"The M.O. is that they're good."
With all of the buzz surrounding the recent re-teaming of De Niro and Pacino in 2008's RIGHTEOUS KILL, perhaps it is time to revisit the greatest "clash of the titans" ever committed to film. Michael Mann's 1995 Los Angeles crime saga provides the basis for much of the negative criticism surrounding the aforementioned KILL, and committing only a small amount of your time will quickly show why. Sure the film clocks in at just over three hours, but one only need watch approximately half of that time in order to understand why HEAT sets the standard by which any and all future pairings of these two cinematic giants will be rated. And it is not just the infamous Coffee Shop scene which provides an excuse to love this film; though said scene is certainly well worth waiting for. (More on this scene in a moment.) No, the secret to this film creeps into frame at the very moment that the L.A. metro train glides effortlessly toward the viewer - surrounded by smoke and creaking slowly along - carrying inside a silent, brooding and patient master thief, Neil McCauley (De Niro). And the secret to loving this film is just that... patience.
One would expect a crime drama starring De Niro and Pacino (in their first "real" pairing in film history as most agree that THE GODFATHER PART II does not really count since the two mega stars never actually share the screen) to begin with a bang. And therein lies Mann's genius. Does Mann choose to open this much anticipated cops-n-robbers action flick with a Hollywood style, big box office bonanza of explosions and shrapnel? Nope. Instead Mann eases us into the environment that these two alpha males will inhabit by way of a train ride. The doors slide open and out into the night steps McCauley. There is no evidence of the carnage to come as McCauley appears, only a hint of his expertise as he silently scans his surroundings... searching for a sign of anything out of order.
Fast forward to a bedroom. Morning brings with it the promise of lovemaking, as we are introduced in a vastly different way to the man who will become McCauley's adversary, Detective Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino). Hanna and his wife Justine, (played with seductive aplomb by Diane Venora) are having a moment... one neither wants interrupted. Lucky for everyone involved - characters and viewers alike - no interruption presents itself, and both are allowed to finish. Little do either know that this will be their last such moment together. For on the horizon lie several days of complicated cat and mouse antics, punctuated by the smell of cordite and the sight of death.
And then comes the big bang. With an expertly planned and craftily executed tractor trailer rig into armored car smash-up, McCauley and his crew (portrayed by a world weary Val Kilmer, a still high in real life Tom Sizemore and a gritty faced Danny Trejo) are off to the races. And what follows is the stuff of legend. Only not all of what is presented is legend... much of it is true to life.
HEAT was born out of a 1989 television pilot also penned by Mann, entitled L.A.TAKEDOWN, and most if not all of TAKEDOWN appears in the script for HEAT. (Unfortunately, TAKEDOWN is only available on DVD in Region 2 countries, but is well worth viewing if you can grab a copy.) TAKEDOWN itself was based in part on stories Mann was told by his good friend and Crime Story - Season One collaborator Chuck Adamson. Adamson (along with CRIME STORY's Dennis Farina) worked as a Detective in the Chicago Police Department's Major Crimes Unit in the late 60's, and was responsible for taking down the real life Neil McCauley. In fact, the two actually had a face to face in a local coffee shop... just as DeNiro and Pacino do in HEAT. And the outcome was much the same.
When the fateful scene finally comes... boy is it worth the wait. Having tracked McCauley's scent for several days through cold-blooded murders to successful and aborted heists, Hanna decides to up the ante and confront the man himself. He suggest a cup of Joe and the two sit down for a chat. What transpires is by far the meatiest mano-y-mano ever committed to film. As the two cautiously attempt to relate to one another, they each discover that they share a common principle: They are each unflinchingly committed to one thing and one thing only. For McCauley that one thing is remaining true to his instincts and guarding himself against becoming attached to, as he puts it, "anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the Heat around the corner." For Hanna, that commitment is to tracking the scent of his prey and holding onto his angst, which, according to Hanna, is the thing that "keeps me sharp... on the edge... where I gotta be." And it is within this discussion of their two intersecting lives, punctuated by dark words and veiled threats, that the most observant of viewers will glean a probing glimpse into the psyche of both actors. And Mann knew it when he wrote the dialogue.
De Niro: "It is what it is. Its either that or we better both go do something else, pal."
Pacino: "I don't know how to do anything else."
De Niro: "Neither do I."
Pacino: "I don't much want to either."
De Niro: "Neither do I."
Then both men smile.... barely. Want to know why? Because at this very moment, both men are exposing their true feelings about acting, NOT (as some may think) discussing their character's feelings about their chosen profession. De Niro and Pacino have let their guard down ever so briefly, and shown the world why they are the best of the best.
But HEAT is not all about De Niro and Pacino chewing up the scenery and each other. Costars Kilmer and Sizemore (in their roles as McCauley's right hand men Chris Shirherlis and Michael Cheritto respectively), Jon Voight (as McCauley's wounded and dogged fence Nate), Natalie Portman (as Hanna's tortured step-daughter Lauren Gustafson), Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi and Ted Levine (as Hanna's fellow Detectives in the Robbery Homicide Division Drucker, Casals and Bosko respectively), Ashley Judd (as Shirherlis' caught between love and the right path wife Charlene) and Amy Brenneman (as McCauley's lied to and frail girlfriend Eady) add so much depth to this film that it takes several viewings to fully digest the three course meal that Mann serves up. The interlocking stories of each character's life, filled with despair, pain and - at times - hope, move HEAT from the genre of "yet another cops-n-robbers flick" into the realm of "cinema masterpiece." As for Mann's directing... Mann is THE MAN. Mann's use of light and shadow, along with his bold and signature over-the-shoulder camera angels create a visual canvass that places the viewer squarely in mid '90's Los Angeles. Showing off the seamy underbelly of late night L.A., Mann uses this film to expose locations and scents only hinted at in former films such as TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (Mann would eventually expose more of this environment while producing the television series ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION - a show sadly lacking a DVD release - and while directing the Tom Cruise/Jamie Fox show down film COLLATERAL.) Mann is one of the cinemas most daring and detailed Directors, and this film is a high water mark in his ever expanding career. It is no wonder that fans of both HEAT and TAKEDOWN feel strongly that the former expands and betters the latter by leaps and bounds. And it is no wonder that HEAT gives detractors of RIGHTEOUS KILL a lot to gripe about. HEAT is the once and for all standard by which any and all future pairings of De Niro and Pacino will be rated. And none will match up. None could. Give this film a little patience and you will surely be rewarded. Because it is the slow build that really pays off.
While stalking the crime scene that follows the previously mentioned armored car heist, Hanna offers this observation to describe McCauley's crew:
"The M.O. is that they're good."
It's not just McCauley's crew that are good. They ALL are. And so is this film.