Essentials #11: HEAT (1995)

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro star in Michael Mann’s sprawling LA crime saga, resulting in the greatest action drama ever made.


You will not regret it.

If I ever made a movie like HEAT, I’d die a happy man knowing I have contributed to the art of cinema. HEAT is a landmark picture for three reasons:

  1. It stars two of the greatest actors of all time
  2. It is the first great post-modern film
  3. It set the bar for the contemporary action drama

I can give you a million other reasons, but let’s start with the no-brainer headline: Al Pacino vs Robert De Niro

By 1995, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro had already carved out reputations as the two greatest living actors; it’s shocking they only have three (3) Oscars between them considering they have played some of the most memorable characters in film history.

Both have distinct acting methods. Pacino is flashy, charismatic and external. De Niro is subtle, meticulous, and internal. Michael Mann’s intelligent and layered script (which took Mann over 10 years to research and write) compliments each actor’s on-screen persona so well that in the scene when they finally do meet, it plays more like a casual conversation between two on-screen legends. It’s simple. Watching two acting juggernauts at the top of their game is reason alone to see HEAT.

The film also features a remarkable ensemble cast: Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Jon Voight, Diane Venora, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, Amy Brenneman, Kevin Gage, and many others I’m foolishly not including. What I love most about the characters, or particularly, the casting of these characters is that they look like real people.

I miss the period in movies where actors actually looked like somebody you would actually meet in real life and most importantly, look like the age of their characters. I mentioned it in my INTERSTELLAR review, but there are no more men and women in movies (I’ll explain in a bit).

HEAT is an adult movie.

Mann writes characters that are experienced, self-aware, and articulate. As a result, his level of research and attention to detail undeniably influences his cast and their performances. For HEAT, he required them to go through firearm and combat training, along with interviewing actual cops, criminals and their wives to portray these characters authentically.

It paid off. From the way the actors talk to the way they walk, every major character feels like somebody who’d exist in real life because they have an aura of toughness that’s missing in a standard crime movie. This is exemplary of why the combination of research and proper casting is a necessity, especially in a film that is entirely character driven.

Like I mentioned, there are rarely any adults in mainstream movies nowadays; therefore, there are rarely movies for adults. And when I mean adult, I don’t mean some twenty-something girl or boy with painted stubble on his face.

That’s the problem these days in mainstream films. Everything is marketed for people under 30. It’s seems as if we’re afraid to see older actors because it will turn off the youth. Who fucking cares?

When I watch a movie, I want to be engrossed by everything and obviously, the actors are a big part in showing that. There are so many movies today where I go: “That actor is too young for me to believe the character they are supposed to be playing.” What happened to the Gene Hackmans, John Waynes, James Cagney, Sterling Hayden types of leading men?

They’re all a bunch of babies now.

When you make a movie about twenty-somethings, you cast twenty-somethings. When you make a movie about adults, you cast adults. You need people that wear their lives on their faces. That’s something I feel that’s gone from the art of casting.

For example, when De Niro threatens murder over the phone, he says it in a quiet, calm manner and it’s 10x more effective than a standard actor who’d probably scream that line. From his body language, to the cadence in his voice, this is a character who has experienced a lot and the actor playing him has. He doesn’t raise his voice because he knows doesn’t need to. People in power rarely show emotion because they are confident things will get done the way they want it to.

Pacino and De Niro recall an era when being a tough guy was mandatory.

Presently, we’d have some 28 year old pretty boy trying to act tough and it comes off like they’re trying too hard. While there are some great films and actors today, I notice more and more that actors and actresses are 10 years younger than their characters and it takes me out of the story.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just jaded. Maybe I’m yearning for an era in film that doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe actors reflect a time period and these actors reflected the post-war era and the actors now reflect Generation ‘I just don’t care.’ Perhaps we’ve reached a more progressive time. Perhaps.

While the characters and their relationships are emotionally complex, HEAT’s story is actually quite simple: cops, robbers, and the women in between.

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In a wonderful scene which says it all about the two leads: Neil says, “I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best. Try to stop guys like me.” Image:

Robert De Niro is Neil McCauley, a master thief and leader of a highly-trained tactical assault crew; he strictly lives by the 30-second flat rule:

Neil McCauley: “A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’”

Al Pacino is Vincent Hanna, a tenacious detective with marital problems. He’s on his [more like, on his way out of a] third marriage because of his workaholic nature. While both characters straddle polar opposites of the law, Vincent and Neil form an inherent respect for each other due to their equally fierce dedication to their work.

