Heat is an acclaimed film. It is Michael Mann’s magnum opus, an epic crime saga where two world-class actors square off as a cop and a robber so dedicated to their respective crafts that the rest of the world falls away into nothingness as their all-consuming dance plays out in Mann’s lilting, moodily atmospheric vision. That is what people will tell you anyway. Do not believe it. It is a lie.
It is true that Heat pairs two world-class actors against one another - Godfather alumni Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who had until then never shared a frame together. The problem is that when the film came out only one of them was still at the top of their game, and it wasn't Michael Corleone. By the 1990s, Al Pacino had given up on the naturalistic, subtle acting style that established his singular talent in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, and instead was resorting to loudly yelling things in a voice so hoarse one could easily have mistaken him for Harvey Fierstein.
There is a scene in Heat where Pacino abruptly screams the line: “Because she has a GREAT ASS." This moment is rightly known and ridiculed for being utter nonsense and when it happened I couldn't stop laughing. It’s not over-the-top in a good way nonsense, either, like when Daniel Day-Lewis bashes Paul Dano’s smug face in with a bowling pin. This is over-the-top in a bad way, and Pacino’s subsequent performances throughout the decade would lean into this style of hysterical over-acting, creating a truly post-modern phenomenon where every Pacino performance ended up basically being Al Pacino doing an unhinged impression of himself. He is terrible in this movie, and it pains me to say so.
De Niro is much better, playing the suave tough guy archetype that he was born to play. It is also arguably one of his last great acting performances, before he gave into the inertia of age and a declining interest in the craft, and began mailing it in leading to such cinematic atrocities as last year's Dirty Grandpa. Heat is therefore hardly an epic face-off between two acting titans at the height of their powers. If anything, it is a requiem for the dying light of their storied careers as they were forced to carry the weight of a bloated, generic crime film that had confused itself with a masterpiece.
The film is undoubtedly atmospheric. There are some great establishing shots. The action is staged exceptionally well, and we are often dropped right into it with little set-up or exposition, so the audience is forced to follow along and scramble to decode what they are seeing as compelling images spill out onto the screen. But these beautiful, meticulously crafted visual cues are deployed in service of what exactly? The film is hollow on the inside. Mann has conflated “epic” with “long and boring”.
The movie is three hours, but the plot is generic cookie-cutter stuff: obsessive police officer tracks down highly skilled and efficient criminal mastermind. Clues are obtained. Cat and mouse game ensues. In a climactic ending, justice is either served or, if the anti-hero is meant to charm the audience he might get away with it. Mann tries to inject some gravitas and depth into this standard trope by having long periods in which nothing happens except the main characters discuss their personal lives. This is a huge mistake and the film cannot recover from it.
Heat has a definite rhythm that is standard in action films. Intense action sequences alternate with slower interludes in which key plot pieces are moved around and characters develop. We learn more about their motivations, their personalities, their back-stories. If this is done correctly, the audience begins to care about the characters, even if they are bank robbers. In Heat, it is done abysmally, primarily because the slower portions swallow up about eighty-five percent of the run-time and have very little to show for it. The contemplative, character-building interludes are really long, really boring, and oddly talky. The characters spend many long, painful minutes explicitly explaining their motivations and feelings to one another.
This is, of course, a cardinal sin in filmmaking because you’re telling instead of showing. It could have been done so much more economically. The main thrust of this film is that the cop and the robber are foils for one another; they are both obsessed with their crafts, and it causes their personal relationships to wither. They have more in common with one another than with anyone else. This is a common theme in Michael Mann films – obsessive professionals and the sacrifices they must make in the pursuit of their vision.
This is a favorite theme of Damien Chazelle as well. But notice how Whiplash was not three hours long. That is because Chazelle chose to show us the sacrifices that the character was willing to make to become the best drummer in the world. Close-ups of his bleeding hands. He throws away a relationship with a nice girl. He tolerates withering abuse from a mentor. This is all blended neatly into the narrative, rather than explained to us via conversations between characters over and over again. Chazelle doesn’t make the subtext text. He trusts the audience to be smart enough to understand what the point of the film is based on the things the characters do.
