Heat: Director’s Definitive Edition

Studio: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

May 10, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Heat is one of those movies about which one could accurately say, “The don’t make them like this anymore.” Although it spins a simple, timeless story about hardened professional thieves and the equally hardened cops who chase them, Heat blows its well-worn narrative tropes out to epic proportions with measured pacing, a cast of main and supporting characters that numbers in the dozens, and a running time of just under three hours. If writer/director Michael Mann were to make this film today, it would almost certainly find itself on the small screen as an HBO or FX miniseries. It’s easy to pick out the minor scenes and character relationships that could be expanded into subplots in a version of the story that was ten hours rather than three. Such an expansion would probably hinder more than it would help, but it’s hard not to think about given how much our means of consuming serious-minded, adult dramas have changed in the twenty-two years since the film was released.

The likelihood that a 2017 version of Heat would find its home on television is ironic given the film’s history. Based on the real-life relationship/rivalry between a criminal and a cop during the 1960s, Heat was initially written, directed and produced by Mann in 1989 as a television show called L.A. Takedown. The show was never picked up and the two-hour pilot was aired as a TV movie to little success. That Mann couldn’t let go of the idea is unsurprising. Heat is a pure distillation of the thematic and visual preoccupations that have driven his career; violent men defined by their professionalism operating against a backdrop of neo-noir cityscapes. Although it remains the cornerstone of his filmography, the film is most famous for its pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the acting giants of ‘70s New Hollywood, who had both previously appeared in The Godfather Part II but never shared a scene together. The mid-nineties were something of a last hurrah for both Pacino and De Niro as screen legends. De Niro would move on from his decades-spanning collaboration with Martin Scorsese to become a workhorse actor, appearing as the most interesting thing in a laundry list of dopey comedies and bargain-bin thrillers. Pacino has appeared on screens less over the past two decades, returning to his roots in the theater with occasional breaks for HBO movies.

Their much-heralded pairing in Heat is something of a cheat in that regard, with the two sharing a pair of scenes, only one of which – the famous “coffeehouse meeting” – was shot with both actors on set. Although their hotly anticipated showdown is a thematic one that happens off screen for most of the film, both actors give fine performances as mirror-images of each other. De Niro’s Neil McCauley combines the discipline of James Caan’s safe-cracker in Thief with the silver-streaked visual design of Tom Cruise’s assassin in Collateral to create what is probably the ultimate Michael Mann character. Somber and soft-spoken compared to his more famous roles, De Niro creates a believable dichotomy in McCauley best exemplified by the scene in which he meets Eady, his love interest played by Amy Brenneman. As she strikes up a conversation with him in a diner, we see him move from sharp and suspicious to warm and charming within a manner of seconds. You can see the switch flip from “I might have to kill this woman” to “She seems nice” in real time and as their relationship progresses, his longing looks at her remain appropriately predatory. Although firmly in his “Hoo-ah!” phase, Pacino’s performance is equally low-key given his present reputation for performances consisting entirely of Foghorn Leghorn-esque shouting. Everyone jokes about the “Great ass!” scene, but as Vincent Hanna – the dogged LAPD investigator chasing McCauley’s crew – Pacino exudes a fascinating combination of alert readiness and bone-deep exhaustion that sells what is an otherwise clichéd, burnt-out cop character. The actors give the two men a credible laser-focus on complex details that nevertheless seems like they’re both just going through the motions.

The excellent character work by the two leads makes it especially disappointing that Mann feels the need to spell out their psychologies via conversations with their respective wives and girlfriends. Female characters have never been Mann’s strong suit given his fascination with the friendships and rivalries that develop between men of action. His obsession with cool detachment renders his scenes of romantic strife inert and the four female supporting characters – including a teenaged Natalie Portman as Hanna’s disaffected stepdaughter – all exist to funnel the protagonists back toward their all-consuming professions. Despite some narrative bloat and dead-end character arcs – the character of Waingro, a simplistic psycho in a world of professionals, feels especially out of place – Mann remains untouchable when it comes to the technicalities of filmmaking. There’s really nothing left to be said about the famous robbery/shoot-out sequence other than it’s predictably gorgeous – and deafening – in the new restoration overseen by Mann himself. Equally well served are the film’s smoky, chilly greys and blues courtesy of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, which reduces all of Los Angeles to a flat, expansive ghost town that looks empty without looking cheap.

In addition to the deleted scenes, making-of documentary and commentary by Mann ported over from previous editions, the new Blu-ray includes a pair of hour-long panel discussions reuniting much of the original producers and stars. 


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