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Twenty-Five Years Later, ‘Heat’ Is Still the Juice

A meeting of two legends, an iconic ode to L.A., and a perfect heist thriller

Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is a moment in Heat that’s been living rent-free in my head for 25 years. It’s not one of the famous ones, of which there are plenty. Think of the opening glimpse of an urban rail train slowly coming into focus through plumes of smoke, its approaching headlights holding the audience in thrall. Or the closing tableau of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna standing victorious (or is he?) over the body of his professional nemesis and spiritual sibling Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), as the city flickers indifferently in the distance.

But the image I’m thinking of comes in the chaos of the brutal mid-film shoot-out between Vincent’s and Neil’s cops-and-robbers crews—a 10-minute set piece that’s like an entire action movie in miniature, exploding all of Heat’s simmering tensions in a hail of semiautomatic gunfire. Acting on a tip from one of their quarry’s disgruntled ex-confederates, Vincent and his LAPD robbery/homicide squad members ambush Neil’s team during a daring daylight bank robbery. As the bullets start flying, Vincent’s partner Bosko (Ted Levine) is hit and falls to the ground. Rushing toward the body, Vincent looks down and we get a shot of Levine lying prone and staring, his green eyes wild and frozen in sightless surprise. Vincent moves on, but a question lingers: How did a man who knew exactly what he was signing up for not see it coming?

Like no other Hollywood filmmaker of his vintage, Michael Mann is entrenched as an existentialist. The life-and-death stakes in his films are partially a by-product of the crime movie genre, with its lethal rituals of violence and reprisal. But in lieu of weightless escapism, the Chicago-born director pursues a sense of gravitas that bypasses melodrama for something more ephemeral. At his best—and a case can be made that Heat is Mann at his best—Mann’s movies feel cosmic. If Mann’s great theme is compulsion to live dangerously, he’s hardly shy about contemplating the consequences.

Mann is serious, but he’s also a show-off. One reason that he’s been so canonized by academics and auteurists alike is that his muscular-yet-mystical storytelling technique—relentless forward momentum punctuated by philosophical pauses—almost always calls attention to itself. Ditto the director’s embrace of digital formats, which he has used not in service of seamless illusion, à la the invisible CGI suturing of David Fincher, but to deconstruct and reimagine the visual syntax of multiplex action movies. Heat was shot on crisp 35 mm film, and it’s a beautiful-looking movie, but its follow-ups have been suspended between clarity and murk; think of the neon rainbows of Collateral, or Miami Vice, with its screen-saver skies. That this aesthetic transition from calculated, classical slickness to a blurry immediacy hasn’t really changed the substance of Mann’s work speaks to the consistency of his world view. Whatever lens he’s looking through, he always sees the same things.

What Mann’s movies perceive most acutely is the dilemma of professionalism—a contradiction dating back to his 1981 feature debut, Thief. There, James Caan’s master safecracker tried to extricate himself from a life of crime despite his genius-level proficiency at its dark arts. Instead of imposing or inviting judgment on a character, Mann emphasized the inherent value of a job well done, and exalted his hero’s refusal to let his gifts be subordinated or exploited by gangsters whose brute-force operations are analogous to corporate capitalism. It’s no coincidence that the two most hateful characters in Heat are William Fichtner’s white-collar money launderer Roger Van Zant and Kevin Gage’s perverse serial killer Waingro, nor that they end up forging an unlikely alliance. Waingro’s explanation for wasting two helpless cops and compromising an otherwise precise heist—a mistake that sets the movie’s plot in motion—is “I had to get it on.” If there’s anything that Mann despises more than cynical expediency, it’s sloppiness.

De Niro’s performance in Heat is a model of composure—the title of the book we see him reading, Stress Fractures in Titanium, encapsulates his unflappability. Pacino is more voluble, operating in the same realm of borderline self-parody as The Devil’s Advocate but yoking his flamboyance smartly to the demands of the role. Whenever Vincent flies off the handle, it’s always shown to be purposeful—as the coping mechanism of a put-upon, possibly coked-up cop. Depending on the situation, Vincent is willing to go by the book or to throw it away. It’s no surprise that critics riding Mann’s wavelength, as well as detractors skeptical of his legend, are equally primed to size up his studies of weirdo, alpha-male ascetics—from FBI profilers (Manhunter), to boxers (Ali), to contract killers (Collateral), to freelance hackers (Blackhat)—as distinct brush strokes in some collective painting of directorial self-portraiture.

The pathos in Mann’s movies—including and especially Heat—comes from the impossibility of reconciling individual excellence with conventional forms of security and fulfillment. This lone-wolf archetype gets effectively doubled in Heat, which was sold as an unprecedented summit of two ranking New Hollywood icons. The coffee date between Neil and Vincent—which, amazingly, was never rehearsed prior to shooting—is exactly as intense and enjoyable as you remember, heightened by Mann’s choice to cut exclusively between over-the-shoulder close-ups, as if the characters were reluctant to share the frame. The point of the scene, of course, is that Vincent and Neil are mirror images of one another, virtuoso workaholics in trades with life-or-death stakes. There’s a comic-book aspect to their rivalry, which may be why Christopher Nolan cribbed so much from Heat in his Batman movies. The difference is that where The Dark Knight strives to give its globally recognized icons a human dimension, Heat makes a couple of guys having a cup of coffee into myth.

