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Directed by Michael Mann with Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, 1995, color, 171 minutes

DVD cover of "Heat"

DVD cover of "Heat"

By Carter B. Horsley

One of the greatest "crime" movies of all time, this fast-paced, extremely intense thriller combines sensational acting by Robert de Niro and Al Pacino with great action sequences and very stylish direction by Michael Mann, who also wrote the script and became famous for the "Miami Vice" television series.

The movie basically takes the side of the criminals, led by Neil McCauley, played by de Niro, who matches wits and skills with Detective Vincent Hanna, played by Pacino. While it brims with action and violence, the guts of the film focuses on the professionalism of de Niro and Pacino and how they come to respect one another.

What raises this film way above its genre are the quite marvelous passages in which the camera lingers on de Niro's and Pacino's faces for silent moments of retrospection, reaction, decision-making. Their nuances are terrific and the denouement of the film is extremely moving.

De Niro and Pacino are psychological buddies and kindred spirits, albeit on the wrong side of issues. Both are perfectionists and heroic, and both are men deeply advanced into the mire of their emotional lives and the epitome of their professional careers. The movie presents them coldly but with such underlying passion for the pathos of their lives that while it offers no real catharsis for their predicaments it is strongly uplifting in its presentation of them as humans who achieve a self-efficiency far beyond most mortals, a self-sufficiency created not only through their past sufferings and pain but also their inexorable drive to serve their self-appointed ends.

Both command immense respect and loyalty because of the authority of their minds, a master thief and a master detective, both running in the fast lane. In Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," the lead character played by Tom Hanks manifests extreme courage and determined leadership and in "Heat" de Niro and Pacino, in different sort of war, display extraordinary courage and leadership. It pits equals against one another and both are tragic. It is, of course, an unfair comparison because Spielberg's film deals with a much higher morality and historical events of memorably broad significance. "Heat," however, poses almost more interesting moral dilemmas based on personal, not national, codes of honor and obsession. "Saving Private Ryan" has a much more clear-cut morality, which is not meant to undermine its devastating emotional impact, but "Heat" deals more effectively in a more modern, multifarious morality of individuals seeking personal catharsis rather than grand causes such as saving the world for freedom or democracy.

Indeed, de Niro and Pacino portray individuals who are far from perfect in many ways, and their frailities perhaps make the movie more powerful than it deserves to be. De Niro, for example, is cold-blooded and ruthless however brilliant and alert he is. Pacino, on the other hand, refuses to give up the pursuit, and given the carnage the de Niro and his gang perpetrate he clearly has no choice but to go all out as opposed to the mean-spirited doggedness of Jean Valjean's detective pursuer in "Les Miserables."

Various reviewers have used such adjectives as "riveting," "edgy," eloquent" in their reviews and they are right. This film is so engrossing that one hardly notices that it is almost three hours long. Its scenes switch from terrifying action to poetic reverie and throughout it is adult and very sophisticated and its cinematography is superb.

There are three important female roles, the women of the two leads and of one of McCauley's gang, Chris Shiherlis, played with fine intensity by Val Kilmer. Diane Varone plays the very frustrated third wife of the detective who needs more attention. Ashley Judd plays Shiherlis's wife in a smaller role that requires considerably subtlety that she delivers. Amy Brenneman plays the woman who comes into McCauley's life and discovers that her artistic and emotional life is about to be broken apart. They are all studies in despair, very attractive women who have fallen for the wrong guy and whose lives are in disrepair. Interestingly, they are in different stages of dealing with the harsh realities of their lives. Varone has the most dynamic personality and her future at the end of the film is perhaps the most optimistic. Judd is resigned to her doom, but at the end she is true to her heart. Brenneman is the most confused and is only just making her commitment to her man as the film ends.

All of the main characters save the detective are full of yearning, seeking either the one last great score with which to retire comfortably, or the release from the traumas of living with desperate characters. Pacino's Hanna, alone, seems resigned to his existence and persona, a cop with crimes to solve and criminals to catch, because it is what he does best, just as robbing is what de Niro's McCauley does best.

The movie is famous for a scene that brings together Pacino and de Niro for the first time in a film, a strange cat-and-mouse truce at a luncheonette arranged by Pacino who pulls over de Niro on the highway and invites him for a cup of coffee. It is strangely poignant as these two antagonists size each other up, most visually, and become comrades in the gladiatorial sense, acknowledging that doom will lie in the path of their next confrontation. It is a scene that must have seemed irresistible to the producers and indeed it is fascinating to see such great actors together, each showing powerful restraint and respect without bravura. The film, however, does not need the scene, but is not impaired by it. A worse distraction is the attempted suicide of the detective's daughter as it comes in the middle of the film's climax and is unnecessary, even if it does led to a bittersweet meeting of the detective with his wife that hints that perhaps they will find a "way" to continue.

