(This review is for the LAMB’s Director’s Chair spotlighting Michael Mann, who in my most humble opinion, is the finest director working today)
A semi truck resting beneath a freeway overpass barrels out from its hiding spot, directly toward an unsuspecting armored car that has stopped in the middle of the road for a stolen ambulance. The semi truck rams the armored car and sends it toppling onto its side and skidding into a line of cars at a nearby dealership. Finally, the armored car comes to a stop and as it does the festive blue ribbon that had been displayed above the gleaming automobiles softly falls to the cement. That’s the moment. The ribbon falling ever so softly. People are about to get shot, bearer bonds are about to be stolen and, of course, an armored car just got jacked up, but Michael Mann, writer and director, still pays attention to the tiniest of details, over and over, throughout, the way one seemingly random word can mean all the difference, the way a pair of sunglasses removed translates that someone is not to be trifled with, and turns them into poetry.
None of his contemporaries and few of his predecessors, if I may be so bold, capture the intimate, intricate details quite like Mann, nor shape their stories so not even the slightest indispensable stroke is missing. Is it any wonder then that this sprawling saga of Cops and Robbers focuses on two protagonists who are obsessed with the details?
The Robber is Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) whose attitudes toward female companionship and home furniture are identical (“When I get around to it”). He sees mostly everything, misses much of nothing, and adheres to a rigorous personal code so infamous that the James Franco character in Date Night actually quoted it. He can be gentlemanly, so gentlemanly that in the midst of a robbery he declares “We want to hurt no one” but he can he also be ruthless, so ruthless that only seconds after proclaiming they want to hurt no one he smashes a bank employee’s jaw. The Cop is Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), demonstrative, a bit vulgar, compulsive gum chewer, and passing his third wife Justine (Diane Venora) on the “downslope” of their marriage partly because he says – actually says to his wife – that he needs his angst.
McCauley’s crew is high-tech and tight-knit but admits a fifth man for the armored car take down that does not go down quite right and results in three murders that results in Hanna and his team taking the case. They seem nearly as high-tech and tight-knit and just as obsessive which, of course, yields an epic tug-of-war. In one breathless passage of time about an hour in, the film reverses its tracks three times. As Hanna closes in on his target to make the bust of the century one minor slip-up causes McCauley to pull the plug on a particular heist – leading to the most dramatic face off in cinematic history in which the two men facing off are not in the same room – which reverses when McCauley and crew cleverly unmask the identity of their pursuers which reverses when Hanna tracks down McCauley on the L.A. freeway and asks, gun nestled firmly in hand, in that memorable Pacino-an, “What do ya say I buy ya a cup of coffee?”
From the opening credits revealing the actors’ names the audience knows all along that Cop and Robber must come face to face, not simply because they are Cop and Robber but because they are Pacino and DeNiro, perhaps the two greatest actors of their era (and at the time of the film’s release not recognized as the slumming ex-heavyweight champs they are now), and this is the first time they had ever shared the screen in the same film. Mann sets the scene in an entirely ordinary coffee shop because, as he would explain, there could be nothing to distract from the simple fact these two were squaring off on the cinematic hardwood. And it is spellbinding, both in acting and in writing and in the way the larger message becomes apparent, the fact that these two men are the same and need one another as badly as they need to eliminate one another. But what might most be telling about this unforgettable passage is that while just about any other filmmaker, established or not, Oscar winner or never nominated, would have made it the point, the whole point and nothing but the point, Michael Mann presents it as but one more detail – however monumental – in the narrative. For such two larger-than-life figures at the core, Heat is about so much more than just hard-headed guys on the prowl.
