Michael Mann’s sprawling cops and robbers epic “Heat” was recently released in a 10th Anniversary DVD edition. Let’s take another look.
Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) leads an aggressive crew of robbers, including Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Danny. These guys are out for big scores and the film opens with them taking down an armored car in downtown Los Angeles. After they gain access, they search for a specific package and then speed away. Arriving at the scene is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his crew, including Sergeant Drucker (Mykleti Williamson), Detective Casals (Wes Studi) and Bosko (Ted Levine). Looking at the detritus, Hanna quickly surmises that it will be a challenge to take down this crew of robbers. He is up to and seems to relish the challenge. So begins this tale of cops and robbers, good and bad, black and white.
In the penultimate scene, between Pacino and DeNiro, DeNiro talks about two sides of the coin. Essentially, this is the basis of “Heat”. The story follows these two men, and their support crew, as they play a delicate game of cat and mouse. Pacino, as the cop, represents good, or as good as anyone is in the real world. DeNiro represents bad. Most filmmakers would simply end there, and call it done, and we would probably be happy. Michael Mann, who wrote, directed, and co-produced the film, infuses each with subtle shades of gray.
Hanna is on his third marriage. He is so obsessed with catching bad guys that he can’t devote the time required to make his marriages work. In fact, in his current marriage, he seems to care more about his step-daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman, in her second film role, following “Leon”), a confused young lady. He loves the idea of companionship, but his job is more exhilarating to him and he devotes every waking moment to it. His wife, Justine (Diane Venora), has problems of her own and takes medication to combat these. She isn’t prepared to just sit around and wait for the occasional moment of marital bliss.
McCauley is a hardened man and his family is basically his crew. He has taken of the role of father for Chris Shiherlis and helps him through his marital and gambling problems. McCauley states that he doesn’t like to form attachments. Someone once told him that you have to be prepared to walk away at a moments notice, with no remorse. As we look at McCauley’s home, a beautiful modern home overlooking the ocean, we get a sense of this. There is very little in the home. just the basic necessities. This is why Neil is more than a little uncomfortable helping Neil deal with his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd) and their young son. But he does, because he has become a guiding force in Chris’ life.
Again, in the hands of any other filmmaker, this would be more than enough character for any film. Again, as the audience, we would probably leave the theater happy. But Mann creates back stories for each of the members of each crew, creating a vibrant story of the way these two teams work.
Scenes of each crew out at dinner with their loved ones mirror each other. We watch McCauley and his team enjoying dinner, as McCauley looks on, enjoying the thought of family. This leads him to lower his defenses a little, when he meets Eady (Amy Brennerman), a graphic artist who works at his favorite bookstore. He and Eady begin a relationship, which causes McCauley to experience both joy and self-doubt because he is going against all of his philosophies; he is building an attachment. We see Cheritto with his wife and learn later that she takes care of his finances. We see Danny with his wife and learn of their attachment. We see Chris and Charlene trying to act like grownups and live a real life. As they leave the restaurant, Hanna and his crew are watching them and Hanna learns about each member.
Later, Hanna and his crew take their wives out for dancing. During this brief moment of relationship building, Hanna gets a call and races off to a crime scene. Later, he returns to find Justine still at the bar. It becomes apparent that their relationship will end, it’s only a matter of time.
There are many other characters that appear throughout the film, playing different roles in the story. Jon Voight plays Nate, McCauley’s ‘agent’, who helps him find the next big score. William Finchter plays a crooked bond trader, Roger Van Zant. Henry Rollins plays his bodyguard, Hugh Benny. Hank Azaria plays a small time distributor out of Vegas. Kevin Gage plays the pivotal role of Waingro. Dennis Haysbert has a brief, but moving role as an ex-con. In most films, this character would simply appear at the right time and start participating. Early in the film, we have a brief scene setting up his character. Later, another short scene. Finally, his character and Neil have a reunion. This is the type of attention to detail found throughout “Heat”, and the attention to detail that makes the film truly memorable. Every character, no matter how small, has something to do with the story and we learn something about their back-story. This creates an incredibly rich tapestry of good and bad.
I first saw “Heat” at the Village Theater in Westwood. This is my favorite theater because it has a huge screen, great sound and a large auditorium. Going into the film, I knew it was almost three hours long and had a bank robbery/ gun battle scene set in downtown Los Angeles. Watching the film the first time, I will never forget the moment that the music started and DeNiro’s McCauley walks into the bank wearing a gray suit. Actually, 'walks' is the wrong word. He saunters in. His character is cool and collected. He does the planning. He knows he can carry it off. What really adds to this scene is the music. A grandchild of the music created for “Miami Vice”, Mann’s first television series, it brilliantly evokes both the place (Los Angeles), the time (heavily synthesized beat) and the mood (underneath everything is an element of suspense, with a steady music beat).
Watching the film for the first time, I was awestruck by the gun battle. Not because I am a fan of violence. If it plays an integral part of the story, I feel it is necessary. In “Heat”, this scene is very necessary. It drives both teams to the finale. Clearly, it was shot on the streets of LA, with tons of extras and real cars, all of which make it appear very real and life like. Watching this scene at the Village Theater, all of the gunshots ringing throughout in incredible Dolby Digital sound, I felt as though I was actually in the middle. I really felt that this was the climax of the film. In most films, a climax of this sort would have left me feeling very happy. Then, I realized that there was still about 45 minutes of film left. It felt like I received a bonus. How many films can you say that about? That you felt like you were getting more than you deserved.
