If there's anything Michael Mann savors more than the closeup so tight you can count the pockmarks on a hit man's nose, it's the betrayal so violent you feel like taking a shower after watching it. Martin Scor-sese and Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding, writer/director Mann is Hollywood's real master of street-hardened crime drama. Don't judge him by the softer stuff he produced for the tube--Miami Vice and Crime Story. His ambitious movie epic Heat gets down into the grimy souls of its L.A. cops and crooks--and the lonely hearts of their women--in ways TV can't touch and lesser moviemakers can only dream about.
Fifteen years after eliciting the performance of a lifetime from James Caan in Thief, Mann's astonishing but unsung feature-film debut, the director now has recruited two even more celebrated members of the old Corleone family--Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. On star power alone, Heat would be a must-see for most movie buffs. But Mann's cold sensibility, his refusal to look away from the harshest provisions of the criminal code, is what gives this film its essential character. As the fanatical, half-crazed police lieutenant Vincent Hanna, the overheated Pacino does his best work in years, and De Niro's Neil McCauley, a wary career robber addicted to taking down big scores, could be his most vivid portrayal since Raging Bull. But Mann's the man. He's the one who orchestrates Vincent and Neil's compelling dance of death and the film's wealth of scummy crime-world detail.
Little short on time? Pass on Scorsese's meandering Casino and spend your three hours with some real tough guys.
The McCauley crew qualifies in spades. Like Caan's haunted thief, De Niro's predatory master of larceny is deeply scarred by his years in the joint, and he vows never to go back. Stealing is his art, and in the service of that art he not only reads dense books about metal stress, he lives by the lone wolf's rules. To wit: "Have nothing in your life you can't walk out on in thirty seconds if you spot the heat around the corner." Neil's henchmen fit the bill: His prison-yard protege Chris Shiherlis (former Door and ex-Doc Holliday Val Kilmer) is cold as ice; Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) is unimaginative but reliable; and Nate (a shockingly craggy and dissipated Jon Voight) has the right connections among L.A.'s money launderers. Only Waingro (Kevin Gage), a redneck psychopath as vicious as Mr. Blond from Reservoir Dogs, violates the gang's professionalism. In Heat's opening sequence, a $1.6 million bond heist, Waingro summarily executes three captive cops, setting into motion Mann's complex tale of retribution.
Enter the good lieutenant, working a stick of chewing gum, working over his snitches and obsessing on a crew of robbers just as slick as he is. Like McCauley, Vincent Hanna doesn't have much of a home life--marriage three is falling apart (catch Diane Venora as the frustrated Justine Hanna), and all he's got left is his code, which echoes Neil's: "All I am is what I'm goin' after." From the dives along the river in L.A.'s notorious Junkyard neighborhood to the soulless postmodern bedrooms of Bel Air to a bank vault in Beverly Hills, Hanna and his men pursue McCauley and company, piecing together clues, sometimes getting trumped by the bad guys and jumping into one of the fiercest machine-gun battles ever filmed on city streets.
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As in all Mann movies, the talk is lean and hard, and there are some unforgettable visual gems--a luminescent green oak outlined against a midnight blue sky, a frenzied emergency room in sappy yellow light, the shock of ten windshields blown out at once by an explosion. As always, the Mann body count gets out of hand as the methods of dispatch grow ever more inventive.
But Heat is not junk from the Van Damme or Stallone school of action. Cannily, Mann also shows us the private yearnings of good men and bad--Shiherlis's stormy battles with his streetwise wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd); McCauley's no-games come-on to a graphic artist called Eady (Amy Brenneman), which recalls the Caan-Tuesday Weld matchup in Thief; Hanna's hopeless effort to balance out his domestic life and the rush he gets from the chase. But Mann's protagonists are always trapped by their own codes, like Western gunfighters and the loners in detective movies: They don't make the big score; they never get to Fiji.
In the end, there aren't many moviemakers who would dare sit an obsessive police detective and the equally driven object of his search in the same coffeeshop booth and have them exchange their dream scenarios. But of this weird episode Mann fashions Heat's most powerful scene--a surreal psychodrama that shows exactly what two men on opposite sides of the fence have in common (plenty) as it summarizes the contract held between sworn enemies. De Niro and Pacino, who never shared a scene in Godfather II, elevate this setpiece into the film's epiphany, but you scarcely notice that they're doing it: It's not until later that all the encounter's meanings begin to settle, that the exchange really takes hold.
Meanwhile, Michael Mann has gone about his down-and-dirty business with consummate skill.