It’s hard to believe that Michael Mann’s crime epic is twenty years old. I say that it’s hard to believe because it still looks and feels so modern, holding up so well with its pace, characters and plot. Maybe it lies it Mann’s searing realism when it comes to the shootouts and heists, maybe it lies in the characters that populate those conflicts and therefore grab our attention and intrigue. Whichever one it is, the effect of what ‘Heat’ represents and stands as today is still astonishing.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film it chronicles the battle of wills and professions of a police officer and a criminal and concentrates on how they need one another. Without a skilled police officer to track down every amateur criminal, professional thieves like Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) would be irrelevant as everyone would want a piece of the action. But at the same time dedicated enforcers like Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) would be unnecessary without criminals as good as that.
Not only do their professions necessitate one another, they parallel each other. Both men are devoted to their work, their careers are their lives, at the cost of everything else. Hanna’s third marriage is falling apart and McCauley simply cannot commit to anything as a part of his principle despite his own emotions. There is a moment when both are offered the chances to escape, Hanna could spend more time with his family when they need him most and McCauley could run wih the money when he has the chance. But another opportunity comes up in their careers, and neither can walk away.
As well as all the philosophical thoughts behind the film, there’s no denying that this is a great cops and robbers movie from the plot and action alone. I described it as a crime epic earlier and that is most definitely a fitting description. Not only that though, it’s an excellent cat and mouse game as we see McCauley plan his next move and Hanna attempting to guess what it is, luring one another into a trap every now and then as well as dealing with disputes and power struggles within their own teams as well.
Though it may appear to be more of a gimmick to pick DeNiro and Pacino to square off against each other in this ultimate showdown you instantly realise it really isn’t. They are both veterans of so many crime stories (‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Scarface’), both Oscar winners (‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Scent of a Woman’) and have both played that tragic hero (‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The Godfather’) that are reprised here as war weary specialists, acting as a reflection of one another. Their presence is felt and only matched by the other. In no scene is this better shown than perhaps the best scene of the film, in which they meet each other for the first time (but already know everything about the other) and have a cup of coffee together.
As they sit across from one another, they each state exactly what one represents to the other, life or death. They take this short time to question why the other one does what he does. Not only that, but with McCauley planning a big heist very soon, and Hanna fully prepared to intercept him when it happens, they know that they will soon meet again and everything that they talk about here theoretically will be put into practice. But for the moment they merely sit back and drink.
That leads me on to the reason for my phrase ‘perhaps the best scene of the film’. There’s that gun battle, when McCauley and his team exit the bank they have just robbed, only to be confronted by Hanna and his police force. The resulting showdown is bombastic, intimate and intense all at the same time. It’s also frighteningly realistic, due to the rigorous amount of training that the actors went through such as meeting and interviewing real cops and robbers as well as being put through intensive firearms training and Michael Mann going to the trouble of building a replica of the street on a shooting range for them to practice. Then there’s the sound of it, normally films have gunshots and ricochets added in post production in favour of the set recorded audio. ‘Heat’ did the same until Mann heard it and hated it, so he discarded it and used the sound recorded on the set instead. The result is that deafening, uncomforting, gritty sound that places you right there, in the heat of the battle, right in the firing line.Though many people try to emulate this cops and robbers story, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it as well as ‘Heat’ did, mainly because it just feels like the definitive version. It explores both sides of the battle, says everything it needs to about them individually and their relationship. But at the heart of it all are just two people acting as different sides of the same coin.