Epic filmmaking is generally considered the province of pictures with panoramic natural vistas and historical storylines. But a picture like Michael Mann's Heat is a stealth epic, framing an urban jungle and making its own kind of contemporary history by pairing acting giants Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in what has arguably become the preminent cops-and-robbers movie. Critics are a notoriously snooty lot, but when a "movie movie" this potent comes along, even the film snobs have to take notice.
As written and directed by Michael Mann (Thief, Manhunter, The Insider), Heat is the apotheosis of a career-long interest in obsessive professionalism (seen in heroic and anti-heroic efficiency experts) and the tension between unruly law and criminal disorder. Pacino plays mercurial LAPD top cop Vincent Hanna, who has mastered the control of a crime scene, though not control of his own home life (with wife Diana Venora and stepdaughter Natalie Portman); he lives for the thrill of the hunt rather than creature comforts (as he says of his job, "I don't know how to do anything else"). Career thief Neil McCauley (DeNiro) demonstrates an opposing drive: the need for the score. Sometimes the need is fiscally practical, but even were it not, it's his "art," and no matter what he may say, going gently into the good night of retirement won't come easy. A loner who avers "I'm alone--but I am not lonely," McCauley also weighs the option of romance—in the person of Amy Brenneman's book-shop clerk and graphic designer—to fill the void at his center.
After a daring daytime heist puts McCauley and Hanna in direct conflict, it doesn't take long for the cat and mouse to form a mutual admiration society even as each determines to trounce the other in the chase. After a few rounds of sizing up each other's handiwork, cop and robber meet face to face, in a coffee shop, at the film's midpoint. It's a dramatic duet for the ages, with each character and each actor pressing the other to up his game. "I do what I do best, I take scores," says McCauley, as DeNiro levels his best "I mean business" stare. "You do what you do best, trying to stop guys like me." Heat finds both actors doing what they do best: stage-trained Pacino sets the scenery afire and screen-bound DeNiro brings his distinctive brand of simmering heat. Subsequent years would find both stars succumbing to excesses brought on by unworthy scripts, but Heat finds them still at the top of their game. Mann makes the pairing extra-special by withholding the audience's desire to see the two share the frame: though the characters' chase will become literal in the genuinely suspenseful climax, only the centerpiece coffee-shop scene finds them exchanging dialogue (and few latter-day Hollywood films have close-ups more charged with intensity than those in Heat). The rest of the picture maintains a rare engrossing (even exciting) formalism in its meticulous parallel narrative.
Despite the pressure of delivering a historic team-up that daren't disappoint, Mann displays supremely confident filmmaking to match his stars' apparently confident performances. The writer-director obviously empathizes with both hero and anti-hero, who do what they have to do and do it well. Thanks to cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann's sleek style has never been more appealing. Tthe use of Los Angeles locations is nearly as fascinating as what happens in them, especially the uniformly tense, top-notch action sequences (whether involving armored cars, a downtown bank job, or a desolate drive-in). Understandably, Mann had his pick of the crop for his supporting cast, all of whom bring their "A" game. Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Dennis Haysbert, and Kevin Gage are credible and, surprisingly, moving as thieves with less discipline than their leader, while Ted Levine, Wes Studi and Mykelti Williamson make fine foils for Hanna. Jon Voight, Tom Noonan, William Fichtner, and Henry Rollins make fine underworld characters; Hank Azaria and Bud Cort pop up as sleazeballs; and Ashley Judd nails the role of a modern moll trying to do right by her man.
Heat may not be terribly deep, but it takes genre filmmaking seriously. Mann turns the neo-noir crime film into a modern western. And if the average Joe can't relate to the sky-high life and death stakes, Heat still gives cause for reflection on the urban tragedies that unfold around us every day, puzzles of risk versus reward. McCauley's mantra—"Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner"—echoes a modern discontent and paranoia of settling for a domesticity that impedes on one's masculine identity as a power player influencing the life of a city. Mann gives tragic shape to at least one of his twin stories and to the characters' perfectly balanced but diammetric opposition. As the man once said, "you have to think like a thief to catch a thief."
Most movie buffs won't blink twice at buying Heat again, given the upgrade offered in picture and sound quality on hi-def Blu-ray. But they may blink once at the top-listed item, under Special Features, on the disc's back cover: "New Content Changes Supervised by Director Michael Mann." As far as I can tell, the difference in run time from the previously available version is less than fifteen seconds. I noticed no obvious difference in content, but I couldn't say what has been subtracted or possibly added back in to arrive at that run time. The hi-def image is marvelous, presenting the film at its very best advantage, in a form that is wholly faithful to Mann's original vision. Detail is excellent, colors are accurately muted, and the film's trademark shadows aren't in the least destructive: Heat has never looked better on home video. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix is also quite fine, likewise shaming previous releases through effective use of subtle ambience and shocking, pounding sound effects.
All of the DVD extras return on the Blu-ray, beginning with a somewhat spotty but nevertheless important and fascinating commentary by writer/producer/director Michael Mann.
The three-part documentary "The Making of Heat" (59:13, SD) does a nice job of telling the story of the film's conception and production, its only conspicuous flaw being the limited comments from notoriously reticent interview subject DeNiro (present only in vintage clips). Interviewed are Mann, former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson, author/Chicago historian Richard Lindberg, former Chicago police officer Dennis Farina, Al Pacino, L.A.P.D. technical advisor Tom Elfmont, L.A. Sheriff's Dept. technical advisor Rey Verdugo, Jon Voight, Robert De Niro (1995), Val Kilmer, author Eddie Bunker, Dennis Haysbert, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, first assistant director Michael Waxman, producer Art Linson, Mykelti Williamson, second unit director Ami Canaan Mann, casting director Bonnie Timmermann, Amy Brenneman, Tom Noonan, executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, director of photography Dante Spinotti, Ashley Judd, technical weapons trainer Andy McNab, Danny Trejo, technical weapons trainer Mick Gould, production designer Neil Spisak, sound mixer Chris Jenkins, composer Elliot Goldenthal, and musician Moby. My favorite bit of behind-the-scenes footage? De Niro conducting training exercises with live ammo.
"Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation" (9:54, SD) hones in on the film's most famous scene with Mann, De Niro (1995), Pacino, Voight, Sizemore, Judd, Spinotti, Brugge, Linson, and film critic James Wolcott.
In "Return to the Scene of the Crime" (12:02, SD), location manager Janice Polley and associate producer Gusmano Cesaretti take us on a tour of the L.A. locations used years earlier in the film.
Also present are eleven "Deleted Scenes" (9:31, SD) and three "Theatrical Trailers" (6:44, SD).
Any self-respecting student of film acting must own Heat, and there's no better way than on Blu-ray.
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