Favorite Movies A-Z: Heat

Michael Mann makes interesting movies. The most interesting thing about them is that they’re about different things than a surface inspection might indicate. Collateral is not just about a hitman and his unwilling accomplice, but about making moral choices and what do we owe to our fellow man through our common humanity and fellowship in society. Are we all alone or do we have obligations from living in community? Heat might seem like a crime drama detailing the efforts of the LAPD to bring a crew of armed robbers to justice. And, sure, it is, but that’s not all it is. It’s also an examination of how single-minded obsession can lead to professional success at tremendous personal cost.

In one of their rare screen pairings Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino play a robber and a cop locked in a duel of wits and violence. DeNiro heists, Pacino hunts and each is willing to sacrifice their personal lives to achieve success. Pacino, divorced and remarried is about to lose another marriage to his work and has alienated his daughter (step-daughter?) as well (an early role for Natalie Portman on the heels of her debut in Leon). DeNiro, by contrast, appears to have never had a romantic relationship of any significance; his mantra that is repeated a couple times in the film is to never have anything in his life that he “can’t walk out on in 30 seconds if he feels the heat around the corner”.

The plot is good, the cat-and-mouse as Pacino hunts down DeNiro over a series of heists, both successful and unsuccessful, keeps your attention over the 3 hour plus runtime. The supporting cast is stellar. Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Danny Trejo, William Fichtner, Jon Voight, Dennis Haysbert, Wes Studi; it’s recognizable names and faces and plenty of talent right down the line. All the little B-plots weave nicely back to and with the main plot and it all comes full circle in the end.

Ultimately, DeNiro and Pacino each make a choice between their personal desires and their professional obligations, and it leads one to success and the other to failure. It’s well-crafted balance between the choices they make leading to predictable outcomes and the interference of events beyond their control throwing wrenches into their plans. The two sides of the coin help the plot flow along naturally.

It’s not quite a perfect movie. The face-to-face encounter between Pacino and DeNiro midway through is pleasing for their acting together, but does rather overegg the pudding. I’m not a fan of the omnipresent blue-gray tone (of which Mann is fond) in this case. It just doesn’t fit with LA, particularly with how much of the film takes place in daylight. As well, he could have perhaps sacrificed one of the B-plots in the interest of running time, but these are all just minor quibbles. The movie has a great plot, great writing, and great actors. No surprise then that it all adds up to a marvelous film.

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