Sunday, November 17, 2019

Heat's Character Scenes Are Only OK But Its Heist Sequences Are Sublime

Before they worked together on The Irishman and Righteous Kill, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro's first big post-Godfather: Part II collaboration was the Michael Mann feature Heat. There's a reason pairing these two up together for a movie holds a lot of appeal beyond just tying into residual nostalgia for the second Godfather movie, these are two of the most acclaimed American actors of all-time, who wouldn't want to see them join forces for a motion picture? It's like asking if you want Kacey Musgraves and Carley Rae Jepsen to collaborate on a track, the answer is an obvious yes. The pairing of De Niro and Pacino in Heat specifically adds another industry titan into the mix in the form of director Michael Mann.

All of that talent is employed on an expansive crime story written by Mann himself. Said story concerns a bank-robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), who is being tracked down by LAPD officer Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who becomes obsessed with tracking down McCauley and bringing him to justice. A widespread cat-and-mouse game occuring all over Los Angeles transpires as McCauley prepares to pull off one more score with his crew, which includes Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), while Hanna grapples with how much his fixation on solving the most brutal crimes this city has to offer is impacting his home life in an adverse manner.

Michael Mann's script for this plot is a dense creation that's especially exceptional when it comes to big heist sequences. Mann's a filmmaker known for his propulsive set pieces and that gift is put on full display in the most dynamite portions of Heat. Impressively, such a display also shows off that Mann has some versatility in how he gets you to clench your fists in anticipation. He can accomplish that with guns-a-blazing action set pieces for sure, but he can keep you equally in suspense when it comes to more restrained scenes relying on atmosphere rather than violence to keep you unsure of what exactly will happen next. This is especially apparent in a segment of the story where Hanna and company are quietly watching McCauley and Shiherlis drill into a building.

Both parties here are trying their best to make as little noise as possible, the scarcity of even the slightest murmur ensures that the tiniest creak will make both the characters and viewer stand up on edge. It's a brilliantly-executed scene as is an extended shootout in the streets of L.A. after a bank robbery goes awry. Both Mann's writing and directing convey an authentic sense of terrifying unpredictability to this sequence. Nobody has some grand plan to get themselves out of this scenario, people are just dropping off like flies and moments of victory for Hanna emerge in a brutal and fleeting manner that makes you question how victorious these moments truly are.

When Mann is in action heist movie mode in Heat, you can't keep your eyes off the screen. On the other hand, the more intimate character-driven scenes of Heat are a more mixed bag. To be sure, there are some standout parts in this section of the movie that prove to be as propulsively compelling as the larger-in-scale heist sequences, particularly a cafe conversation between Pacino and De Niro's characters. But it's hard to get involved dramatically with their individual home lives since the supporting characters inhabiting them rarely get the chance to come across as human beings. Despite being a three-hour-long motion picture, Heat somehow never finds screentime to make McCauley's love interest, Eady (Amy Brenneman), an actual believable character.

Mann's affinity for small dialogue-driven moments of character-building is admirable and does help to effectively make the world of Heat feel properly detailed and lived-in. In its best moments, like a brief subplot concerning a doomed getaway driver played by Dennis Haysbert, these portions of Heat make it seem like each character's story could sustain its own separate movie. In its weakest moments, though, these scenes tend to just make a lengthy movie drag. At least even the slowest of these sequences tend to see flashes of strong work being delivered by both of the lead actors. Though they're capable of sleepwalking through much of their modern-day work, in their best movies, Pacino and De Niro are reliably engaging performers and that's certainly true of their work in Heat. Though Michael Mann's massive 1995 crime movie Heat has its share of shortcomings, Pacino and De Niro's work here certainly isn't among them.

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