Sunday, November 15, 2009

New on Blu: "Heat"

Nate calls McCauley with the good news. “You’re home free,” he tells him. His out is solid, everything is set, he’s on his way to the airport with his best girl by his side. He hangs up the phone, and their car enters a tunnel; the light inside is so bright, it’s almost blinding. Then they drive out of the tunnel, back into the night, into the dark. Hesitation flickers across McCauley’s face. He turns the car around. He has one more thing to take care of.

That is perhaps the defining moment of Michael Mann’s brilliant 1995 crime picture Heat, the moment where we fully grasp exactly what Mann is up to; that he is no mere stylist, but a true-blue filmmaker with a gift of using his considerable visual talents at the service of a genuinely compelling and intelligent story. He had directed several films previous to this one (including the hit Last of the Mohicans and Manhunter, the first film to feature the character of Hannibal Lecter), but he was best known for his extensive work in television, specifically as the producer of the slick but seminal Miami Vice. Heat, in fact, had its roots in television—the script was a reworking of Mann’s 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown (and he later produced a television series called Robbery Homicide Division that was essentially a TV version of Heat, with the film’s co-star Tom Sizemore in the Al Pacino role). Heat, with its all-star cast, dense structure, and epic running time, proved him as a major Hollywood player; his next effort, The Insider, would garner him multiple Oscar nominations.

At the time of its release, though, Mann’s coming of age was not the headline. The big story was that for the first time, acting titans Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino would share the screen (both appeared in The Godfather Part II, but in entirely separate timelines, with DeNiro playing the younger version of Pacino’s father). Playing familiar, perhaps archetypal roles, DeNiro stars as master thief Neil McCauley, while Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, the LAPD detective on his trail. Our introduction to McCauley is wordless and strangely striking; as the credits role, we watched the goateed DeNiro exit an L.A. subway train and, wearing a uniform, stride confidently through a hospital, out the back door, and into an ambulance. Only upon repeat viewings do we notice that he opens the hospital door with his elbow, so as not to leave any prints. This guy’s a pro.

We next see Chris Sheherlis (Val Kilmer, then white-hot off of his turn as Batman) at a construction supply outpost, picking up some explosives. Two more men, Cherrito (Tom Sizemore) and Waingro (Kevin Gage) share a tense ride in a big rig. Only when these men arrive at their destination do we realize what they’re up to—in a tight, ruthlessly efficient action sequence, they take down an armored car in about three minutes flat, grabbing only an envelope of valuable German barrel bonds. These skillful opening passages introduce several characters without getting bogged down in extensive exposition; we first know them by what they do and how they act in a crisis. There will be time for proper introductions later.

For all of the crew’s skill, the job goes awry due to the itchy trigger finger of Waingro, the sole outsider. “Their M.O. is that they’re good,” announces Detective Hanna (Pacino), surveying the scene, but he’s good too—correctly piecing together how the job went down and where it went wrong, thinking out loud and banging ideas around with his fellow detectives (ably played by Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, and Jerry Trimble). Mann’s primary fascination in Heat, it seems, is dedicated men who are good at what they do, both the crew of cops and the crew of crooks, how that draws those men together in those groups, and how it influences how all of them see each other. Hanna’s relentless (some would say obsessive) pursuit of McCauley isn’t rooted in any particular public need—he’s no more dangerous than any number of ex-cons pulling down scores. But Hanna is fascinated by this guy, by his skill and proficiency, and sees that if he can take down a smarter crook, that makes him (it would seem to reason) a smarter and better cop. And conversely, if McCauley can elude this smarter-than-average lawman, his accomplishment is that much greater.

Both men’s dogged work ethic takes a toll on their private lives and personal relationships. Hanna’s about to lose his third wife, Justine (Diane Venora); they talk at each other, and past each other. “You don’t live with me,” she tells him. “You live among the remains of dead people.” Both are ignoring Lauren (a very young Natalie Portman), Justine’s daughter from a previous marriage, a troubled pre-teen ticking away like a time bomb. McCauley’s romance with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a gentle graphic designer, is smoother but less honest—she thinks he’s a salesman.

The intricacies of those relationships—and that of Chris and his bitter, philandering wife Charlene (Ashley Judd)—are a tip that we’re not dealing in a conventional, good guys/bad guys narrative. In its style, and in its broad strokes, Mann’s screenplay is like a modern Western. But in spite of his borderline-monochromatic color scheme (it is a film of whites, blacks, greys, and cool blues), there is no “black and white” in this film. Hanna is a driven law enforcement officer but an abusive and angry guy; McCauley has a criminal mind but a romantic soul. Throughout the film, he contrasts the simple aesthetic properties (the black and white hockey masks in the truck job, the sharply conflicting light and dark of the airport tunnel and the bright runway lights) with the various shades of grey that his characters dwell in.

Mann uses the picture’s expansive length (it clocks in just shy of three hours) and the considerable skills of a robust cast (there are so many good roles, they were able to fill them all with first-rate actors, and give everyone at least one great moment) to sketch in the kind of details and complexities too often left out of standard cops-and-robbers pulp. On its initial release, it was billed as “a Los Angeles crime epic,” and that’s an apt description—it is a dense, layered, sprawling story.

The construction of Mann’s screenplay is ingenious. He introduces Hanna and McCauley separately and keeps them apart for a good ninety minutes of screen time. It’s a smart framework on a basic structural level, and would work even if the two actors filling the roles weren’t icons. But the fact that this the film co-stars DeNiro and Pacino means that Mann’s script is playing on, and toying with, audience expectation—they’re each on a course that charts them towards the other, but that face-off is drawn out and delayed as long as possible, making their eventual sharing of the screen even more exciting. When that deservedly legendary scene arrives, it is somewhat awe-inspiring; these two contemporaries (and, presumably, sometimes rivals) have finally met their respective matches, and they bring out each other’s best work.

Elsewhere in the film, the duo give a hint as to the kind of work we could expect from them in the coming years—in some ways, it is a study in contrasting acting styles. Though Pacino is top-billed, he does turn in the weaker performance; we’re seeing the beginnings of the “shouty Al” turns that he would too often trot out in the ensuing decade-plus (“GIMME ALL YA GOT!” “I hear she got a… GREAT ASS!”). I can see what he’s doing intellectually (most of those moments come in interrogation scenes, when the character might be prone to theatricality, and there’s some chatter that we were to believe the character might have or have had a drug problem), but it doesn’t always play; that said, those moments are fleeting and don’t take over the entire performance. DeNiro, on the other hand, has seldom underplayed so effectively—he seldom raises his voice and projects genuine danger with just a look (and watch the way you can see the wheels turning after he drives out of that bright tunnel). That less-is-more approach lands perfectly here, though we find him sleepwalking through more and more performances in the years following.

It’s hard to write a review of Heat that doesn’t turn into a list of great scenes—the tight-as-a-drum bank robbery scene, the thrilling shoot-out in the L.A. streets that follows, the tense attempts at reconciliation, escape, and pursuit that take up the third hour (this may be one of the most cleanly-executed examples of a classic three-act structure in recent memory). There are a couple of minor misfires in Mann’s script, sure (some of Venora’s dialogue is too on-the-nose, and the story thread that implies that Waingrow is a serial killer proves to be a dead end). But by the time it reaches its powerful closing images, we’re witnessing Mann at his very best, capturing and defining male camaraderie and rivalry in a moving, definitive fashion. Heat is one of the great American films of the 1990s.

"Heat" was released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 10th.

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