How a real life encounter propelled the action in ‘Heat’
Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.
Released Dec. 15, 1995
Directed by Michael Mann
Do kids still play cops and robbers? The variant game of tag commonly employs an equal amount of cops and robbers on each teach, as one group chases another to put them “in jail,” while others attempt to free the captured players. It’s a fun game for kids, and it’s easy to get the concept: Cops chase the robbers, and the robbers work to evade.
While cinema has produced countless films about police and criminals, more often than not, there is a clear focus on one side of the profession. It’s even rarer to see such an equal emphasis on both sides, to the point where it’s easy to confuse which character is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. The balance is a key reason why Michael Mann’s 1995 heist epic “Heat” continues to endure.
The genesis of “Heat” stems from a mix of reality and rewritten fiction. While Mann was working on the “Miami Vice” television series, he was consulting with a former Chicago cop, Chuck Adamson. The retired officer told Mann about one day when he ran into an ex-con and bank robber Neil McCauley on the street. Instead of a confrontation, the two decided to talk over coffee, where Adamson tried to dissuade McCauley from taking down scores. One year later, that same cop shot the robber in the middle of a heist.
Adamson’s story is obviously memorable, and it resonated with Mann. He wrote a fictionalized version of the events into a script that became the television movie “L.A. Takedown.” The film features Scott Plank as Detective Vincent Hanna, partially based on Adamson, while Alex McArthur played bank robber Patrick McLearen. McLearen’s latest heist goes awry when his new crewmember, Waingro (Xander Berkeley), goes rogue, and the incident puts McLearen on Hanna’s radar. If the plot of “L.A. Takeover” is starting to sound a little familiar, that’s because Mann’s television project ended up serving as the test run for “Heat.”
When Mann began preproduction on “Heat” years later, he recruited a significantly upgraded cast for the feature film, including Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. “Heat” became the first onscreen confrontation between the revered actors and Oscar winners, as their only previous film together, “The Godfather Part II,” featured them in different timelines, so they never meet. While their last film set one of the highest standards to follow, the presence and relationship between Pacino and De Niro makes “Heat” one of the definitive movies of both of their careers.
As Hanna, Pacino humanizes and grounds the clichéd “eccentric genius” persona for the gifted and intuitive detective. There’s a lot of mockery in recent years about Pacino’s hammy onscreen persona, and there are elements of that here, but the actor uses it very specifically to build character. Hanna’s disposition becomes wild and unpredictable only when he’s questioning leads crucial to his investigation, at one point turning to an informant, “Ferocious, aren’t I,” clearly pleased with himself after delivering the finest tribute to a woman’s posterior in cinematic history. Otherwise, he’s thoughtful, analytical, empathic, and patient on the job as he connects the dots from case to case. The tragedy of his skills is that he becomes emotionally absent from his personal relationships, as we see him slide into the “downslope of another marriage” to Justine (Diane Venora) throughout the film.
On the other side is De Niro as McCauley, the character finally assuming the name of the person who inspired the story. Cool and methodical, McCauley limits his words, but Mann shows us who he is visually, as McCauley putters around his beachside condo devoid of color and furniture. He is also a well-dressed man, but the grey suit and white shirt is just generic enough to convey his seriousness in a crowd, and not enough to make an impression on anybody. “Alone, not lonely,” McCauley builds his entire life to offer escape at the blink of an eye, but that discipline is threatened when he discovers an attraction to graphic designer Eady (Amy Brenneman).
Hanna and McCauley gradually circle each other throughout the first half of the film, growing ever closer to an encounter when an impatient Hanna approaches McCauley to meet for coffee and talk. It’s one of the iconic and meta film scenes of the 90s, as they talk, playoff each other, and engage with someone they consider an equal. You can relive the scene on YouTube without watching the nearly three-hour movie, but within the context of the film, it’s even better as it gives these people more dimension than what we’ve seen previously. For the first time, they are letting their guard down around each other, despite being adversaries. Hanna and McCauley see the similarities between themselves, as their drive and focus put into professional work has come at the expense of everything else. They are both disasters, except at this one thing at which they are exceptional. Cop and robber take a moment to talk about their dreams and desires. Gone is the blustery show Hanna puts on and becomes soft-spoken and empathetic for McCauley. Likewise, McCauley never raises his voice or points a finger as he does to others because Hanna’s too smart to be intimidated. In another life, these guys would be drinking buddies after cutting out of work.
While the iconic actors became the focus of the film and marketing, “Heat” gives a full view of the world and people around them, with enough notable characters intersecting with each other to fill out the call sheet of a Robert Altman movie. Actors such as Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Hank Azaria, Wes Studi, and Ted Levine play roles both big and small, as all of their worlds are upended by the confrontation between Hanna and McCauley, which comes to a head with a violent bank heist in downtown Los Angeles.
Along with the coffee shop scene, the shootout in L.A. is instantly memorialized as one of the best action sequences of the decade. This encounter of cops and robbers turns deadly as almost all the participants pull out assault rifles against one another while bystanders flee from danger. Mann kept the original audio of the gunfire in the movie, which was significantly louder than the cinematic standards of the time, adding even more realism to the scene. Sadly, it’s harder to watch these moments in 2019 without thinking of the countless mass shootings that have occurred in the United States since the release of “Heat,” so it’s understandable if some audiences choose to bow out.
If “Heat” does have one flaw, I will place blame on the few scenes where the criminals can elude police surveillance briefly to keep the plot moving, but that’s a minor criticism. It may have been Mann’s second at-bat with the story, but thanks to a gifted ensemble cast, his visual aesthetic and scope of ambition help propel “Heat” to a crime epic for the ages. Adults may not play cops and robbers anymore, but they can enjoy it viscerally for three hours.
The Weekend: As the weather grows colder and Christmas shopping season continues, December is one of the most significant months of the box office year for cineplexes, as studios release some of their biggest movies of the year in hopes of scoring a profitable run throughout the season.
A new genre was solidified in 1982, as Walter Hill’s feuding cop action comedy “48 Hours” debuted this weekend. The film paired Nick Nolte with a very young Eddie Murphy, who just started to turn heads on television’s “Saturday Night Live.” The tense chemistry between the leads was a winning formula, and it was clear Hollywood had a massive comedy star in Murphy with his breakthrough performance.
This is a historically significant weekend for Tom Cruise, as several of his most well-regarded films were released at this point. Boosted by a script by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, Cruise faced off against Jack Nicholson in the 1992 modern classic, “A Few Good Men.” A few years later, Cruise collaborated with director Cameron Crowe for the first time for the romantic drama “Jerry Maguire,” debuting this weekend in 1996. Finally, audiences and critics continued to earn respect for one of the best franchises of our time, as Cruise starred in 2011’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” the first live-action film directed by animation auteur Brad Bird.
Several films that would qualify for various fantasy genres also debuted here over the years. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” made a strong case for animation being the best avenue to produce superhero flicks, as the 2018 movie is one of the best in the genre and won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Rian Johnson helmed the divisive “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in 2017, but I believe it’s one of the best Star Wars movies ever made and will continue to win fans over time. Finally, Peter Jackson came off the massive success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy by remaking the Hollywood classic “King Kong” that was twice the length of the original film. I prefer the original, but speaking of hobbits…
Next Week: “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring”
Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on December 12, 2019.