo’s Hard Boiled with L.A. standing in for Hong Kong. Mann’s aesthetic choices all come together perfectly with this story. Mann’s cool blue/silver lens is the definitive look and feel for contemporary L.A. and his choice for a score that’s synth heavy, an occasional electric guitar out of a U2 song, and a rare light jazz sound perfectly complements that grounded feel. Mann’s shooting style for action is wide and clear establishing shots, crisp editing, tactical style beats, and loud sound design.
The style is implemented in an engaging armored car robbery early in the movie, but it’s most notable in the famous downtown L.A. bank shootout. The most famous and influential bank heist shootout of all-time is Michael Mann’s portrayal of a downtown L.A. heist gone wrong. As with all of the jobs headed by Neil, played by Robert De Niro, this bank heist is planned with precision and care. The three main crew members enter a major L.A. bank in grey suits with automatic rifles and quickly take down the three police officers, tying them up with zip ties. They don masks, get everyone on the ground, and get all the necessary keys to take the vault money. Once the vault money is secured in large black bags, they slip off their masks (they disabled the alarm systems the night before) and head out into downtown L.A. where their getaway car awaits. Two men safely in the car when Kilmer’s character notices the police beginning to swarm their position and he opens fire. That’s when you begin to feel the difference in this shootout – the sound of gunfire feels like something you’ve never experienced until you’ve heard it here. 

From here on out De Niro’s crew tries to getaway but the police have the streets cut off and their driver is shot dead. They get out of the car and open fire, making tactical retreats. This entire sequence is just filled with gunfire – taking down cops, messing up pedestrian sidewalks, and blowing holes in cars. The thunderous sound of the gunfire echoes in the downtown canyons unlike anything you’ve ever heard. The sequence is methodical and tactical showing the positioning of both De Niro’s crew and Pacino’s cops in tow. Eventually the group splits up with De Niro dragging an injured Kilmer into a grocery store parking lot where, after another shootout, he is able to escape in a customer’s car. Not so lucky for the third crew member, played by Tom Seizmore. He seems like is getting away when cops begin to swarm him causing him to take a small girl hostage. Pacino flanks him and gets a lethal shot on him as he turns around. A stunning heist and shootout filmed with meticulous care for tactical strategy and innovative sound design. For good reason this shootout has become one of the most admired and copied in cinema.

The last hour or so of the film deals with the domestic fallout of the disrupted bank robbery. In thematic terms, this is when we learn if both characters will follow or break the "heat" principle to their salvation or to their ends. There's tragedy and "victory" on both sides here, which feels about the right way to end this crime epic. When De Niro chooses to take his final revenge instead of grab the flight he knows deep down he is dooming himself, but I think he also knows he is likely saving his girlfriend Eady from inevtiable issues. The chase sequence from the Marriot hotel revenge murder to the airport tarmac is intense, quiet, and a perfect ending to an iconic action film. At the end of the day, the toll that crime takes on the criminal is felt every bit as much as the toll it takes on the ones willing to track them down.