McCauley’s crew includes Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), a gambling junkie, married to Charlene (Ashley Judd), who have a young son, Dominic, who at times, sadly, disturbingly, seems more like a chip on a gaming table than an actual living, breathing human being. Their first scene transitions, jarringly, from lovey-dovey to full-blown argument as Chris breaks household items just to break household items and storms out. But in his next scene with McCauley, functioning as mentor, Chris says, quietly but firmly, in those of those majestic Mann lines that is age-old but so relevant: “For me the sun rises and sets with her, man.” And that’s it. That’s all we need to know. That’s why in the end, after it’s all gone terribly wrong, after he has a chance to make a clean escape, Chris goes after Charlene anyway, which leads to Charlene on a balcony and, in an instant, even after all the shit he’s put her through, waving Chris away. It’s miniscule, barely there, wouldn’t even register to most guys wearing the headphones and watching the dailies and sending interns for lattes, but in Heat this lone wave of the hand, coupled with Judd’s expression and then Kilmer’s expression as he drives away, wrenches your gut like real life.
Michael Churrido (Tom Sizemore) might be the most emblematic at all, the endless ex-con, in and out of prison, who has settled into the most normal life possible under the guidance of McCauley, finding a potential wife with a couple kids he seems to love, putting away money, but upon finding himself with a chance to walk away – in Sizemore’s 30 greatest seconds of screen time ‘ever’, including everything in Saving Private Ryan – declaring instead, “For me, the action is the juice.”
Is the action the juice for McCauley? Well, he does finally get around to female companionship when he hooks up with the polite but incredibly shy Eady (Amy Brenneman) who approaches him at a coffee shop, trying to Meet Cute with him even though, in her own words, “I’m not very good at meeting people.” They make a strange but strangely appealing couple, two kindred spirits in the terrifying realm of lonliness, a fact which will eventually pit McCauley one on one with his personal code.
Even then there are two more characters perhaps generally described as minor who are anything but. Don Breeman (Dennis Haysbert) is another ex-con, out on parole and taking a job as a line cook for a thankless, crooked taskmaster (Bud Cort) whose connection to the rest of the film’s mammoth story seems uncertain but will eventually fall into place. This subplot could have been forced, existing solely out of necessity, but instead in a manner of four scenes becomes a full-fledged, tragic arc that crystallizes Who We Are is What We Will Always Be and comes to a head in a sequence with no music score between Haysbert and DeNiro – “One answer. Right now. Yes or no.” – in which the camera captures a multitude of angles of the two men as it all hangs in the balance. A nothing moment becomes absolutely everything.
And then there is Lauren Gustafson (Natalie Portman), Justine’s teenage daughter, the Alice Munro of Heat, needy and edgy, primarily because she is neglected by her real father, who we never see, as well as neglected by Justine and by Vincent, too, as she sinks further and further into this abyss no one seems to recognize is there until her stepfather sees her sitting all alone on a bus bench in the middle of nowhere, rocking back and forth, and picks her up. The expression on Pacino’s face is only for a second but in that second we realize he is the only one able to recognize what is going and what might be about to happen except, of course, all he has is “what I’m going after” and Lauren is forgotten until it is nearly too late.
Yes, yes, yes, Hanna and McCauley will stalk each other with guns (notice how Mann’s script makes mention of the hotel as being the Airport Marquis – details, details, details), yet I can’t help but feel there is so much more to that climactic moment of the Conqueror taking the Vanquished’s hand as the stately music score swells. He got what he was going after but you hope and pray that what he’s really thinking of is that little girl back at the hospital who might survive but still needs help to live and, thus, that when he lets go of the other guy’s hand maybe, just maybe, he will let go of his angst, too.
Eleven years after Heat Michael Mann made the cinematic version of Miami Vice and in it there is a shot where the Colin Farrell character, a vice detective on the verge of going undercover, and his associates are talking with an informant and as they do, Farrell, briefly, looks out the informant’s condo window at the ocean which is just out there, you know, being the ocean. His eyes narrow as if he’s looking really hard at something and then he turns away. In Heat there is a shot where McCauley, after he has met with his main man (Jon Voight, Method to the max), returns home and goes to the window and the camera focuses, intensely, on the right side of his face before the focus flips and we realize he is staring out at the ocean which is just out there, you know, being the ocean. Essentially it is the same shot in two different films. What’s out there? What do they see? I don’t think we’re meant to know. I think it’s something we can’t see, something we could never hope to see, something we wouldn’t understand if we could see.
I think it’s something only Michael Mann can see.