Heat’s pulpy grandeur stems not only from Mann’s characteristic formalism: his serene, lyrical establishing shots and his hyperbolic use of color to delineate psychological states. It’s also a testament to his instincts as a city filmmaker. With respect to Pacino and De Niro, if Heat deserved an acting Oscar, it would be for Los Angeles playing itself. Shooting in and around America’s most widely photographed city, Mann insisted on locations that had only rarely (or never) been used before. The result is a movie that evokes an entire history of L.A.-based procedurals without ever replicating them. If it’s possible for a film to feel simultaneously specific and nondescript, Heat’s topography of lonely off-ramps, glowing industrial towers, and rusted metal shipping containers is like wasteland vérité. Even the most chic and luxurious spaces are made strange by Mann’s belief in a steely, unvarnished realism. When Vincent catches his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), cheating on him with a stranger named Ralph (Xander Berkeley), he’s seemingly less aggrieved by her infidelity than that he has to come home to her “ex-husband’s dead-tech, postmodernistic bullshit house” in order to deal with it.

“When do you finally want to buy furniture?” cracks Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) upon waking up broke and hungover on the floor in Neil’s spartan beachfront residence—a question that, like so much of the dialogue in Heat, pops the hood on the sequence’s subtexts about literal and figurative emptiness. “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,” Neil tells his pal, a dictum that apparently extends to couches. (A shot of a gun being placed on a glass table quotes the Canadian painter Alex Colville’s 1967 masterpiece Pacific while indicating the extent of Neil’s material possessions.) The common denominator between Vincent and Neil is their commitment-phobic approach to personal relationships—their need to build themselves escape hatches.

But Chris, who’s played by Kilmer in a wonderfully weird performance that’s almost a parody of broodingly handsome fuck-ups, is defined by his devotion to his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd). Heat surrounds both of its protagonists with figures who serve as liabilities to their respective enterprises—women and children, mostly, with Vincent growing ever more protective of his stepdaughter Lauren (Natalie Portman). Neil, meanwhile, is threatened not only by his emerging romance with Amy Brenneman’s Eady—a newcomer to L.A. who explains on a first date that graphic design is her passion—but also by Charlene through the proxy of Chris. There is a strange, troubling scene where Neil confronts Charlene about her extramarital affair and basically threatens her to stay with her compulsive-gambler husband until he’s completed one last big score or else. Even though we know De Niro is playing an antihero, there’s something unsettling about the character’s willingness to intimidate and instrumentalize the people around him that complicates his romantic self-conception as a lone wolf. It’s one thing to live by an ascetic, samurai-like code of self-preservation; it’s another to try to impose those standards on everybody else.

Heat’s sprawling plot is filled with poetic coincidences, like having Waingro revealed as the serial killer Vincent has been trailing since long before the film begins; when Neil kills Waingro in retribution for screwing up his operation (and selling him out to Van Zant), he’s unknowingly doing his pursuer’s work for him (yet another of the script’s doubling motifs). The structure piles on tragedies, like the subplot about a sympathetic ex-con (Dennis Haysbert) whose recidivism gets him killed out of nowhere. By the time Vincent is rushing Lauren to the hospital after a suicide attempt, the three-hour running time feels more like a compressed minseries—which is actually true enough.

Mann originally wrote the script for Heat in 1979, integrating the experiences and anecdotes of a Chicago-based cop named Chuck Adamson. His 16-year odyssey to get the movie made suggests a deeply personal investment in the material. Mann’s 1989 television movie L.A. Takedown was conceived as a TV pilot for NBC following the success of Miami Vice. If you watch it now, you can see the narrative and thematic outlines of Heat: the Vincent-Neil rivalry, the laserlike focus on police procedure, the loose-cannon Waingro subplot (with the character played by Xander Berkeley), a big shoot-out that brings together all the different plot threads. What’s missing, though—besides a $60 million budget and two gigantic movie stars—is the grandiloquent passion of the movie version.

Nobody who loves Heat can deny that it’s pretentious. It’s very pretentious: For the final showdown between Pacino and De Niro, Mann uses Moby’s meditative, synth-driven “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters,” a title that expressly reflects the director’s metaphysical aspirations. The song competes for space on the soundtrack with the thundering of jets overhead as Neil and Vincent stalk each other one last time on the tarmac at LAX, a backdrop symbolizing departure and freedom—the latter paradoxically achieved by Neil going out on his own terms.

“Brother, you are going down,” Vincent had told Neil earlier in the diner. The greatness of Mann’s ending is that it fulfills the lethal part of Pacino’s prophecy while making us feel everything implied in that biblical word “brother.” Just because we can see the finale coming doesn’t make it any less devastating. The inevitability is part of the shock. The pretentiousness is the point. The action is the juice. The movie is the best.