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‘Blue’ is a recurring color in Michael Mann’s work. In HEAT, it signifies the loneliness and emptiness of Neil’s life. Note to the wide, single spaces that Mann frames Neil early on in the film. Image:

As both a filmmaker and film watcher, I’m personally drawn to characters who are so devoted to their craft that everything else is secondary. I relate to those characters because I’m the same way. If you want to excel in anything in life and perform at a highest level, you must prioritize your work over everything. For me, this common thread between the protagonist and antagonist raises the stakes in a story while revealing them as vulnerable human beings.

And that’s the heart of a great character: he or she needs to have passion. An edge. They need to have something or someone that they care about so deeply about that it motivates the audience to follow them to the very end.

Neil McCauley: “In Fuji they have these iridescent algae that come out once a year in the water, it looks like L.A. at night.”

Eady: “You’ve been there?”

Neil McCauley: “No…I’m going there someday.”

Los Angeles is a post-modern city; HEAT is post-modern film. Michael Mann understands this and is one of the few directors that gets Los Angeles right.

Most people hate LA because it isn’t really a city. They’re right, it’s not. I always tell complainers: don’t go to LA and expect it to be New York or Chicago; it ain’t. Appreciate Los Angeles for what it is: a modern, geographically diverse, multi-cultural sprawl.

On film, the City of Angels is typically portrayed as this palm tree beach-haven for the rich, famous, and plastic. To outsiders, this is the version that probably exists in their minds but I can tell you right off the bat, that fantasy version of Los Angeles represents a very small portion of the city I grew up with.

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Neil tries to talk Eady into running away with him. Notice the framing: Subjects are off-right. Space to the left. Neil’s loneliness (as well as image depth) demonstrated by the sole telephone pole lit in the background. Notice the Blue + White Palette, which is a recurring look in Mann’s work.

Michael Mann chose to shoot this three-hour epic all on-location (65 total), so no soundstages were used! That’s unheard in today’s standard of filmmaking. For example, when Neil and his crew take down an armored car in the opening heist, there is no CGI involved. It isn’t shot on a green screen soundstage. They actually ram an armored van into a pile of used cars.

Most importantly, the viewer actually sees and hears it. No trickery. It’s an exhilarating set-piece early on in the film partly because everything feels so real due to the actual location: it all goes down on Venice Boulevard between the 10 and 110 freeways (Hanna later mentions why in the film).

Mann was also one of the first directors to experiment with digital cameras. Believe it or not, he actually used them in HEAT back in ’95 (though the film was shot pre-dominantly on beautiful 35mm film). There’s even a few Go-Pro-like shots (e.g. when Vincent smashes Hugh Benny’s through a window or when Neil breaks Waingro’s nose). This shows that Mann had a vision for the kind of filmmaking that would pre-date his contemporaries. Aside from pushing digital, he has an interesting way of composing shots. He almost always uses either telephoto lenses that flatten the image and pit the subjects with their background, like here:

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This scene is right after Neil and his crew realize they are being followed. Notice how Mann uses the telephoto lens to frame them all against metal bars (jail) which gives a claustrophic feeling that they are being watched. Image:

Or wide angle lenses that are placed close to the subject to emphasize space and layer in the frame; visually, this creates a hyper-realistic effect to the viewer (Polanski was quite good at this).

He rarely shoots like a standard film with “correct” lighting and lenses; he edits from either telephoto or wide-angle anamorphic shots. The result adds an intimate, raw vibe to his films. He wants the audience to adapt to his way of seeing his story. It’s a tricky task, but Mann pulls it off.

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Notice the use of DTLA as a backdrop.

Mann also favors natural light (which explains why he switched to digital in 2004). The color palettes he employs are always daylight white and tungsten (blue). Together, they form an industrial palette that you can only see in a city like LA. For HEAT, Mann and his DP, the great Dante Spinotti, create a viscerally modern world that paved the way for the hyper-realistic filmmaking style we see today.

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In the film, Neil (De Niro) says he has a recurring dream that he is drowning. He thinks that it’s because he’s running out of time. Mann says he was partly inspired by this Alex Colville painting (Pacific). My impression: The subject’s masculinity (gun) and his sense of emotional longing (looking at the window) are at odds with one another similarly to Neil McCauley. Image:

While the visuals are impressive, one cannot ignore the incredible sound work of this film. Particularly, the scenes involving gunfire. Given how Mann is obsessed with realism and detail, there’s an amusing story about the famous shootout scene in Downtown LA. Apparently, the sound team had replaced every gunshot with standard gunfire effects because the actual on-set sound was too loud, echoey, and high-pitched; real gunfire sounds quite different in real life than what you hear in the movies.

