Michael Mann’s complex, sprawling ‘Heat’ is one of the definitive crime dramas of the 1990s

December 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 1, 2015

Heat, the gritty, glamorous Los Angeles crime drama written and directed by Michael Mann, may be The Godfather of the 1990s.

I make that claim not because the 1995 movie runs nearly three hours, or because it stars Al Pacino, who played Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, or because it co-stars Robert De Niro, who played a younger version of Michael’s father, Vito Corleone (the part played by Marlon Brando in the original), in The Godfather: Part II, although I would maintain all of those facts certainly bolster my case. Instead, I write that because Heat, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies, is as focused on its characters’ family intrigues as it is on the criminal (and, in this film, police) activities conducted by many of those characters.

Take Vincent Hanna, the hotshot Los Angeles police detective portrayed by Pacino. He’s been married to his third wife, Justine (Diane Venora), for a number of years, but he remains stubbornly unwilling or unable to talk with her about the depraved crimes and criminals whom he investigates on a daily basis. Hanna’s stepdaughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), is an adolescent on the verge of a nervous breakdown; in one of Heat’s earliest scenes, her inability to find a hair tie in the preferred color triggers a meltdown.

Neil McCauley, the master thief whom De Niro plays, has no family of his own (other than his crew, that is). One of McCauley’s accomplices, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) should be rolling in money thanks to the tightly knit gang’s exploits, but he’s gambled most of it away. Now his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd), wants Chris to find a way to stop hemorrhaging cash and to turn legitimate without stinting on their lavish lifestyle. One of the movie’s key plot points involves both McCauley and Hanna uncovering the Shiherlis’s vulnerabilities and attempting to exploit them.

Mann has little time or interest in the personal lives of the other two main accomplices, Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Trejo (Danny Trejo), but each gets a character beat devoted to their families. In one case, McCauley’s seeing Cheritto fawn over his wife and daughters prompts the virtuoso crook to realize that lack of intimacy has left a gaping void in his life. In the other, the violence visited upon Trejo’s household is a grim reminder that criminals who feel they’ve been wronged rarely settle their grievances by filing lawsuits or pursuing other civil avenues.

Heck, even the minor character of ex-convict Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert, some seven years before he played the president of the United States and nine years before he began a long-running gig as an insurance company spokesman) gets multiple scenes with his wife, Lillian (Kim Staunton). She urges the probationer to stay on the straight-and-narrow as he struggles to maintain his dignity while serving at the whim of a thoroughly demanding and regularly demeaning restaurant manager.

Yes, Heat has action, and plenty of it, just like The Godfather, and yes, those sequences are well-shot and thrilling, just like The Godfather’s. However, it’s the emphasis on character that makes both films truly remarkable. The Shiherlises are not particularly sympathetic, and both McCauley and Hanna are borderline sociopaths. But when Mann turns up the heat (#sorrynotsorry for the pun) on these characters, the results are fascinating to watch; the choices they make, and the consequences of their actions, can be quite moving at times.

Mann’s story kicks into gear with an armored-truck heist that goes wrong when the gang’s belligerent fifth member, Waingro (Kevin Gage), shoots a guard for what he believes is defiance. (One of my many unanswered questions about Heat was whether this was Waingro’s first job with the team or whether he had participated in a handful or many of their heists.)

Because the gang ultimately leaves three dead guards in their wake, Hanna is summoned to the crime scene. He and his team, including Sgt. Drucker (Mykelti Williamson), beat the bushes, relentlessly seeking any lead that will help them identify and prosecute the thieves.

Meanwhile, McCauley juggles a variety of concerns. First, he attempts to eliminate Waingro for his deadly recklessness during the armored-truck heist. Second, he meets and begins romancing Eady (Amy Brenneman) in an attempt to find the intimacy he’s lacked for so long. Third, he conducts the usual business that crooks need to do: Arranging future heists and trying to get paid by a shady financier, Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner), who’s infuriated that someone has targeted his goods (technically, financial instruments) for larceny.

When the slimmest of clues leads Hanna and company to Cheritto, Hanna arranges for round-the-clock surveillance on the crook and his associates. Eventually, they pick out McCauley and the rest of the gang, and they even get tips that give them a chance to foil not one but two different robberies.

Unfortunately, both opportunities are spoiled, once because a small mistake alerts McCauley to the presence of his nemesis, once because the police intervention devolves into a major gun battle in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the work day. After the second occasion, Hanna — rather than being suspended pending an internal investigation of why about a dozen different people were shot in broad daylight — realizes that he only has a matter of hours to catch McCauley before his prey flies the coop once and for all.

Here Mann cranks up the tension, with McCauley trying to arrange appropriately dignified exits for the surviving members of his crew at the same time Hanna attempts to lure McCauley into the open before he exits the scene. McCauley’s creepy-but-tender romance with Eady is motivating him to leave the criminal life — but can he resist the impulse to finish one last bit of business before he does? The end game is complicated by Hanna’s personal affairs, which begin to deteriorate at an even faster rate than before as both his marriage and the life of his stepdaughter are put in jeopardy.

It’s a massive, sprawling story, and it comes together impressively — for the most part. A few things seem obviously superfluous, such as the Brendan narrative thread and the subplot in which Waingro kills a teenaged prostitute, which Mann seemingly threw in just to make extra-double-triple sure we had no sympathy for the character. Oddly, Hanna — who I’d think would be entirely tied up with his pursuit of the gang of murderous master thieves — is called to the scene of this murder, perhaps just so Mann can show him hugging the victim’s mother.

There are a few occasions in Heat where Mann appears to suspend the laws of reality: Again, why wasn’t Hanna suspended for helping to convert downtown L.A. into a war zone? Why does Van Zant go home, apparently without any bodyguards, after having been holed up in his office for the last several days when he knows McCauley is still hunting him? Mann films the final shootout between Hanna and McCauley as if it’s a fever dream; after the last shots are fired, one character sprawls across a mechanical fixture that seems to have been nowhere near where he was standing.

There were at least two occasions where I seem to have missed small but important plot points. How did a minor character named Hugh Benny (Henry Rollins) know about the downtown bank theft, and why did he decide to rat out the McCauley crew? And how did the cops find out that Waingro was staying at a fancy L.A. hotel under the alias Jameson? Perhaps the answers to these questions will be revealed to me on a second viewing.

Still, Heat is an engrossing movie, if one that requires a certain patience. (I was practically rolling my eyes and tapping my feet during all of the Breedan scenes.) I’m just sorry I waited near 20 years to see it for the first time.

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