Mann does not trust his audience. Instead of just showing us Robert De Niro’s lonely existence by having him walk through his opulent but empty beach home, he has De Niro state that he cannot get attached to anything. And in case you are in danger of forgetting, the character will remind you every forty-five minutes or so that he really, like for real guys, cannot form any attachments. De Niro even re-states this in the film’s much ballyhooed meeting between the two leading men in a coffee shop. The coffee scene is the first time the two actors ever shared the screen together, and it is deliberately under-stated to subvert expectations. But it’s also an exercise in superfluous and overly on-the-nose storytelling, in which the two men discuss their dreams (because that is what dudes do when they meet up for coffee) and baldly state that their obsession with the craft has forced them to abandon all other worldly attachments. Almost every scene that doesn’t involve a robbery is an orgy of talky gobbledy-gook and it does not make for an enjoyable experience.
The movie is shot through with this kind of baggage. Much celluloid is wasted developing extra characters who are not important to the plot, thematic content or structure of the film at all. One such minor character has several scenes devoted to his journey as an ex-con trying to scrape out a living as a line cook – just for him to be unceremoniously killed in a shoot-out, with no apparent importance to the structure or arc of the film whatsoever. There is a subplot involving a serial killer murdering black hookers, and another involving a suicidal teen. All of these things are tacked onto a film that is essentially a conventional genre piece, and they add nothing to it but dead weight.
Lastly, the characters are idiots so it’s impossible to give a shit about them one way or the other. There is a famous bank robbery shoot-out, an admirably staged and filmed action set piece. It is also infamous because a few years later life imitated art, and a shoot-out that very closely resembled it actually played out in the streets of Los Angeles. In the movie, De Niro and Val Kilmer escape from the shoot-out after killing numerous police officers. The entire city is hunting for these two. They almost have Val Kilmer dead to rights, but the police let him go because in a twist that even M. Night Shymalanan would have rejected, he shows them a fake ID. A fake ID? Did this cop get his training at the police academy from the Police Academy movies??? Are we really being asked to believe that he does not know what one of the two most wanted men in the entire city LOOKS like? And he simply waves him on because he gives him a FAKE ID??
I don’t always hold films to such high standards of logical consistency. But this one purports to be an epic crime saga that delves into the heart of driven, morally complex men and comes out the other side waving around some truths about the human condition. Yet it cannot make that claim while allowing the characters that populate its world to behave like malfunctioning espresso machines. By doing so, it completely fails to make us care about any of them. De Niro is able to coast on his tough guy charisma, but even he gets tripped up by the sloppy character work.
His character is introduced as having no attachments, because that is what a life dedicated to crime demands. Of course, in order for his character to have some kind of arc, he is given a love interest and then spends several dopey, witheringly dry scenes wooing her. Not only is there no chemistry between these two actors, but the love interest has been created out of whole cloth solely to serve a plot function: later, at a crucial point in the film, De Niro will turn his back and abandon her, thus demonstrating that he is serious about the willingness to sacrifice everything. You know, just in case the six times he looked straight into the fucking camera and said it hadn’t convinced you.
Because she is a prop whose sole existence is to provide that moment later in the film, her character is an empty vessel and all the scenes between her and De Niro are just lifeless garbage time. This is really driven home when De Niro goes to her house after the shoot-out at the bank. During their courtship he told her that he was a salesman, but she has just seen his face plastered all over the evening news as the mastermind of a botched bank robbery in which numerous police officers were killed, so she now knows this to be a lie. But when he shows up at her house, he just acts like everything is hunky-dorey.
She freaks out a little, and then after being tackled in a field - which is the universal short-hand for beginning a timeless romance – she simply accepts that he is a criminal mastermind cop-killing bank robber who has lied to her for their entire relationship and decides it will be a good idea to flee the country with him. Why? Well, because apparently she loves him even though the film has done absolutely nothing to earn this. It merely tells us that this is so. But how can this possibly be? Until a few minutes ago she thought he was some kind of vacuum cleaner salesman!
When you can see the machinery at work, it really punctures the magic of cinema. And in this film, you can so clearly see the machinery churning laboriously behind the screen at every turn. Pacino over-acts. Subplots exist just to serve as ballast. The themes are repeatedly stated for us directly into the camera while the film drowns in its own moody aesthetic in between flashes of action. It is stuffed full of irrelevant characters doing unnecessary and/or inexplicable things. The movie is so swollen with its own sense of importance that it seemingly suspends the laws of physics, causing time to grind a halt and making three hours feel like ten. It’s truly a bad film. And yet, critics and fans have canonized it as some kind of classic. I suppose there will always be some mysteries in this world that are beyond the scope of human comprehension, and Heat is surely one of them.