When people think back on Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat, they’re likely to recall the famous diner meeting between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the two acting titans sitting across from each other, glaring and bearing their wounded souls. Or perhaps they’ll conjure up the heart-pounding post-heist shoot-out that turns downtown L.A. into a war zone, where cops and robbers engaging in a brutal shoot-out that looks and sounds unlike any shoot-out ever captured on film before it. But these moments — iconic and thrilling though they are — only make up a small fraction of Mann’s nearly three-hour drama. It’s the moments in between — the quiet moments, where characters engage in that most Mann-ly of activities: silently looking out at a dark landscape peppered with indistinguishable blinking lights — that make Heat the masterpiece that is is.
Mann came from a TV background — Miami Vice, Crime Story and more — and Heat feels like an entire season of a great TV crime drama packed into one film. It goes without saying that a studio would not greenlight a film like this today; it’s too sprawling, too thoughtful, too encompassing. Mann liters his landscape with cold, distant characters and doesn’t rush to show us how they’re all connected. There are two main sides at work here: there’s the talented crew of thieves led by De Niro’s icy Neil McCauley and there’s the dedicated cops tracking them, fronted by Pacino’s bombastic Vincent Hanna. And then there are the outliers: characters on the fringes; wives, lovers and everyone in between. Heat is a crowded film; it feels more populated than most other movies — watching it gives you a real sense of a dense, expansive city with corners and alleyways we have yet to venture down. It is an exhaustive, exhausting film; ambitious beyond words. “I plead guilty to being ambitious,” Mann said in a recent interview. “I wish I wasn’t that ambitious sometimes because I love shooting. Some directors don’t like shooting. I actually like shooting. I would lead a very happy life as a journeyman director and I’m incapable of it. But I have to feel pretty passionate about something.”
Heat returns in a beautifully restored “Director’s Definitive Edition” Blu-ray this week. Anyone expecting a seriously altered film, such as the recent director’s cut Blu of Mann’s Ali, will be disappointed: this is the same movie, save for one or two bits of excised dialogue. But that makes sense: Heat in its ambitious, almost overwhelming format was already perfect, and nipping and cutting in the editing room would only take away its power.
The marketing for Heat played up the momentous meeting between Pacino and De Niro, but the two only share two scenes together — but it doesn’t take away from the film at all. Instead, we witness two phenomenal actors at the top of their games. It’s easy for some to forget that De Niro, who has devoted the later portion of his career to mostly terrible comedies, can be so powerful, but here his talent is on full display. It’s a subdued, cautious performance — Neil is a man always with his guard up, always prepared to walk away at the drop of a hat. Indeed, when he finally subverts his own personal code and doesn’t walk away when he can, it leads to his downfall. There’s a cold brutality to the character, as well as the hint of something softer underneath — something that’s been dormant for a long time. When he meets a kind woman (Amy Brenneman) and begins to fall for her, we can see De Niro’s creating the character’s inner turmoil — a knee-jerk resistance to squash this before it gets out of hand. But he doesn’t — he gives in to his desires, perhaps hoping to rekindle a spark of goodness burning somewhere deep down inside.
The later half of Pacino’s career became devoted to over-the-top shouting, which seemed to be solidified when the actor won an Oscar for his work in 1992’s Scent of a Woman. Pacino’s work in Heat is famously abrasive — the actor storms around the film, bellowing his lines at the top of his lungs. In later interviews, Pacino claimed the character was originally written with a cocaine habit, and that’s how he played it — someone always on edge, running on high. But it’s not coke that Vincent Hanna is addicted to here — it’s his job; it’s the hunt. He needs to win, and he needs to be ferocious to do so. “That kind of provocation and verbal, psychological assault is absolutely what guys who are good at doing this will do. That’s kind of where it comes from,” Mann said in the aforementioned interview. Part of Pacino’s bluster is intimidation — he’s acting completely unhinged to bewilder the perps and informants he’s dealing with, effectively rendering them helpless, unprepared for how to deal with this lunatic.
It all builds towards that famous one-on-one meeting, where De Niro and Pacino sit down in that diner and just talk. Mann occasionally cuts to a wide shot to show the two occupying the same space, but he mostly cuts back and forth between close-ups, letting each actor work his respective magic. It’s an overall haunting scene, the revelation that these two men could’ve been friends in some other world. But there is no other world — there’s only this one, cold and unflinching and unforgiving as it is. Each man is on a pre-destined path, a path littered with blood and bullets. The men inevitably talk about dreams. Neil mentions a dream in which he’s drowning, and he has to wake himself to breathe or he’ll die in his sleep. “You know what that’s about?” Vincent asks. “Yeah,” Neil says. “Having enough time.” “Enough time?” asks Vincent. “To do what you want to do?” Neil: “That’s right.” Vincent: “You doing it now?” Neil: “No, not yet.” That’s the driving force of Heat: enough time. Enough time to spend with these damaged, violent characters. Enough time to see them live or die by their decisions. Time is finite for these characters. And the clock is ticking.