Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the Big Deal?
Heat is an epic crime drama film released in 1995, and it was both written and directed by Michael Mann. The film's ensemble cast is led by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro who play a veteran cop and a career criminal respectively. They are thrown into a battle of wills as a lucrative bank heist is being planned. The film also stars Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, William Fichtner, Amy Brenneman, Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. Mann originally wrote the script for the film back in 1979, basing it loosely on actual events. After a proposed TV pilot was cancelled, the script was used for a TV movie developed by Mann called LA Takedown before it was finally given the green light for a wider cinema release. The film marked the first time Pacino and De Niro were on screen together, and much of the film's marketing focused on this. Released to a positive critical reception, the film went on to earn more than $187 million, and it is widely considered one of the best films of the 1990s. The film has also proved influential to other filmmakers, video game developers and even real-life criminals, inspiring a number of crimes based on events shown in the film.
What's It About?
Los Angeles-based career criminal Neil McCauley leads a small gang of thieves on a successful robbery of an armoured car transporting bearer bonds. Forced into killing the guards after one of the team - new recruit Waingro - starts shooting, the group retreat and McCauley nearly kills Waingro, who escapes before any more blood is shed. The robbery is investigated by veteran LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a man consumed with his quest for justice to such an extent that his career affects his home life with his wife Justine and his troubled stepdaughter Lauren. Despite his risky criminal lifestyle and his personal code to never get close to anything you can't leave behind if things go south, McCauley begins a relationship with young designer Eady.
After thwarting an attempt on their lives by the money-launderer Roger Van Zant, McCauley is enticed by the offer of another job: one final bank heist with a projected haul of more than $12 million. Seeing it as an opportunity to leave his life behind, McCauley and his crew begin preparing for the job but soon realise that Hanna is on their tail. As the day of the day of the heist approaches, LA is unaware of the carnage that is about to unfold...
What's to Like?
If you're familiar with any of Michael Mann's work - whether it's his early TV work like Miami Vice or later movies like Collateral - then you'll be expecting a glossy and stylish crime thriller that feels far too realistic to be comfortable. On top of that, you have two of Hollywood's greatest ever actors clashing heads in a way that makes picking a winner almost unbearable. De Niro is charming and more likeable than the driver, determined Pacino who feels much less sympathetic than most other movie cops. You spend much of the film willing them to actually have a scene together and when they do, the tension is palpable and the atmosphere heavy with thinly veiled threat. It's gripping stuff.
But the film is about more than these two stalwarts trying to out-act each other. The supporting cast is also stacked with some great turns from Sizemore, Brenneman and Venora especially, a stunning performance that should have seen her career push on to new heights. There is quality throughout the cast with names like Hank Azaria, Danny Trejo, Wes Studi, Henry Rollins and Xander Berkeley popping up in other roles and the film is a feast for fans of heavyweight thesping. But if nearly three hours of dialogue and clunky exposition aren't your thing then stay tuned for the film's action scenes which are also incredible. The central heist, which accounts for around twelve minutes by itself, is a bloody and brutal affair that genuinely shocks. It jolts you awake and is possibly one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, feeling more like a war film than a gritty crime drama. And thanks to Mann's use of handheld cameras, you feel part of the chaos yourself as it unfolds. The only thing I can think of that it compares to is the D-Day landing depicting in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan - this is electric, thrilling stuff that simply has to be seen.
- De Niro was sold on the film just for the scene in the coffee shop alone and it turned out that he, Pacino and Mann couldn't wait to film it. It was De Niro who suggested that the scene be shot with no rehearsals, as both characters would be unfamiliar with each other and Mann agreed.
- Pacino later confirmed that he played the part of Hanna as though the cop had a secret cocaine habit which he did in an early draft of the script. This may explain some of his ad-libbed outbursts which, according to Azaria, genuinely terrified him during their scenes together.
- McCauley was named after an actual thief who was eventually killed by police officer Chuck Adamson who served as a technical advisor on the film. Likewise, the character of Waingro was based and named after another criminal based in Chicago who ratted out his colleagues and was eventually found nailed to the wall of a shed in northern Mexico.
- The film has actually been used a number of times as a training tool for US Marine recruits. The shootout is used to demonstrate the correct way to retreat under fire while Kilmer's use of an automatic weapon, specifically quickly reloading under fire, is used to demonstrate how to do this properly - something the actor takes great pride in.
What's Not to Like?
It seems a good question, on the face of it - what's not to like about a gripping crime drama with action scenes that rank among the best ever filmed and two legitimate stars leading the cast? Well, it's not perfect. For starters, it does feel too long although I understand why - the film spends much time assessing the lives of these two embittered characters who are essentially opposites of the same coin. By examining what they do when they aren't being bad-ass cop and professional thief, the film holds a mirror up to the people who do this for real and it makes Heat feel even more authentic. Naturally, the more dramatic scenes feel slower and weightier than the fleet-footed action sequences but at least they build up the tension to the gripping finale, which is almost Hitchcockian in its simplicity and starkness.
Watching the film these days, it can feel a touch cliched but this is purely down to how often the film has been imitated so often. Fans of the more recent Grand Theft Auto video games will definitely recognise sections of the film while viewers of films like Baby Driver, The Dark Knight and Widows will certainly feel as though they have seen Heat before - or at least, parts of it. I was certainly reminded of Collateral, Michael Mann's late-night journey around a neon-lit LA with a hitman and an unwitting taxi driver and is also an excellent film. I also have to mention that while the character is well written, Kilmer feels like a damp squib next to the acting chops of his co-stars - hell, even Sizemore gives a great performance and he isn't known for his reliance on set. Given his character's prominence in the film, it's a shame that Kilmer underwhelms as much as he does.
Should I Watch It?
With a first-rate cast, a confident and assured director and a story worthy of its excessive running time, Heat remains an enthralling and rewarding film that emphasises character and narrative over explosions and stylish visuals. It does outstay its welcome but you don't mind too much because you're enjoying the ride. Pacino and De Niro are natural co-stars and this proves why it was sheer madness to not have them star alongside each other before now.
Great For: patient action fans, acting coaches, fans of Pacino or De Niro, inspiring criminals
Not So Great For: impatient viewers, Val Kilmer, short haul flights
What Else Should I Watch?
Mann specialises in very stylish but authentic thrillers and has enjoyed a long career bringing us classic films like Manhunter (later re-filmed as Red Dragon), The Last Of The Mohicans, The Insider and Collateral, probably his last truly great film. His more recent efforts like the big screen adaptation of Miami Vice and action thriller Blackhat proved much less successful and don't write Mann off just yet. Something tells me we haven't seen the last of him just yet as Hollywood loves a good crime/heist film - whether it's of the Scorsese variety like Goodfellas or a more comedic interpretation like Ocean's Eleven. Heat deserves to be recognised as one of the best crime films ever made and there are few who can argue that.
So why wasn't the film recognised by the Academy then? Quite frankly, it was up against some seriously good films - Braveheart dominated that year's ceremony with five awards while other films that competed include Apollo 13, The Usual Suspects and the family-friendly Babe. While the Academy certainly doesn't always get it right, it's still a curious oversight on its part not to recognise Heat in some way and must go down as one of the biggest snubs in the organisation's history.
Robert De Niro
Lt. Vincent Hanna
Roger Van Zant
Release Date (UK)
2nd February, 1996
Action, Crime, Drama
© 2022 Benjamin Cox