***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd
written and directed by Michael Mann
by Vincent Suarez Michael Mann's Heat is a rare Hollywood action film, indeed. In an era in which the standard studio actioner consists of loosely-motivated bits of plot and character development that merely link one set-piece to the next, the explosive action sequences in Heat fittingly punctuate moments of genuine drama enacted by a wealth of interesting characters. Further, while today's action films are invariably vehicles for the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, et al, Heat is the rare studio action picture that, despite its own heavyweight stars, is truly an ensemble piece, cast and acted to perfection. And in an age when the standard Hollywood epic spends three hours glossing over the "major events" in its characters' lives, Heat confines its three hours to perhaps a few weeks of "real" time, allowing Mann (who produced, wrote, and directed) to present a drama that is epic in its emotional depth, if not in years.
Heat stars Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, a criminal mastermind whose creed ("Never let anything into your life that you can't walk away from in thirty seconds flat when you feel the heat around the corner") is jeopardized by his newfound relationship with Eady (Amy Brenneman, in a compelling performance). McCauley's "crew" consists of Chris (Val Kilmer), Michael (Tom Sizemore), Trejo (Danny Trejo), and newcomer Waingro (Kevin Gage). The film opens with an expertly-crafted action sequence (one of several in the film) in which McCauley has been hired by his pal Nate (a welcome appearance by Jon Voight) to steal $1.6 million worth of bearer bonds from an armoured car. When Waingro loses his cool and unnecessarily shoots a guard, McCauley orders the execution of the remaining guards; McCauley later decides to kill Waingro, who escapes and creates havoc for McCauley throughout the remainder of the film.
Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is assigned to investigate the heist, and he becomes obsessed with capturing a crew whose work he clearly admires. Hanna has grown distant from his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), who longs to be let in on her husband's world while he prefers to keep all the gory details to himself, "because it keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be." (Natalie Portman portrays Vincent's emotionally troubled and neglected stepdaughter Lauren, delivering a performance that adroitly conveys the pain of having two absent fathers and a self-absorbed mother.) As the film unfolds, McCauley becomes increasingly aware of the watchful presence of Hanna and his team of detectives. Despite the "heat," McCauley's men vote to take down one last score, a major bank in downtown L.A., with Hanna in pursuit.
Within these major plot elements, Mann weaves several threads that propel the story and illuminate the characters. Chris and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) are also in a trying relationship (he's a compulsive gambler, she's cheating), yet, in one of the film's neatest ironies, their bond is revealed to be the film's most enduring. Waingro is hired by Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner), the investment banker whose bonds are stolen, to track down McCauley. A particularly poignant subplot involves Don Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-con trying hard to stay straight (despite the demeaning treatment by his boss) until he is tempted by McCauley's offer to participate in the bank heist. And while Mann offers at least one subplot which doesn't quite work (Waingro is the perpetrator of a series of murders also being investigated by Hanna), this is more than compensated for by the the exploration of the film's central relationship between Hanna and McCauley.
In the film's most celebrated sequence, McCauley and Hanna meet for coffee and discuss their respective approaches to their professions. While De Niro maintains the calculating cool displayed throughout the film, Pacino interrupts a volatile (and occasionally unconvincing) performance to deliver a sustained, subdued interaction with De Niro. The scene works beautifully as each actor matter-of-factly vows to bring the other down, should they end up pointing their weapons at one another. Indeed, the impending bank heist that concludes the second act of the film sets in motion the chain of events that bring about this anticipated confrontation.
With Heat, Mann reinforces his reputation for stylish action thrillers in the tradition of Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986). In fact, McCauley shares many of the principles held by James Caan's character in Thief, while the cat-and-mouse game played by McCauley and Hanna echoes that of Manhunter. The action sequences in Heat are the most complex and vivid of Mann's urban oeuvre, and one can't help but feel that these sequences have been informed by Mann's considerable success in staging the wilderness pursuits in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). With all of these films, Heat shares stunning cinematography (Dante Spinotti) and a rousing, pulsing score (Elliot Goldenthal, gracing a Mann film with its best score since his collaboration with Tangerine Dream), but it is far from merely derivative of Mann's previous work; Heat is, rather, the culmination of Mann's artistic and thematic impulses in a work that clearly stands on its own.
by Bill Chambers Heat has been one of the most requested (and oft-delayed) Warner titles since the DVD format's inception. Probably due to a lack of storage space, the film comes to us on digital video in a movie-only edition, but the presentation is extremely good, and the low price is a nice consolation prize. Letterboxed at 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions, the image smokes that of its LaserDisc counterpart, which was marred by the 'noise' and excessive dropouts common to Pioneer pressings. The print used for this new version has a few inconsequential nicks, but the transfer is otherwise outstanding, with faithfully muted colours and very little grain. There is one flaw of note: At the 54:28 mark, I experienced what I thought was a layer switch; Eady and, indeed, the entire picture, changes colour significantly enough in the middle of a shot that it appears a jump cut, which it most certainly is not. I replayed this spot over and over again to the same result every time. The actual layer switch does not occur until after the justifiably famed coffee-shop scene.
Heat is among the best DVDs you'll ever hear. The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is uncommonly subtle for an action film, even during the gunfight on the streets of L.A. Especially sumptuous demo material is Heat's runway climax; I'm not exaggerating when I write that it sounds as if your living room has been transformed into an airport. Most of the movie is composed of dialogue, which is mercifully audible in even the most intimate scenes. Included on this non-SE are three Heat trailers (in 2.0 and varying degrees of widescreen) that previously only appeared on the VHS version. "Two Actors Collide" is my favourite of these, because it uses snatches of Moby's transcendent "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" as its backdrop, a synth symphony that also serves as the film's end-title theme. (Aside: is there a living director who better employs music than Michael Mann?) Allow me to echo Vinnie's sentiments: Heat is epic in its ambition, and keenly executed.
171 minutes; R; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; CC; English, French subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner