Heat - Michael Mann, 1995 (film review)

By Brad Phillips
March 31, 2020

I hadn’t seen this movie in a long time. I really don’t like the cultishness around the film, similarly to how I dislike the intense enamoration of Scarface displayed by anyone from two-bit weed dealers to the overlords of cartels and American dope empires. Almost all white kids I knew growing up who smoked weed and listened to hip-hop had Scarface posters in their basements, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people do impersonations of Tony Montana’s famous, “Say hello to my little friend!” 1 - their accents even worse than the Cuban accent Pacino attempted in the film. What mystifies me is that, as with Heat, these people do not seem to remember that in both films, the protagonists die, and their empires dissolve into ashes. Were I to worship someone in relation to their drug business, I’d likely choose Tommy Hilfiger, who funded his fashion line with the proceeds of a very successful cocaine business.2

Heat is a film with many characters, the primary protagonists are Neil McCauley (a career criminal and master of the high-risk heist), played by Robert DeNiro, and Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (a bombastic cop living in the palacial post-modern home of his third wife), played by Al Pacino. At the end of the film, Pacino kills DeNiro, and then in a bizarre quasi-romantic gesture, holds DeNiro’s hand while he dies. 

Al Pacino disgusts me each time I see him on screen. His acting range consists of talking in a normal tone of voice, and then, out of nowhere, screaming. His high decibel outbursts in Heat are often accompanied by finger snaps, which I find nauseating. Examples are the repeated use of the word “Bam”, emphasized with a snap. He also, embarrassingly, says both “Baby” and, “Rock n’ Rollin’”, ending each cringeworthy line with a snap of his hirsute fingers. Pacino’s loudest moments in Heat are the lines, “CAUSE SHE’S GOT A GREAAAAT ASS”, and “GIVE ME WHAT YOU GOT, GIVE ME WHAT YOU GOT’.

A lot of people say this film is ‘important’ because it’s the first film where Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro share a scene. This is of absolutely no import whatsoever, outside the world of a specified subgroup of film nerds. The scene itself is corny as fuck - Pacino is the cop chasing DeNiro. He knows DeNiro is about to ‘do a score’, and DeNiro knows that Pacino is onto him. While driving, Pacino pulls DeNiro over and suggests they have what? Coffee. The scene in the coffee shop is a clusterfuck of cliches, which I admit I enjoy. I find comfort in cliches as they’re mostly true. DeNiro explains he’ll never go back to prison, and Pacino explains that, “Brother”, when it comes down to it, if I have to, I’ll take you down etc. DeNiro informs Pacino that he is similarly inclined, and “will not hesitate to put you down”. They are both well dressed, there is an environment of mutual admiration, as each admits to each other that they will not cease what they are doing, since neither of them have any other interests. They depart amicably. 

I do like this movie, because I like Michael Mann (who was the creator of Miami Vice and has made many good films, particularly Thief, 1981, starring James Caan in his heyday), I like Val Kilmer who plays Chris Shiherlis, shit husband, father and inveterate gambling addict, with an almost puppy-like devotion to DeNiro. I also like Tom Sizemore, who plays trigger-happy Michael Cheritto, who delivers the oft repeated, head shop t-shirt emblazoned line, “For me, the action is the juice.” I love outrageous gunfights, particularly in public places. During the time of its release, I believe Heat broke the record for the most gunshots filmed in a single sequence. The crew arrives at the bank with ammunition equivalent to that used by a Serbian paramilitary group. I love crime movies, I love underdogs, even if the underdogs are in five thousand dollar suits and have no concern for collateral damage. I like seeing cops killed in movies, and I support bank robbery generally, unless it's done by a tweaking meth head who kills a baby with a jenky shotgun over fifty dollars. I’ve often imagined that towards the end of my life, I’d like to rob a bank. Worst case scenario really is death by cop. Somehow I feel like each of us has the innate right to try and rob a bank before we die. I love really theatrical masks used in bank robberies (for a stellar example of bank robbery outfits, see The Town, 2010 starring Ben Affleck, during which Affleck’s crew robs an armored car dressed as nuns with elderly people masks) Expensive halloween type masks used in heists are far scarier and impressive than pantyhose pulled over someone’s face, which isn’t very effective in hiding one’s identity - it simply leads to the face appearing elongated and squished.

