Heat (1995)

reviewed by
Mark R. Leeper

                      A film review by Mark R. Leeper
                       Copyright 1995 Mark R. Leeper
               Capsule: This is a long but more involving
          than involved study of a good cop chasing a very
          good master criminal.  Michael Mann takes his time
          giving a textured view of what being a cop or a
          robber does to each of the important characters and
          to the women in their lives.  But except for the
          detail and perhaps the application of Mann's unique
          visual sense, this is a familiar story.  Rating: +1
          (-4 to +4)

Robert De Niro has been in two crime films released in relatively short order, each just a bit short of three hours long. Of the two, Martin Scorsese's CASINO tells what was for me the more interesting story of how organized crime lost Las Vegas. The same critics who claimed that they had seen before most of what was in that film are praising the originality of Michael Mann's HEAT. But HEAT really is a tale that has been done multiple times before. It is the story of the really good cop and the really good (well, proficient) crook and their long battle of wits and weapons. Director and screenwriter Michael Mann draws that story out to 172 minutes by showing with one good cop and two criminals what being part of that game does to their emotions and their personal life. The film begins by showing us several strands of plot with different characters. In the first part of the film the question is what do these people have to do with each other and what is happening. It turns out that one of the people we see is a police detective and the rest are criminals preparing a heist. Mann intentionally disorients the audience by showing scenes that the viewer cannot be expected to understand yet. They are all part of the story, of course, but they may not become important or even understood until much later. The gang pulls off its heist in spectacular fashion under the supervision of super-criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). It works nearly like clockwork until loose cannon Waingro (Kevin Gage) kills a man. That changes the nature of the crime. The unflappable McCauley still knows exactly what are the right things to do, but it is the beginning of McCauley's problems. Later when police detective Vincent Hanna investigates the crime he finds very few clues and the biggest one is just that whoever did the crime was very, very good. But Hanna is also good.

Thus begins the long game of the cat and the mouse as Hanna tracks down McCauley. What sets this film somewhat apart from numerous other films with similar plots is Mann's deliberate pacing. We get to see what being a police detective does to Hanna. His inability to turn off his work on those rare occasions that he can spend time with his wife and step-daughter has ripped apart his home life. McCauley, on the other hand, claims to allow no relationships in his life that he cannot break on half a minute's notice. Mann show us what these tendencies do to each man as well as to Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), a member of McCauley's gang. On a small scale McCauley and Hanna have a private war complete with impressive arsenals of weapons and clever ways of tracking down intelligence about the other.

The script has some serious problems. We see Pacino called in to investigate multiple homicides that will *eventually* be tied together. But it is always the same homicide investigator, Hanna, who is called to the scene. Is he supposed to be the only homicide detective in Los Angeles? Often the script has the police just seem to be supernaturally good at their jobs. And Pacino overdoes the caring policeman bit just a bit too much. In one scene that seems to go over-the-top he grabs and hugs the mother of a murder victim to console her and prevent her from seeing the victim's body. It is an emotional scene but just does not ring true.

Robert De Niro plays McCauley as smooth and self-assured but given to explosive violence. Pacino plays Hanna as edgy and quick-witted and given to explosive violence. Michael Mann's direction is stylized with his usual exaggerated camera angles and his unusual use of color. And it too is given to explosive violence. Probably the best thing about Mann's previous film, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS was Wes Studi's performance as Magua. Wes Studi, with a face like a corn-grinding stone, is capable of extremely intense acting. Here, however, his role seemed gratuitous and is only of interest in that it was an American Indian in a role that did not need to be played by an Indian. It is nice to see him working and in a non-ethnic role; it is just a pity he was under-used.

The set design is of particular interest here. Hanna's house seems almost totally drained of color, perhaps to make some point about the turning off of emotions. One bad piece of set design has a character who is basically a book clerk living in an apartment with a breathtaking view overlooking the city. A line in the script explains that the building is run-down but has a nice view. But I suspect there are darn few book clerks in Los Angeles with apartments that have views like that.

HEAT is a well-told crime story but tells us little new or really interesting about the lives of anyone one on either side of the law.I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

                                        Mark R. Leeper

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