The many times I have seen this film, this scene never fails to thrill me.
This is not the only great scene in the film. There are so many, including the penultimate scene between the two stars. At this point in the film, Hanna realizes that McCauley is a difficult person to catch. Frustrated with his marriage, he feels that he has to do something that can bring him some closure. He tracks down McCauley and asks him to have some coffee. They meet on opposite sides of the table and talk about the philosophies of their lives and work. This scene is electric for many reasons. First, it is the first time we get to watch Pacino and DeNiro, on camera, together, ever. Second, they are talking about their philosophies of life, revealing what drives them, and ultimately, the climatic moments of the film.
Throughout the film, the action scenes are punctuated with the moments of each characters life. We witness small bits of their lives, getting to know them, making the outcome of all of the action scenes that much more intense. Because we know the characters, good and bad, we care about them more. If someone gets killed, we mourn their loss.
Neither of the leads is portrayed as simply good or bad. Hanna is the ‘hero’ of the film, but his character is flawed. He’s driven, smart and good at his job. But he is a failure at his marriage. He wants to stop McCauley, but he also seems to admire McCauley at times. Pacino is known for his hamfisted dialogue and in “Heat” he doesn’t disappoint. Certain outbursts seem showy (“Give me all ya got!” and, “Because she’s got a great ass!," etc.), but given his character, they seem more acceptable. He is a detective and most of these lines of dialogue happen when he is interrogating people. He is trying to keep the other person off balance. It works. It also keeps the audience off balance. McCauley is the ‘villain’, and his character is certainly dark, but he also has a lot of humanity. Where Pacino’s character is loud and brash, DeNiro’s is quiet and menacing. He cares about each of the people in his team, especially Chris, taking on a parental role in his life. He also yearns, despite his protestations to the contrary, for a relationship. When this appears in his life, in the form of Eady, he becomes even more conflicted.
I can’t listen to a commentary track for long, because it detracts from the images I am watching. When I watched this 10th Anniversary DVD for the first time, I wanted to hear a little of Mann’s commentary. In it, he talks about all of the research he did into these characters. He visited prisons, has a relationship with a well-known detective from Chicago and this detective once hunted an adversary who was named Neil McCauley. It is really fascinating to listen to Mann talk about the film. He clearly put a lot into the making of this film.
In all of Mann’s films, the production quality is top notch. In “Heat”, he and his team filmed at various locations in Los Angeles and Southern California, lending an air of authenticity to the film.
Many of the scenes are shot at night and lend Southern California a beauty that many who live here don’t realize it has. A scene at McCauley’s house overlooking the ocean is permeated with dark blue. Mann talks about how the scene was inspired by a painting. Another scene with McCauley and Eady is played against a clear night sky, the lights of Los Angeles twinkling behind them, giving the setting an ethereal dream quality. Each of the scenes has a look that adds to the underlying tone of the scene. The scene between DeNiro and Pacino takes place in a stark restaurant. A confrontation between Chris and Charlene takes place at their pool, outside, at night.
The action scenes are also top notch. In the first scene, the armored car robbery, a small touch adds to the authenticity. After they place a directional explosive charge on the door of the armored truck, they set it off. The truck has previously overturned into a Car Salesman’s lot. After the explosive is detonated, there is a brief pause and the windows of the surrounding cars blow out. In most films, the windows would blow out simultaneously, as soon as the special effects guys set them off. It seems more real that the impact of the explosion would take a second to cause more damage. In the gun battle, there is a brief shot of an extra, playing a policeman, reaching from behind the car he is using for shelter, to retrieve his gun. It seems like the scene was probably not rehearsed and the extra’s actions seem more like what a real cop would do in the same situation.
“Heat” is one of my favorites, it’s a fantastic, thrilling film.
The 10th Anniversary DVD has some added features that are not available on the previous release. The commentary by Michael Mann during the film is new, and very interesting. On the second disc are a number of well-made mini documentaries about the film. Three of these are tied together to present a more complete picture of the making of the film. They feature interviews with Mann, Pacino, Voight, Judd and other actors, as well as the producers, Mann’s Chicago cop friend and others. Curiously, they have included interview bits with DeNiro from 1995. Either he wasn’t available or didn’t want to be involved. Maybe he was too busy making “Hide and Seek”.
There is a very brief documentary with the location scout and one of the associate producers as they revisit the locations used throughout the film. Interesting and fun to watch.
The most interesting thing is the inclusion of 11 deleted scenes. One of these is a different take of Pacino’s first interrogation at the chop shop. Many of them are very brief snippets that wouldn’t add much to the plot. There are a few that stand out. Two involve Tom Sizemore’s character. The first would have been part of the opening montage, when each member of McCauley’s team is getting the necessary equipment for the armored car holdup. The second shows Cheritto at home with his wife and kids. These scenes aren’t groundbreaking, but they would’ve added to the plot. Another scene is between DeNiro and Voight and would’ve come late in the film. It adds a little dimension to McCauley’s character and the last few minutes of the film.
While playing the second disc, my DVD playing had a little problem with the deleted scenes and the longer Making Of documentary. During the deleted scenes, twice it started playing them in a fragmented way, with no sound. This happened once during the documentary. I solved this by opening and closing the DVD tray. As soon as the DVD was playing again, they played fine.
Despite these few technical errors, which may be due to my DVD player, I highly recommend this film to everyone. There is so much going on, and it all makes sense, that you are sure to be entertained every time you watch the film.