What’s old has been made fine and new in “Heat.” Writer-director Michael Mann and a superlative cast have taken a classic heist movie rife with familiar genre elements and turned it into a sleek, accomplished piece of work, meticulously controlled and completely involving. The dark end of the street doesn’t get much more inviting than this.
Though Mann is best known for directing “The Last of the Mohicans” and executive producing TV’s “Miami Vice,” moviegoers with a fondness for crime stories will remember “Thief,” his polished 1981 feature debut starring James Caan as a master safecracker and Tuesday Weld as the woman in his life.
With its poetically heightened dialogue and fascination with character and the mechanics of crime, “Heat” is a satisfying new venture into that same territory. No one sees as much epic existential heroism in the romantic fatalism of hard men and the women who try to love them as Mann does. Sometimes he even sees too much, and “Heat” (which at 2 hours and 45 minutes wouldn’t be harmed by a trim) does overreach at times. Yet its narrative pull, as unrelenting as a riptide, creates more than enough tension to compensate.
The story of the battle of wills between master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and LAPD detective Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), “Heat” is an intensely masculine film, bent on mythologizing the lonely, driven men on both sides of the law it shows to be as disciplined and directed as warrior monks.
“Heat” also makes explicit one of the themes implicit in films like these, that criminal and cop, hunted and hunter, have more in common than not. Obsessed and obsessive, dedicated to doing what they do best to the exclusion of anything else in their lives, the cool McCauley and the passionate Hanna are closer to each other than to their nominal partners in and out of crime.
“Heat” opens with one of the film’s beautifully re-created criminal actions. McCauley and his regular crew of Chris (Val Kilmer) and Michael (Tom Sizemore) are joined by a new guy named Waingro (Kevin Gage) in a carefully planned attack on an armored car. Everything doesn’t quite work out as intended, however, and detective Hanna gets to try on a new case for size.
Though Hanna is introduced making love to his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), don’t be fooled. Justine is wife No. 3, and the marriage is not going well. Smart, ferocious and tireless, the detective barely has a life outside of pursuing those who break the law. Afraid that unburdening himself will make him lose his edge, Hanna is unwilling to share any of himself with anyone. “All I am,” he admits, “is what I’m going after.”
That’s a sentiment Neil McCauley wouldn’t have difficulty echoing. An ascetic criminal mastermind who lives in a furnitureless house by the Pacific, McCauley accurately describes his emotional state as “a needle starting at zero going the other way.”
At ease with all forms of violence but unwilling to raise his voice or say an unnecessary word, McCauley lives by the strictest code: “Allow nothing in your life you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat.” Still, for all his caution and savvy, McCauley, with Hanna on his tail, ends up trying for that one last job no movie criminal can resist.
At the core of “Heat’s” success is the strength of its ensemble acting. By paring away nonessentials and clamping down on mannerisms and tricks, Mann has helped his actors both uncover and rediscover the core of their appeal, the innate qualities that made them stars in the first place. There is no one in the film, including Pacino, De Niro, Kilmer, Sizemore and a ravaged-looking Jon Voight, who does not give the kind of restrained yet powerful performance that ranks with the very best work of their careers.
And, surprising for a film that deals with out-sized macho emotions, this concern for acting and characterization carries over into the opposite sex. Mann pays close attention to human moments, to what the script laconically calls “husband and wife stuff,” and the gifted trio of Diane Verona, Ashley Judd and Amy Brenneman have more impact on this film than would ordinarily be the case.
“Heat” does other things equally well. Its use of L.A. locations is excellent (as was the case with Mann’s earlier “Manhunter”) and its violence is for the most part carefully parceled out, potent without causing revulsion. Mann’s dialogue can sound overwrought and self-consciously operatic, but it is more often muscular and to the point.
The notion of criminals as lonely, existential warriors is of course not new (Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai,” starring Alain Delon, did it especially well), but it’s rarely done with as much dexterity and panache as Mann and company have provided.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: several operatic shootouts.
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Al Pacino: Vincent Hanna
Robert De Niro: Neil McCauley
Val Kilmer: Chris Shiherlis
Jon Voight: Nate
Tom Sizemore: Michael Cheritto
Diana Venora: Justine
Amy Brenneman: Eady
Ashley Judd: Charlene
A Forward Pass production, in association with Regency Enterprises, released by Warner Bros. Director Michael Mann. Producers Mann, Art Linson. Executive producers Arnon Milchan, Pieter Jan Brugge. Screenplay Michael Mann. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editor Dov Hoenig, Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg and Tom Rolf. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production design Neil Spisak. Art director Marjorie Stone McShirley. Set decorator Anne H. Ahrens. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.