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The International Writers Magazine
: Reviews: HEAT Directed by Michael Mann

HEAT - Dir Michael Mann
Dan Schnieder review

Staring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro
Now out on DVD

Director Michael Mann seems to be a B director of A films. By that I mean his films lack any vision, or unifying elements that stamp them ‘Michael Mann’- he is so hit and miss in so many ways. Think about it- whatever you think of him, the moment a Tarantino film starts you know it. Mann would have, 50 years ago, been the talented but consummate studio director. Perhaps the only unifying element that Mann films have are that they are all far too long. I’ve now seen four of his films, two excellent ones- Manhunter (far better than its remake, Red Dragon, or any of the Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter films- see Nixon for a truly scary Hopkins!) and The Insider . -Plus two mediocre to bad ones- Ali and now, Heat.

The good films overcome their length by the strength of their scripts and the quality of the actors. The two bad ones do not. Will Smith gives an embarrassingly comic imitation of Muhammad Ali in a hagiographic whitewash of his career, while Heat is such a clichéd cops and robbers flick that I marvel at how many gullible people there are online.

In researching the film the most bandied about words were ‘epic’ and ‘masterpiece’. The film is neither. While the latter term is possibly debatable (not really) the former is not. Epic simply is not equivalent to long. Epic means that the work deals with larger than life characters, situations, and tragedy. Heat is populated by banal small-time off-the-rack clichés of what Hollywood thinks criminals are, not the real deal, has wholly unrealistic situations- especially involving the characters, and cannot, by definition, be tragic since the characters that take a fall are not grand, nor even grandiloquent, to begin with. And, at just 10 minutes shy of 3 hours, it makes KB2 feel like a breezy Looney Tune.

The film, much hyped for the first onscreen meeting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, opens with an only in Hollywood heist of an armored bank truck. The newest member of the gang- Waingro (Kevin Gage) - panics, which results in the murder of the three guards. De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, the gang’s leader, attempts to kill the screw up, but he escapes. Meanwhile, Vincent Hanna (Pacino), LAPD homicide expert, takes over the case. Needless digressions include Hanna’s failing marriage with his faithless wife Justine (Diane Venora) and suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), Waingroe’s revelation as a serial killer of prostitutes, McCauley’s contrived and sparkless romance with a lonely bookworm 25 years his junior, Eady (Amy Brenneman), and the backstory of the newest member of the gang. If the long and superfluous digressions are not bad enough, the implausible action scenes and character interactions are worse- this is an absolutely abominable screenplay, folks. Here are just some of the implausibilities: after figuring out that McCauley’s thieves have turned the tables on him Hanna stops McCauley, who absurdly agrees to a cup of joe with him. This is the big ‘Clash of Titans’ the film hypes, but is as realistic as John Ashcroft breaking bread with Osama bin Laden. Instead, we get insipid dick on the table banter as Hanna warns McCauley he just might have to ‘take him out’. McCauley counters, ‘Oh yeah? I just might have to take you out.’ It would have been a hoot had McCauley replied, ‘You talkin’ to me?’, but no such luck.

When the main bank robbery goes awry McCauley and his sidekick Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), kill dozens with machine guns in downtown LA, while the new guy and their other partner Michael Cheritto, (Tom Sizemore), get killed, Kilmer gets wounded, yet somehow McCauley carries him and the loot to a shot up car and escapes. Made a year after the O.J. Simpson murders one wonders where the LAPD helicopters were to not let the bad guys escape so easily? Eady realizes her new beau, whom she has nothing in common with, is a stone cold killer, as she sees him on a newscast of the shootout. She flees into the night, is followed by McCauley, captured, and dragged back to his place. Of course, love wins out and she consents to go on the run with him to New Zealand (huh?). Having made his great Hollywood escape McCauley just cannot let things rest and jet off with his lover. This is supposed to illustrate his tragic side. He first does in one of his ‘backers’ who doublecrossed him, then goes after Waingroe, who’s stashed at a hotel, under LAPD watch, to trap McCauley. He leaves his lover in the car and tells her to keep it running. He evades the cops and their security cameras by simply pulling a fire alarm. He does in Waingroe, then escapes. But, the hotel is in a panic.

He sees Hanna coming for him outside the hotel. He takes off. Hanna, without any backup or telling anyone where he’s going, takes off after McCauley with a machine gun. They clash on the run through the runways of LAX, where Hanna shoots McCauley. The two men- one a mad dog killer and the other a workaholic cop- hold hands as McCauley dies. This was supposed to symbolize that they made some connection only men can know when they measured each other’s schlongs over coffee. Forget that McCauley murdered at least a dozen of Hanna’s fellow brother cops in the bank heist - Hanna ‘understands’ this man because he’s a cop that’s ‘on the edge’- a phrase he actually uses to describe himself. Why not say ‘outta control’, too? Then again, McCauley is so sympathetic to him because Hanna realizes that he is like McCauley, who earlier said, ‘I don’t know who I am any more.’
This midlife crisis, apparently, the motivation for his heists and mass murder. Repeat after me, my children- OY! Meanwhile Kilmer’s character escapes capture because the wife he abused, Charlene (Ashley Judd), somehow overlooks his scumminess and helps him escape. These two characters were so one-dimensional you have to wonder why Mann got big stars to play them? Kilmer - so great in The Doors and The Salton Sea - simply phones in his performance. Same goes for the superfluous caricatures acted by John Voight, Tom Sizemore, and Natalie Portman.

In short, Heat is a mediocre movie at best - its visual style accounting for whatever props it deserves. It was only two years later that the brilliant L.A. Confidential came along and showed America what a truly great crime film could be. As for the DVD itself? It’s no-frills- there’s no commentary, three trailers, but the actual transfer of the film print is very clean, as is the sound quality. Curiously, the DVD package seems to recapitulate the making of the film: great attention paid to the shine, but a fairly hollow core.
I waited years to see this film because it was so overhyped, just like I waited years to see the abominable Schindler’s List. Heat is not that bad, but post-9/11 this sort of juvenilia all seems kind of unreal. Can I have my weekend back?

© Dan Schneider, May 2004
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