My primary criticism of Heat is the appearance of Al Pacino, although he’s ideal for the role, I still find trouble tolerating his face and voice in my visual/audio landscape. If you Google “Al Pacino 2020”, or, really “Al Pacino real life, 2000-2020, you will  see how committed this man has been throughout his life to an outrageous haircut which looks like a raven made a nest on his head and then exploded while finishing the job. I recognize this isn’t particularly salient in relation to a film review, and is ultimately judgemental, but I was told there were ‘no rules’ when writing this review, which I enjoyed hearing. 

Gunfights, male bonding, cops vs. robbers, tailored suits and military grade weapons. There’s not much more I can ask for when looking to be entertained. And at forty-six years old I’m also just as entertained by these movies without the accompaniment of marijuana, which casts the quality of the film in a whole new light. IMDb.com gives Heat 8.2 stars, which is incredibly high for the site, and I would say that it’s a justifiable number.

Plot and character wise, there is one cliche and narrative element that is poorly developed and inherently sexist. Neil McCauley (Bob DeNiro), one day at a coffee shop meets Eady (Amy Brenneman), a mild mannered, somewhat meek employee of a bookstore that DeNiro frequents. They find themselves seated next to each other at a diner. McCauley is reading a book on metallurgy (no doubt to hone his safecracking skills). Eady starts up a conversation with the quiet reader, asking him what he’s reading and so on. McCauley is suspect of her questions, which is a natural side effect of being a wanted criminal. After that, with very little expository information, they develop a rarely depicted affair. He is mysterious and older, she is young and has led a sheltered life. They sleep together in McCauley’s preposterously beautiful apartment which has an entire glass wall facing the ocean. He’s cagey about what he does, but Eady doesn’t ask too many questions. With no explanation, Eady becomes devoted to McCauley, and the day after the botched robbery, which resulted in the deaths of multiple police officers, McCauley asks Eady to ‘take off’ with him, pack her things today and get ready to move to New Zealand tomorrow. At first she displays a slight moral aversion upon discovering that her mysterious new lover is not only a bank robber, but a cop killer. After a somewhat pressured session of lovemaking, Eady decides to abandon her morals, and happily agrees to accompany this man, of whom she knows next to nothing, and move to the other side of the world. As in all crime movies, right before they can get to the private airstrip where a Lear jet is waiting to spirit them off to a new life, McCauley, having completed that classic ‘last job’, decides he can’t leave town without exacting revenge on the man who snitched him out. He makes a sudden lane change and heads away from the airstrip and toward the hotel hiding the man who fucked him over. He tells Eady to ‘wait in the car’, which she obediently does. Of course, everything goes to shit at the hotel (which results in DeNiro dying while holding hands with a mournful Pacino, who acts like a nature lover after shooting a deer, thanking the dear for offering its life, and promising to use every part of its body). Leaving the hotel, DeNiro is spotted by Pacino, which begins the start of a slow chase to a final gunfight. Eady, doing as told, remains waiting in the car. As police begin to arrive en masse, she knows something is up. DeNiro, now having to move hastily to get ahead of Pacino, takes one glance at Eady, a woman who’s offered to sacrifice her life for the company of a mysterious but admittedly quite handsome cop-killer. As he attempts to get ahead of Pacino, DeNiro glances inside the car at Eady, whose face is a pleading mask of confusion. DeNiro stares at her, does not smile, then begins to run off. It is this final scene that DeNiro adhered to the rule he was taught by his mentor, and in turn taught his mentees. While Eady watches her life dissolve, DeNiro demonstrates the ethos of what he believes is crucial to the success of any career criminal.

“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

In that five second scene, five seconds become the rest of Eady’s life, and that moment, more than scenes of explosive rage by Pacino, demonstrates that while all cliches are true, some are extraordinarily cruel, and often at the expense of women. In this way, Heat is a high caliber crime film, as even the cruelty rings true, as loud as the armor piercing bullets that decimate LAPD cruisers. 

1. [ The use of Montana’s massive gun as a proxy for what perhaps might be a less than average penis seems obvious to me. Calling your gun your little friend reminds me of my friend Mike Piche from junior high school, who called his penis ‘The Snakemaster’, but once caught naked showering in a stall, his penis was revealed to resemble not much more than a bloated earthworm. ]
2. [ This is inside information and will not be found on Google, but I feel comfortable within a range of say 75-80 percent that it’s true, based on two separate sources. ]