What if you took the best moment of Thief and made it into an entire movie? For those who don’t remember the best moment of Thief, or haven’t seen it, the moment is when two people simply talk in the dinner table. It’s a moment when the characters are at the forefront and it’s such a series of moments that makes up Michael Mann’s Heat.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) leads a crew of professional criminals and after a score gone wrong, he has to decide whether to keep the crew together or disband it. On their trail is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) who has his own set of problems, trying to keep together a life that is gradually falling apart.
The film isn’t about the heist at all. In fact, the big heist comes early and while there are a couple of action set-pieces late in the film, most of the film is focused on giving the viewer personal glimpses into the lives of Neil and Vincent. Their work may be the exiting stuff, but what is it they come home to and how does that define them?
The comparison and contrast of cop and robber could be simplistic, but Mann, who also wrote the film, gives their lives complexity and texture, each having key differences and similarities that make them move in different directions but perhaps for the same reason. There’s a voyeuristic quality to the film as it simply drops in on these characters at different moments.
Mann also observes his signature infatuation with cityscapes. Personally, shots of ridged, hard edges and shimmering glass have little allure. However, Mann softens up these vistas with night footage and soft filters that make a cool, yet inviting landscape. It’s still nowhere near as pretty as the rolling hills and mountains he captured in The Last of the Mohicans, but it’s an appealing look.
The atmosphere he creates also reinforces points the film is making about the characters. Both of these men are organized, driven and direct like the layout of the city they call their home. The coolness of the image also reflects the emotional distance both men display. The darkness is also key as there’s and edge and mystery to both these men, a dark, violent side they keep hidden in their personal lives.
Of course, this dark side is a key element of the Mann style as violence is one of the most elevated elements of his films. Heat is caught in an odd middle-ground. It’s not in the jarring, goofy and heavy-handed realm of Manhunter and Miami Vice but it also just every now and then has to slip in a freeze frame or a jump cut. The violence is at its best and most effective when it’s kept simple, an enhancement of the drama, not a stylistic label for the director.
It’s surprising that Heat has the following that it does. It’s a far more dramatic, humanized story than the usual action-heavy heist film and actually went on to redefine the genre (see The Town). It’s almost a soap opera for men, far more focused on the tensions of relationships than on testosterone infused violence. Personally, it’s the kind of film I’m down with and the kind of Mann film I’d like being the rule, not exception, of his work.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing