Gangster Movie Month: "Heat" Review


Gangster Month Review: "Heat"


Rating: R (language, violence)

Length: 170 minutes

Release Date: Dec. 15, 1995

Directed by: Michael Mann

Genre: Crime/Drama/Action


By 1995, when the epic crime drama "Heat" was released, both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino had played cops and robbers many times. They almost instinctively fall into the roles of Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and master thief Neil McCauley (De Niro), with all of their previous experience culminating in a pair of flawless performances. 


Hanna is a hardboiled detective who is practically married to his job, much to the chagrin of his wife Justine (Diane Venora), who is bitter about the state of their union. He is too obsessed with catching McCauley and his well-trained pack of thieves, who rob banks and armored cars with master precision. McCauley, Chris (Val Kilmer), and Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) add new guy Waingro (Kevin Gage) to the group, only to find that he is a loose cannon who kills and robs for fun. He murders a guard during what should have been an otherwise routine heist, which causes the coldly efficient McCauley to have to kill the rest of the guards to eliminate witnesses to the crime. Even though they are master criminals, the thieves have always been so efficient and quick they never had to commit murder before. This sets the plot in motion because Hanna is assigned to hunt down McCauley and arrest him for murder.


Of course, a man as skilled as McCauley won't go down easily. The two spend ample amounts of time trying to figure the other one out in an epic game of chess that could end tragically for one or both of them. The real rub comes when McCauley unexpectedly falls in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman), which distracts him enough to make some careless decisions that put him within arm's length of Hanna. However, Hanna is equally distracted by Justine and a major family crisis that could negate all the headway he has made. The result is a tense film full of surprises and some of the best shootout and heist scenes that have ever been recorded for a film. 


De Niro and Pacino need no introduction to movie fans, who have likely seen both actors in at least some of their more iconic performances. When it was announced that director Michael Mann had cast both of them in his upcoming crime drama, it was as if many moviegoers' prayers had been answered. The two don't have very many scenes together, as they spend the majority of the film in an elaborate game of cat and mouse. However, they do have one almost legendary scene in the middle of the film, when Hanna pulls McCauley over and asks him to go to a nearby diner for a cup of coffee instead of arresting him. The resulting exchange at the diner is fraught with tension and a grudging mutual respect between the two despite the fact they are on opposite sides of the law. 


Although De Niro and Pacino are by far the biggest draws in "Heat," the rest of the cast deliver top-notch performances as well, including a large ensemble of supporting players, all of whom hold their own against their more famous, seasoned costars. The biggest standouts are Kilmer as a member of McCauley's crew distracted by the slow death of his marriage to Charlene (Ashley Judd) and Sizemore, who turns in his most nuanced performance, which is downright restrained and quiet compared to his usual bombastic acting style. Perhaps the best of the supporting crew is a young Natalie Portman as Justine's daughter. Though she was only fourteen years old when the film was released and "Heat" was only the second full-length film of her career, Portman's performance highlighted the great talent that would blossom as she got older.


Mann assembled a dynamite cast and wrote a fantastically detailed script for them to base their characters on. The result is an instant classic that still holds up nearly two decades after it was released. In fact, one of the shootout scenes has actually been used by military personnel as an example of one way to respond to ambushes by gunmen. Viewers don't have to like the crime genre to be hypnotized by the fantastic portrayals, camera work, and character development that Mann fostered. He has directed great movies such as "Ali," "Manhunter," and "The Last of the Mohicans," but "Heat" is his masterpiece. This is high praise indeed, but praise the film is more than worthy of. 


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Tags: Heat