Neil McCauley: “I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me.”
As a teenager I thought Heat was the best thing since sliced bread. It was the most badass film I’d ever seen and every second would fill me with glee. It has been a long time since I’ve seen Heat and when I recently sat down to watch it I felt myself getting frustrated. The issues with the film have become glaring and I can no longer call it the favourite I once thought it was.
Heat tells the story of a close-knit group of bank robbers and the cops trying to hunt them down. At the scene of their latest heist the thieves accidently leave a clue behind which traces back to them. Without enough proof to take down the crew, the film becomes an epic cat and mouse game as the Robert De Niro’s crew of robbers face off against Al Pacino’s group of police officers.
The premise is a time-honoured (and done-to-death) classic. What makes Heat special and sets it apart from the rest is Michael Mann’s casting of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and putting them in scenes together. For decades these two great actors were the best in their field, but despite sharing top-billing in The Godfather Part. II they had never shared the screen. When put together the two don’t disappoint. They may only share 10 minutes in Heat, but watching the 3 hour juggernaut is worth it just for these 2 scenes. The finale is perhaps the most special and the final hand-holding moments will always hold a special place in the heart of cinema.
Where Heat starts to breakdown is in the writing. Michael Mann also wrote the screenplay, which is an adaption of his own work on L.A. Takedown, a telemovie from the 80s. Whilst the overarching story is brilliant, the subplots and character development really put the brakes on an otherwise superbly directed film
My biggest gripe is the melodramatic mistreatment of the supporting characters. De Niro and Pacino dominate screen time, but they aren’t the most interesting characters and it certainly never feels like it is them driving this world. De Niro gets pushed by his crew to work; Pacino is fighting with his family which pushes him to work. The constant pushing of these supporting characters is the force behind the film but they are treated with no respect from Michael Mann.
Mann develops these supporting characters purely through ‘big moments’. They disappear for an hour at time and come back with another big moment. This is most evident with Pacino’s family, who go through cheating, divorce and suicide but only have 3 scenes in the film. It is frustrating because these characters have your interest immediately, especially Amy Brenneman’s lonely girlfriend of De Niro or Venora’s frustrated housewife of Pacino. The film is constantly making the story about the two leads but it should have been making it about the two distinct ‘families’.
There is no denying though that we all adore about Heat is the brilliant, exciting, detailed and surprisingly accurate heists. Mann has never failed to excite me when it comes to shooting action, he knows that less is more and builds his entire movie around the 2 heists. To say any more would be pointless because we know how amazing they are and to put it into words is impossible. They need to be seen to be believed.
Heat is hailed as a classic and is adored by film fans. I don’t want to say this, but I honestly think its status will decline over time. Whilst the action is breathtaking and the acting is outstanding, there isn’t enough meat here to sustain it in the long run. That said I still love this film, but I watch it now for the excitement and not for substance.
4.0 out of 5.0