A LOS ANGELES CRIME SAGA.
I remember watching this movie in a theater back in 1995. After about two hours, a woman asked someone sitting close to her, “Do you know how long this movie is?”. He did know, told her and the woman just left. Some people don’t have the stomach for a story that needs time to evolve. In fact, I underestimated the film as well back then, thinking the story didn’t really need three hours. After watching it again now, twenty years later, I have to correct myself – this is a first-rate action-thriller.
A killing that changes everything
In Los Angeles, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his team of robbers hit an armored car and steal $1.6 million in bonds. However, the newest member of the team (Ted Levine) kills one of the guards, which changes everything; the other robbers shoot the remaining guards so as not to leave witnesses. McCauley wanted a “clean” hit and tries to kill this unreliable new team member, but he escapes.
Police detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is on the case and it doesn’t take him long to figure out who are responsible for the hit and the murders. Capturing McCauley and his team, who are very good at what they do, is another thing though.
First attempt: A TV movie
Director Michael Mann wrote this story in 1979 and had hopes of turning it into a movie after making Thief (1981). The first attempt was made for TV, called L.A. Takedown and aired on NBC in 1989; this was after Mann’s success with Miami Vice and NBC’s original hope was to turn the concept into another hit show. That didn’t happen – which is good, because in the mid-90s, Mann had built enough clout as a filmmaker to talk two huge movie stars into playing the leads in a more ambitious big-screen version.
Inspired by a real story (from the 1960s, where detective Chuck Adamson hunted the real-life Neil McCauley), this film highlights the similarities between the cop and the criminal, especially in a very memorable scene where they have coffee in a diner and talk about how they live their lives; we also meet the women they’re involved with, relationships that never have a future. That part of the film is the most difficult to handle because of obvious clichés, but Mann still does it intelligently, depicting a sort of sad inevitability to the proceedings. Many of these emotional scenes are set at night, with a dramatic view of the city and its lights, creating a melancholic tone, aided by Eliot Goldenthal’s discreet music score. The running time is indeed long, but Mann keeps us glued, especially thanks to his explosive, expertly staged action scenes, which are on an operatic level. That goes especially for a long sequence where a bank job leads to a violent shootout with the police in broad daylight in the middle of the city.
The cast is very strong. Much was made of De Niro and Pacino doing a movie together for the first time since The Godfather, Part II (1974) where they never shared a scene. They come close to not doing it here either, but when they do (the scene in the diner, the final showdown between them at an airport with jets roaring over their heads) it’s pure dynamite – and even a bit touching. Watching a young Natalie Portman in a small role as the emotionally frail daughter of Pacino’s wife is also interesting.
Pretentious to some degree, this film still has a hypnotic feeling that the director tried to repeat a few times in movies like Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006), but the results have been less successful. What bored that woman who left the cinema obviously fascinated a lot more people.
Heat 1995-U.S. 172 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Art Linson, Michael Mann. Written and directed by Michael Mann. Cinematography: Dante Spinotti. Music: Elliot Goldenthal. Cast: Al Pacino (Vincent Hanna), Robert De Niro (Neil McCauley), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora… Ashley Judd, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven.
Trivia: Keanu Reeves was allegedly considered for a role.
Last word: “One of the ex-convicts we talked to during the research period described how, no matter how pathological someone doing life in Folsom without the possibility of parole might be, there’s one day every two months at three in the morning when [the lifer] wakes up and says to himself, like a ten- or twelve-year-old boy, ‘How did I fuck my life up this bad? How did I end up like this?’ The point is, everybody has emotions, regrets, expectations. People don’t walk around as a personification of moral conclusions. They walk around with the package of who they are. That’s real. It’s also very dramatic.” (Mann, “Michael Mann – Cinema and Television: Interviews, 1980-2012”)