It’s now 20 years since Michael Mann’s Heat first hit the cinema screens, and many argue that the action crime genre has not been the same since. Mann’s slick urban thriller is visually stunning, daring in its action and with Pacino and De Niro as the two main leads at the zenith of their careers leading an all-star cast, superbly acted.
The film tells of Neil McCauley (De Niro), a career criminal who is relentlessly pursued by an LAPD detective, Vicnent Hanna (Pacino). McCauley’s criminal gang learn of their pursuit by police and plan one more final daring bank heist in order to secure their futures financially. Managing to escape, McCauley plans to flee the country and the criminal life altogether, but cannot resist exacting revenge upon the person who’s snitching led to him being chased by Hanna. The final showdown is of course predictable, but no less dramatic.
Heat was made at a time when Hollywood’s action films set the standard for outlandish visuals. Forget your post-9/11 urbicide, CGIed nonsense of Man of Steel or Transformers or the computer-game inspired landscapes of The Edge of Tomorrow, the 90s was a time when action was real, and entire city blocks were closed down to film war-zone style shoot-ups. Heat embodies such action full-bloodedly. From the opening scene, you are catapulted into an outrageous heist of a security van in transit. And save for the few interspersed scenes of marital angst that constitute a rather flabby and lacklustre second act, the film continues to deliver fast-paced cops and robbers drama. The film’s most outlandish action scene involves McCauley’s group of criminals performing a daylight robbery of a downtown Los Angeles bank, with automatic rifles, balaclavas, sports bags full of cash slung over their shoulders, shooting their way through line after line of policemen and police cars. In scenes that are now commonplace thanks to the Grand Theft Auto games, it was a daring scene not only logistically, but narratively as well.
The film’s stylistic, action aesthetics are the hallmark of Michael Mann’s devotion to an intense visual experience. The film is shot exquisitely throughout, with the city’s grit glistening in the background, something which Mann has perfected (and shows off with even more gusto in Collateral). Mann relates Los Angeles’ (and perhaps American society more generally) obsession with mobility and pace with the main protagonists inability to ‘settle down’. During the course of the film, McCauley is depicted as a loner, his oft quoted motto is “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”. Yet he falls for a girl during the film who agrees to escape with him after the aforementioned bank heist. Yet, he lives up to his words when, in a telling scene he leaves the love of his life in the car, as he flees from the on-rushing Hanna.
But the films’ visuals are matched only by the performances of its two main stars. Pacino is at his ferocious best throughout, and while De Niro is more modest in his approach, does not flinch in the delivery of a cold, calculated criminal mastermind. The two characters are two sides of the same coin. Both have an inability to emotionally attach and extricate themselves from their ‘work’, and while on different sides of the thin blue line, extol similar veracity in trying to outwit each other.
Most action films tend to age badly. Heat if anything has improved with age given that many of the action sequences would not be attempted anymore; and even if they were, would be accused of being too far fetched given the 21st century’s obsession with security and barring access to transportation termini. Heat, while perhaps too long and bloated at times, is an action classic, with Mann utilising all his filmmaking skills admirably. It ranks among one of the finest action films ever made.
Heat is an action classic that defined a genre: 9/10