The movie has too many convenient set-ups, but even so the power of the script and the action and the movie is far too compelling for them to significantly affect the film's impact as it propels forward with startling action.

The film begins with McCauley's gang making a sensational robbery of an armored truck that almost goes smoothly until the newest member of the gang, shoots and kills one of the guards and then the others.

McCauley quickly establishes himself as highly disciplined, unsentimental and very intelligent.

Hanna, on the other hand, is intuitive, manic and is a workaholic who acts on instinct.

McCauley's fence is played with considerable seriousness but not without affection by Jon Voight. He tells McCauley that the bearer bonds his gang has taken from the armored car belong to a Las Vegas entrepreneur who will be reimbursed by his insurance company but will probably also be willing to pay to get them back so he actually benefits from the heist. McCauley agrees to this plan, which in reality he should not as the entrepreneur, Roger Van Sant, played with appropriate swarminess by William Fichter, plans a double-cross that does not work because McCauley is too smart and foils the double-cross and kills Van Sant's men and then tells directly threatens Van Sant on the phone telling him that the money is no longer important. The gang member who screwed up the smoothness of the armored car heist, Wayne Gros, defects to Van Sant's side offering to help protect him from McCauley.

Perhaps because he is slightly frustrated by the failure to get the extra money from Van Sant, McCauley with the help of his fence plan another score, a major bank heist. The detective, however, has gotten on their trail and ordered round-the-clock surveillance of them to surprise them in their next heist. McCauley, however, picks up on the surveillance and one of the movie's great scenes is when the detective and his squad are standing in a large open area near an oil refinery and the detective realizes that they have been "made" by McCauley, who is photographing them from afar. Hanna is amused and his respect for his opponent goes up several notches.

McCauley's gang then robs a bank in downtown Los Angeles and the robbery, which involves millions of dollars in cash, goes well except that Hanna mobilizes his forces and they arrive just as McCauley's gang is leaving. What ensues is a major gun battle in the streets that is frighteningly realistic and very violent.

Shiherlis is seriously wounded and McCauley manages to escape with him and with much of the money. He contacts his fence to change the escape plan and manages to get Shiherlis to a doctor.

The detective realizes that McCauley is changing his escape plan and has only a few hours before he loses him. He lets word out on the street where the defector, Wayne Gros, is holed up in an airport hotel with the hope that McCauley will seek revenge.

Perhaps too neatly and a bit out of character, McCauley, who learns of the defector's location through his fence, goes after him after he kills Van Sant as a piece of business that needed to be attended to.

Shiherlis, meanwhile, decides he wants to see his wife who is staked out by the police and she manages to alert him just in time.

McCauley picks up his woman, Eady, and tells her they are "home free," but then decides he has to take care of one more thing, the defector, and drives to the hotel where he is staying and tells Eady to stay in the car and keep it running.

McCauley then uses his ingenuity to create a diversion for the defector's stake-out squad and finishes the defector off and then calmly leaves the hotel to join Eady when he sees that Hanna is approaching, alerted by the stake-out squad that the hotel is on fire.

McCauley realizes he has no time to join Eady in the car and runs away onto the grounds of the airport with Hanna in pursuit to the ultimate climax of the film.

The staging and filming of all the major sequences is spectacular and the editing surprisingly restrained so that the scenes have much more impact than the popular rat-a-tat-tat cutting of many action films.

While the film will be compared to some to "The Wild Bunch" and, to a much lesser extent, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," it rises way above the crime genre because of the magnetism of the principle actors who are superbly supported by the other major actors, and because the ending is lyrically touching.

"Heat" is thrilling, not so much because of its fantastic action scenes, but because of the adventurous daring of its characters living their lives at the ready, safeties off, for the impestuous moment.

One may think heroically but not be sure how one will really act in a crisis. This movie is full of crises and they are momentous, furious and fast and one does not know what will happen.

De Niro would make a somewhat similar and also excellent though not as great a film, "Ronin," a few years later, in 1998. His career and Pacino's are littered with portrayals of violent men on the edges of accepted society. They are their generation's Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, but they bring even greater depth and complexity to their roles. In "Heat," Pacino has more opportunity to display his emotional range, but de Niro's is no less impressive in the more narrow-minded perseverance of his character. Together they are magnificent theatrical marvels of tremendous energy and presence.

Here, one might say, were two men of dedication and determination….

Here, however, one must add, is a film that despite its wonderful characterizations revels in violence. McCauley, we feel, is only after the money and really doesn't want to hurt anyone, but when caged he is brutal and ruthless and he cannot overcome his desire for revenge.

The film's peculiar quality is that one is rooting for McCauley. Even Hanna is full of respect for him. One admires him as a tactician, a professional. This is not "Bonnie and Clyde" playfulness and foolishness. This is about sophisticated expertise, about doing something well.

The conqueror here, then, is not to be hailed, but forgiven and perhaps pitied, as he is, and perhaps we are, caught up in these mortal coils….

This film is ranked 48th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

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