Heat (1995) Retrospective Review: Mann-made Masterstroke

Director: Michael Mann

Writer: Michael Mann

Stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom SizemorE


Release date: December 15th, 1995

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 170 minutes

1995 cops-and-robbers heist-thriller Heat, along with a handful of other mid-1990s releases including Se7en and Braveheart, helped construct mainstream cinema as we see it today. Nowadays, we roll our eyes whenever a typical heist-thriller graces the big-screen. The 21st Century’s over-saturation of cinema, TV, and contemporary art – from the past and present – has given us an undying sense of fatigue and frustration. Thanks to Heat‘s groundbreaking production, anyone can look at any heist-thriller’s poster, take a deep breath, and predict the entire plot.

Of course, most current action-thriller filmmakers owe Heat an enormous debt of gratitude. From top to bottom, Heat is an invigorating tale of broken promises and senseless desire. Based on former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson and his pursuit of career criminal named McCauley, Mann goes hell-for-leather adapting this haunting and ballsy narrative. Here, LAPD robbery-homicide detective Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is positioned as the City of Angels’ gun-and-ego-toting sheriff. Struggling through his third marriage, with frustrated wife Justine (Diane Venora), Hanna places his work above anything or anyone else. Meanwhile, uber-successful thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew – Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), Trejo (Danny Trejo), and new guy Waingro (Kevin Cage) – set up a dangerous armoured truck heist to steal $1.6 million in bearer bonds belonging to money launderer Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner).

heat1Mann, having developed 1980s TV series’ Miami Vice and Crime Story, made his name in on-screen crime and corruption. Heat, based on his 1989 NBC TV movie LA Takedown, was the Chicagoan filmmaker’s pet project. He, learning from the hits and misses, wanted to create the essential ode to LA, genre, Hollywood, and mainstream entertainment. rollicking through the 80s and 90s, Mann has given such timeless, effervescent classics including The Last of the Mohicans, Manhunter and Thief. The latter, showcasing blue-collar criminals tearing into safes, kicked off Mann’s affection for anti-heroes and vicious bastards.

So, how does this particular filmmaker make us side with safe-crackers, bank-robbers, assassins, and goons? Heat lives up to its namesake – cranked up to 11 throughout its breezy 170-minute running time. This crime-thriller never drags or strays, sticking with its core ingredients up until its confounding final frame. The duel between good and evil, solidified by Pacino’s tough, ‘true’ detective and De Niro smooth criminal, draws a blurred, intricate line. Hanna and McCauley, despite little interaction, make one another fall back in love with their respective endeavours. Hanna, committed unhealthily to the gun and badge, is pushed to the brink by McCauley’s horrifying antics. Unlike his compatriots, Hanna’s gunning-for-blood style provides the balance between brains, brawn, and balls.

De Niro, after discovering Hanna’s reputation, steps up his game to ensure on going success. He, taking out the trash after each mission, becomes a lean, mean brute becoming as much of a perfectionist as Mann himself. Pacino and De Niro, despite sharing only 10 minutes of screen time, click together as two sides of the same coin. The notorious diner sequence, bringing the Godfather Part II actors together for the first time, provides a weighty, poetic exchange between two veterans prepped for the future. The supporting cast – including Jon Voight, Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, and Jeremy Piven – elevate this crime-thriller above similar 90s shoot-em-ups (Bad Boys, The Rock).

heatwideMann, having spent 7 months joining ride-alongs with the LAPD’s robbery and homicide department, pushes himself, his performers, and crew into the blood, sweat and, tears approach to big-budget filmmaking. His immaculate attention to detail, noticeable in each frame throughout his multi-pronged career, is an extraordinary force of nature unafraid of studio expectations. Mann hurled his actors into bizarre situations – having De Niro and co. case a real bank without warning. In fact, Sizemore – to distract some of the staff – began fake negotiations for a loan throughout the experiment. Beyond this, Mann made sure his actors became intimately involved with their characters’ livelihoods – having them converse with actual criminals in Folsom State Prison.

Here, Mann makes a point of fusing masculinity and stakes with LA’s harsh, salty atmosphere. His penchant for sharp, eye-popping visuals shines from the opening frame. His focus on gritty, urban vistas adds to the movie’s nightmarish allure. His affection for street lights, bold colours, and concrete-laden cityscapes defines his auteur-level persistence. Mann utilises diners, nightclubs, and apartment blocks to accentuate the banality of day-to-day existence. For cop and criminal, LA is a disgusting, labyrinthian maze in which only a small handful have a chance of escaping. Hanna and McCauley’s immense knowledge of LA keep them on their toes and ahead of everyone else.

To this day, Heat‘s action sequences are still seen as some of the best in contemporary crime-thriller entertainment. Mann, having developed a style sitting comfortable between Depression-era shootouts and John Woo-inspired chaos, effectively fuses his attention to detail, thrilling pace, and claustrophobic atmosphere. The opening heist sequence broke the mould, testing each actor’s limits and the possibilities of big-budget action cinema. This set-piece was pulled without CGI, flipping a top-heavy truck whilst shooting on location downtown. The banks heist, one of the loudest in recent memory, was similarly overblown and impeccably constructed. Putting the actors through three months of firearm training, this sprawling sequence unleashes its director’s range of well-constructed ticks and tropes.

500fullHeat set Mann on a hit-and-miss path between its muted release and today. In 1999, The Insider roared into cinemas. Earning a collection of Oscar nominations, its arresting political-thriller twang launched Russell Crowe’s name into the A-list. 2001 saw Will Smith earn and Oscar nomination for his searing, rhythmic portrayal of Muhammed Ali. Collateral, released in 2004, paired Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise in a run-all-night action-thriller with several over worldly twists and turns. However, as his affection for digital photography took hold, he delivered several problematic crime-thrillers. Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat – receiving middling critical and commercial returns – put dents in the 70+ filmmaker’s reputation.

Heat, having influenced everything from The Town to The Dark Knight, is a cracking, crafty crime-thriller with one eye on the score. Mann’s signature visuals, attentiveness, and saucy action direction help pull off the incomprehensible – make us root equally for cops and criminals.

One thought on “Heat (1995) Retrospective Review: Mann-made Masterstroke

  1. Have you seen the original TV film that this was based on? ‘L.A. Takedown’ (1989)
    I thought it was just as good,, though a smaller budget made it less showy. It is available on DVD. ‘Heat’ is more or less a scene by scene remake.
    Thanks for following my blog, which is much appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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