Directed by Michael Mann
Michael Mann based 1995’s “Heat” loosely on the true story of Chicago bank robber Neil McCauley, but on the bones of that lore he fleshed out one of the greatest crime movies of all time. To play McCauley, Mann drafted Robert De Niro, at the height of his glory after “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Opposite De Niro’s McCauley is Lt. Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino, just two years after winning his only Oscar for “Scent of a Woman.” The cat and mouse game that ensues for the nearly 3-hour runtime led to perhaps the most climactic finale since “The Silence of the Lambs,” but the last ten minutes is far from the film’s only draw.
A simple heist of an armored truck was the goal, but unforeseen circumstances lead to McCauley (De Niro) and his team (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo) being in way deeper than they hoped. Now they’re feeling the heat from the LAPD crew (Pacino, Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi) tasked with bringing them down.
Mann managed to pull together a veritable who’s who of mid-90s all-stars to round out his cast. Besides the ones I already listed, the likes of Jon Voigt, Ashley Judd, Hank Azaria, Natalie Portman, Jeremy Piven, and Dennis Haysbert also appear. Some of them wouldn’t see real fame until years later, but many of them were in their prime. De Niro may have been nearest to “Casino” chronologically, but his performance has shades of “Cape Fear” (minus the crazy locks, plus a cool goatee). His performance has to range from suave romantic to careless killer, and De Niro gives one of his best performances to deliver everything the role called for. And blood might be thicker than water, but the thickest is how thick Al Pacino lays it on when he’s angry. That’s what we expect after decades of making overacting his specialty (being brought up in stage acting will do that to an actor). Ted Levine makes the transition to good guy, years after “The Silence of the Lambs” (and that incredibly intense scene I mentioned earlier) and years before “Monk.”
Michael Mann is far from flawless. A few years ago, I called his “Blackhat” the worst film of the year. I stand by that (though, apparently, his Director’s Cut is significantly better). And I think that “Last of the Mohicans” is a pretty standard war movie. So you should trust when I say that going into this, I wasn’t Mann’s biggest fan. But after seeing “Heat,” it’s hard for me to doubt the auteur’s genius. “Heat” is a cops and robbers movie, but it’s so much more. It’s a love story, but not always between romantic partners. It has so many fascinating layers that three hours isn’t enough to contain them all. Mann’s movies always have interesting music, but the experimental soundtrack of “Heat” (which ranges from the Kronos Quartet to synth tunes to Moby) might have been his most daring bet yet, and his biggest success. The score is so different in every part, it should stick out like a sore thumb—but instead, it is so natural. It always feels right in the moment. No amount of words can describe the beautiful crime epic that Michael Mann crafted in 1995 (after over a decade of research), so I’ll stop trying to put it into words.