Why Heat May Be the Best Movie About Men and Criminals
By this point in history, it should be a crime to speak about great American filmmakers and not mention Michael Mann. Somehow, Mann has always been regarded differently to the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, or Spielberg. It doesn’t take many minutes into his work to see that whatever the synopsis or log-line informed, is just the tip of the iceberg. To say that Mann is the most “European” American filmmaker of his generation would be an understatement, yet this is a notion headed in the right direction to explain what has set him apart for the past four decades.
His historical dramas like The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, and Ali are impeccable formal works that could stand amongst Scorsese’s most epic films, but this is not where his work acquires its unique quality. Though it’s felt in the mentioned films, it’s Mann’s distinctive use of the crime film genre that has made him a household name. He employs stories of men on both sides of the law to speak about deeper human issues through detailed storytelling and visual poetry.
His defining moment is the 1995 epic crime saga, Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as an LAPD detective and career criminal, respectively. Through its 170 minutes, Heat proves to be the definite statement of Michael Mann as an auteur, and it may as well be the greatest depiction of men and criminals to ever grace the screen.
What Is Heat About?
This nearly three-hour epic finds the obsessively perfectionist skilled criminal thief, Neil McCauley (De Niro), leading a top-of-the-line crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo) taking scores across Los Angeles. On their tail is the equally obsessive detective Vincent Hanna, who begins a cat-and-mouse game with McCauley, in which both of them recognize and respect the other’s abilities and dedication. For both Hanna and McCauley there is no other way to life, and they both know, that despite their mutual recognition, this will all end in violence.
Crime Films as a Vehicle to Explore Human Complexity
From Thief, his excellent debut, all the way to the underrated 2015 Blackhat, Michael Mann has used crime thrillers to explore the existential troubles in the heart of men. Through visual, auditive, and contextual leitmotifs, like the intense use of blue in its cinematography, meditative scoring, and skillful direction, Mann subtly introduces a deeper layer to films that in the hands of a lesser-skilled filmmaker, would end up in the clichés of many action films.
Though Heat has many iconic action sequences which include the aftermath of heist-gone-wrong filmed like a war epic, or a carefully planned armed truck robbery, most of its scenes are dialogue-driven insights into the minds of its characters. At the core of the film, is an iconic scene where Hanna and McCauley talk over coffee in a Beverly Hills restaurant.
The Thin Line Between Cops and Criminals
That aforementioned scene is the first time De Niro and Pacino appear together on-screen, which seems ludicrous, as one would often associate the two together. There are not many words that can describe their encounter, even masterful or perfect seem small to describe just how important and iconic the scene is.
The seven-minute conversation is a back and forth of both men acknowledging each other, showing their profound respect for the other’s ideals and motivations. Hanna’s determination is matched by what McCauley’s calls discipline. They value one another, because they are not that different. Their lives, which in no way are normal, find each other at an intersection.
This is not the only scene which alludes to the similarities between cops and thieves, there are mirrored sequences which show both police and criminals sharing dinner with their respective families. In both of these, Vincent and Neil leave, as they can never really find a place in their lives for family. Their loneliness and dedication to their work is what sets them apart and makes them stellar at what they do, but there’s more to it than that.
Heat and Workaholic Masculinity
In their conversation, one topic that comes up is family. “If you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?” This question, made by Neil to Vincent, is at the center of Mann’s films: men’s complicated task of balancing work and family.
Vincent is married (twice divorced) but spends most of his time away, chasing criminals like Neil. The latter, begins a relationship with a woman who works at a bookshop he frequents, but is ready to leave her if given the case. “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” This creed by which the master thief lives by, exemplifies the crucial notion of workaholic masculinity Mann has so brilliantly crafted for the past decades.
Through it all, they are both lonely. Their work might be the cause of it, but they are not keen on changing, they are who they are. They both walk away from attachment because it would make them vulnerable, thus unfit for the pursuit of their obsessions which require their full dedication. This being said unearths another dimension to their encounter: they feel seen in the other’s presence.
Heat Is a Film About Love
The title refers to the pressure criminals feel from law enforcement, but it also hints at the stress of these men trying to balance their self-fulfillment with providing and being there for their families. No matter how hard they push love away, they end up heading towards it. That love here, is not something that can be said, it will only show up through narrow emotional corners of each of the characters.
Neil McCauley shuns attachment, but when he falls in love, he finally understands loneliness and is yet incapable of verbally expressing his feelings. Near the end, he admits he doesn’t want to leave on his own, letting himself be vulnerable for the first time. Hanna feels like he can’t be emotionally present for his family, something that apparently changes after tragedy falls upon his stepdaughter. It takes both a long time to make space in their hearts to give in.
The film’s final act finds an end to their cat and mouse game with a nearly wordless poetic chase through LAX, which concludes with one of them living and the other dying. In their final moment together, they hold hands, like at the end of a tennis match, both competitors recognizing each other and sharing the crucial moment in how their masculinity allows them to. It’s a final act of love; what they have been truly searching for, they subtly find in one another.