Retro Review: Heat

Retro Review:  Heat.

Our focus on “hot” movies gives us Al Pacino and Robert De Niro playing cops and robbers in Michael Mann’s stylish heist thriller, Heat.

Retro Review: Heat.The temperatures outside are cooling off but we’re still heating up with a look back at some of the best movies to feature “hot” titles.  This week we look at 1995’s crime thriller, Heat, which is packed so full of star power you might mistake it for the Law & Order version of The Expendables.  If you’ve ever seen somebody headline a police procedural, you’ll find them in this flick.  Michael Mann, the director behind some of my favorite films like Manhunter and Last of the Mohicans, is eminently comfortable with this genre, and Heat is one of the best heist movies out there.  It even has Henry Rollins in it, so at least he’s starred in one good bank robbery film.

Retro Review: Heat.
I thought we agreed you’d never mention “The Last Heist” ever again…

Heat (1995)

Retro Review: Heat.
I love the smell of cordite in the morning!

Robert De Niro is the head of a four-man crew of expert thieves.  They specialize in high-stakes robberies, and as the film begins, we see them preparing to knock over an armored car.  Literally knock it over, by the by.  Unfortunately they hook up with some unskilled muscle for the job, and things go south when the loose cannon Waingro kills one of the guards.

This brings the case to the attention of Al Pacino’s character, an eccentric lieutenant who specializes in taking down high profile criminals.  Adding to De Niro’s headaches, the owner of the valuables in the armored car decides to hunt down the men who robbed him, and recruits Waingro for information.  To top it all off, De Niro meets a woman who forces him to compromise his one rule:  never have any attachment to something or someone you’re not willing to walk away from if you feel the heat coming down.

A Deep Bench

Retro Review: Heat.
OK, so now you go do Batman Forever, I’ll go do Meet the Fockers, and Tom you go…completely insane. On three!

One striking element to Heat is the depth of the cast.  De Niro is fantastic, and Al Pacino has good moments, though he is firmly in his Scent of a Woman, raise your voice till your screaming at the end of each line mode.  The thieves are well fleshed out, with Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer at the height of their careers (before both suffered a precipitous decline in roles and apparent ability.)  Richard Fitzner, Danny Trejo, and Henry Rollins all have small parts that are well done, rounding out the rogues gallery.

On the blue team, Pacino is surrounded by Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans) and Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs) who give wonderful and understated performances.  Dianne Venora, Ashley Judd and Amy Brenneman give life to the women on both sides of the conflict, and a young Natalie Portman is memorable as Pacino’s step-daughter suffering from abandonment issues.  Every small part is filled with considerable talent, my favorite being Dennis Haysbert.  He plays a small time ex-con who is desperately trying to put his life together but is pissed on by every part of the system that is rigged to send him back to a life of crime.

Retro Review: Heat.
Say, you guys need insurance?

A Mann’s Man

Michael Mann likes to tell the story of intensely isolated men who live outside of society’s more polite sphere.  His characters are potent and visceral when provoked, but quickly retreat back into their own minds.  The flow of his films tend to mirror this facet of his characters by having meticulously crafted rising action explode into violence and conflict before subsiding into protracted character development.

Retro Review: Heat.
Pacnino is at his strongest sparring with De Niro.

His use of dialogue is crisp and clipped, allowing his characters to express their defining features in a few well placed lines.  People tend to live and die by mottoes and oaths, and define themselves by these totemic utterances.  It does lend itself to static characters, but he fills his pictures with such talent that you have one note characters who feel alive and fully realized.  The conflict in his pieces often comes from when his main character reaches an inflection point where they are allowed to choose a new direction, and from the physical and mental struggle that results when they usually fail to change.

Sounds like Heaven

Retro Review: Heat.
Just try not to start humming this song now.

Another hallmark of Mann’s filmography is his expert choice of soundtrack.  Each piece highlights and cements the elements of the scene it is inserted into.  The violent conflict at the end of Manhunter, set to In a Gadda Da Vida; the iconic final confrontation between the Mohicans and Hurons set to the swelling violins and bagpipes of Trevor Jones’ “The Gael” theme; the final shootout between Pacino and De Niro set to the haunting electronic elegy “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.”  These crescendo’s cap off incredible scenes full of pathos and violence.

If You Spot the Heat…

Retro Review: Heat.
Um, I ordered this with no ham, please.

This film is not flawless.  Mann overindulges Pacino, allowing him to swing from taciturn grumbles into screaming tirades that often don’t reflect the lines of situations he is in.  The skillful game of cat and mouse ends in a bit of a hand-waving fashion where Pacino makes leaps of deduction like he’s reading the storyboard instead of actually doing police work.  Several characters are given too little to do for how interesting and well-cast they are.  But for all of that, this film is still gripping.

There are so many small things that are done well.  The pace is skillfully managed so that we get enough action interspersed with the necessary character development.  The film treats both cops and robbers intelligently, often showing them in sequence to behave in much the same fashion, as real people.  De Niro is really dynamic in his role.  The action sequences are well shot and artfully choreographed.  Heat is an all-around well made film, and well worth your time, no matter how hot it is outside.

Retro Review: Heat.
…and it gets very hot in this city.


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  1. See It Instead: Chaos Walking.

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