Mann immediately refused the replaced sound mix and demanded his team return every gunshot to their original on-set sound.

This explains why the shoot-out scenes feel so authentic and raw. Two decades later and everyone is still talking about that shoot-out today and I firmly believe, it’s the sound more than the visuals. The devil is in the details.

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Good blocking.

Another great aspect of the sound is the music. HEAT incorporates an eclectic mix of jazz, rap, rock, synth, new age artists that complement Elliot Goldenthal’s score. A great example is when Moby’s cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” acts as a prelude to De Niro and Pacino’s first meeting.

The language of image and sound feels so fresh and new here, you feel like you’re watching a new kind of film. I was 5 when this came out and my parents/brother took me to see this (thank guys). I didn’t know what was going on (it was the 90s) but I remember being so affected by it that I felt compelled to re-watch the movie over the years and as I got older, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of my favorites.

HEAT came out in 1995 and aside from the cars, cell phones, and costumes, it doesn’t look like it’s aged (it’ll be 20 years in December of 2015). This is the mark of a film that was ahead of its time.

It’s also the first great post-modern film.

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Val Kilmer spraying.

HEAT is the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of the action crime drama. And when I say that, I mean that there was the science fiction film before 2001 and then there was the science fiction film afterward. HEAT was the point when the action drama shifted and set the tone for what we see today in the genre’s move to raw, hyper-realistic, and gritty undertones.

Action/crime genre films before HEAT were typically campy and unrealistic. For example, they mainly consisted of an actor like Stallone or Schwarzenegger playing 2-dimensional characters with half-baked storylines, while picking off their enemies 20 at a time with an automatic machine gun. Most actors didn’t hold guns properly or interview actual criminals and procedures in their preparation. It was campy and fun, yeah. But nonetheless, unrealistic.

After HEAT, films began shifting toward grit and authenticity. There were a few directors that deserve mention for their influences in this attitude — for example, Jean Pierre Melville, Peter Yates, or William Friedkin — but I feel like Michael Mann was the pioneer of this shift from campy to realism for the crime movies and television we see today:

  • Christopher Nolan stated he used this movie as a template for THE DARK KNIGHT; Hans Zimmer’s for TDK score sounds eerily similar to Goldenthal’s HEAT score
  • Notice the color palette of this film (teal, yellow, etc.); notice the color palette of 90% of crime dramas in the 2000s (The Shield, Training Day, CSI, The Wire)
  • The video games: Kane and Lynch, Payday, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, San Andreas, IV, and V have all taken direct influence from HEAT. GTA V modeled Los Santos for the LA in HEAT
  • Other films it influenced: TRAINING DAY, THE WAY OF THE GUN, THE TOWN, ARMORED (terrible), TRUE DETECTIVE S2
  • Not a good thing, but it even inspired real-life heists: the North Hollywood shoot-out and armored car robberies in Colombia, South Africa, Denmark, Norway

Michael Mann’s HEAT forever changed the grammar for the crime drama. It’s a one-of-a-kind masterpiece starring two of the greatest actors in the history of film.

And you don’t need 30 seconds to determine whether or not you should see this movie. See it.

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De Niro’s appearance was used as a template for Tom Cruise’s appearance in “Collateral” (also directed by Mann) Image:

Lasting Thoughts:

  • HEAT is actually a remake (LA TAKEDOWN; 1989); It was also directed by Mann, who had the luxury of remaking his own film
  • Pacino has got to be one of the greatest walkers in film history. He moves with such purpose, it tells you so much about his character
  • Val Kilmer stated that a military sergeant had screened the film for his grunts (particularly the scene when Kilmer reloads his weapon; picture above) as part of basic training, admiring how quickly Kilmer did it [correctly]
  • Tom Sizemore is so great in this! He’s manic, macho, and unpredictable as family man Michael Cheritto
  • Jon Voight plays a great Eddie Bunker and Hank Azaria has an amusing minor part as Pacino’s whipping boy. She’s gotta a GREAT ASSSZZ!!
  • Notice Natalie Portman in one of her earliest roles
  • I highly recommend Mann’s other work THIEF, MANHUNTER, and COLLATERAL as excellent companion pieces to this film

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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