One of the more bizarre things to come down the pike – in regards to prestigious awards season films going relatively unnoticed throughout history – has to be the disregard society in general had towards Michael Mann’s crime-drama masterpiece, Heat, when it hit theaters in December 1995. It’s Mann’s finest, most complete crime drama, celebrated for its collaboration between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro who would share the screen for the first time. And yet, it barely recouped its $60 million budget stateside ($67 million, $107 million worldwide), and was an afterthought during awards season. It racked up no awards, was nominated for nine scattered hither and yon (including a “Most Desirable Male” nom for Val Kilmer at the MTV Movie Awards), and it dissipated into the winter fog of 1996.
Who cares? Heat is, and has since been recognized as, one of the greatest crime dramas in recent history. Perhaps going back even further, this intricate tale of obsessive cops and robbers might be the best of its kind. Ever. Much like the film itself, consensual love for Heat was a slow burn (pun alert!). Those early days of indifference are more baffling considering the high regard for this film in 2015, but the decades-long appreciation has since vaulted Mann’s masterpiece into canonical irreverence.
Pacino is Vincent Hanna, a man so dedicated to his police work as a robbery-homicide detective, he has run through two marriages and is amid the collapse of a third with Justine (Diane Venora). De Niro is Neil McCauley, a career criminal, the leader of a crew who execute high-level robberies with surgical precision. Neil knows his life is not conducive to relationships, unlike Vincent, so he avoids attachments aside from his familial crew. He is alone, and he soon realizes he is also lonely. The paths of Vincent and Neil may never have crossed had Neil not brought in Waingro (Kevin Gage), a psychotic outlier who kills a guard in the armored truck robbery which sets the entire film in motion. It is one of a handful of perfect set pieces.
Both Vincent and Neil have their crew, and they are given ample screen time to develop personalities, build rapport with the audience, and add substance and texture to the action. Neil’s surrogate son is Chris (Val Kilmer), a hopeless gambler who burns through cash and is poisoning his marriage to Charlene (Ashley Judd); Michael, played by Tom Sizemore, is closer than a brother. Vincent’s closest compatriots include Mykelti Williamson and Ted Levine (who can never escape his “Buffalo Bill” voice). The cast, like the film, spreads far and wide, and is rich in detail and personality.
The heart of the film involves extravagant cat-and-mouse movement, as Neil plans one final score while Vincent and his team work to stop them. But where Heat differentiates itself from standard crime drama fare is in the details surrounding this core plot. Not every scene works to push plot forward, as characters and their plight take center stage more often than not. Vincent’s marriage is crumbling, his step-daughter (Natalie Portman in an early performance) is showing more and more signs of mental decay, and his investigation into Neil and his crew takes a few tangential storylines. Neil, on the other hand, is breaking his own real rule: he is falling in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman). The way Mann allows the story to glide rather than thrust forward with singularity is what makes the film perpetually watchable.
One of the selling points of the film was the aforementioned showdown between Pacino and De Niro, two veterans of the genre who had never shared the same screen (they both appeared in The Godfather, Part II, but in different historical timelines). Their moment in the diner is, of course, brilliant. It’s simultaneously tense and comfortable, these two storied actors playing off one another with terse dialogue, wry smiles, and lived in performances.
Heat has several great set pieces, some of the best in the action genre, but the denouement is the shootout in the L.A. streets between Vincent, Neil, and their subsequent crews:
What has always caught my attention here is the sound. The bullets echoing among the skyscrapers surrounding these cops and crooks is piercing and intense and almost hypnotizing in its realism. It’s the best scene in a film full of best scenes. It s a ballet of chaos, tightly choreographed to not look tightly choreographed, speaking to Mann’s keen eye for detail amid sprawling action.
But once the shootout has been quelled, there is still a third act where loose ends are tied up and closure is brought about between Vincent and Neil. Mann’s patience with the storytelling, working from his own screenplay, allows Heat a chance to breathe. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is sharp, and he fills the frame with the richness of Los Angeles. Some films are universally lauded as masterworks on release, but many more take time to percolate, to build esteem. Heat has taken its time being recognized as a masterpiece, but here, twenty years down the road, it’s clearly found its place among the canon of crime sagas.