SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen Heat, it's on Netflix and you should watch it because it's really good. If you'd like to read about it first, well, the review is below. If you'd like to see it before reading about it, go right ahead. But you may want to jump down to the bottom of the post first for a quick note about the film's content. Thanks!
When Heat came out in 1995, its marketing was mainly tied to its two stars - Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. That makes sense given the fact that they are both acting legends, but this film had an added element. It would be the first time that the two legends would appear on screen together. They had both been in The Godfather Part II, but that film's storyline meant that they would never share any screen time.
In a film with multiple great scenes, it is that famous scene - the coffee shop scene - where they do, in fact, share the screen. It comes pretty far into the film, which must have frustrated those first audiences. But within this story, that waiting time only makes us savor the fantastic places this film will go in its closing act.
This is a story about two men. They are separated by their chosen professions - one a criminal, and one a cop. But they share the same soul, the same essence. They understand each other on a deep level, even though they've never met before. The criminal is Neil McCauley (De Niro), and the cop is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino). Neil is not your average criminal, and Vincent is not your average cop. They are both driven men, and that drive comes at the expense of the other parts of their lives.
Hanna has already been divorced two times, and his current marriage to Justine (Diane Venora) is on the rocks. Every time we see them together, Vincent is pulled away. He is always chasing the bad guys. Justine is left to take care of their house and her daughter from a previous marriage, Lauren (an early performance from Natalie Portman). This is not necessarily presented as Vincent's "fault" necessarily. It is simply the reality of his job. In that sense, yes, he has chosen not to be there for his family. The flip side of that coin is that his family has chosen him - his job and all.
The reality of Neil's profession is that he feels he cannot have such relationships. He often repeats a phrase that he heard from another felon. It's pretty easy to see why this phrase is so important to the theme of the film.
"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."
As the film continues, it is obvious that Neil is feeling "the heat" as Vincent is closing in on him. At the same time, Vincent is feeling the heat too, the pressure that comes from the blurred lines between he and Neil. If he can't catch Neil, why is he ruining his family life for this job? What's the purpose?
The film cranks up a notch when Neil begins to rethink whether or not he can actually follow his own advice. Partway through the film, he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman). This man, who is willing to drop everything in pursuit of his next score, now sees the possibility for another life. As he and Eady continue to get more serious, Neil comes closer and closer to the point where he will have to decide what type of life he wants to live.
From a technical perspective, the film is fantastic. Its stylized take on the streets of Los Angeles is a clear frontrunner to films like The Dark Knight and Drive. In fact, Christopher Nolan has been upfront about how much of an influence this film was on his 2008 Batman movie. One shot in particular stood out to me as a connection point between the two films. You can't discuss Heat's technical prowess without discussing its masterful set pieces. The first of these, a holdup of an armored truck, has a shot looking up at a semi truck that The Dark Knight clearly imitated in a similar scene of its own.
At the end of the day, it is Michael Mann's incredible direction that makes this such a powerful film. We've seen the cops vs. criminals story so many times before, and this film could easily fall into the same cliches. Instead, it delves into the differences and similarities between these two men. It unearths the blurred lines between right and wrong and the incredible lengths to which these men must go. It is a long film, clocking in at a 2 hour and 52 minute runtime. But maybe more than any film of that length I've ever seen before, it feels effortless. It glides along and never gets bogged down. That is a testament to Mann's work.
Finally, I must also credit the music. It's synthesized stylings help the film glide along, but it also knows when to recede and let ambient sound take center stage. There is no better example of this than in the film's final scene, where the sounds of landing airplanes provides a melody of repetition similar to that of waves on the beach. The world is passing these men by as they play their little game. What is it worth in the end? The sounds here add so much to that, and I must credit the music for its willingness to step back and let those moments happen. However, the music should not be lauded only for what it doesn't do. It also adds so much life to the film through its brooding quality and simmering undertones.
My only major complaint with this film is with some of the dialogue. Specifically, there is one scene near the end where Justine basically provides psychoanalysis of her marriage to Vincent. The line is so on-the-nose and blatantly expository that it really pulled me out of the scene. Diane Venora gives a fine performance, and her character is vital to the film's plot, but this moment was clearly the film's lowlight for me.
Having said that, the dialogue in the film is otherwise quite good. People will obviously bring up the coffee shop scene between Pacino and De Niro, and for good reason. It is an incredible intersection of great writing, acting, and direction. An interesting side note is that the film is based upon the life the real Neil McCauley and Detective Chuck Adamson, the man that Vincent is based upon. The real-life versions of these characters also met for coffee once, and their conversation is replicated in nearly word-for-word dialogue in the film.
By the end of the film, we are left to consider the sheer loneliness of the lives inhabited by those on either side of the line of justice. Whether you're the one chasing or the one being chased, it is difficult to carry on a "normal" life outside of that. What even is a "normal" life? All these questions and more come to mind while watching Heat. Rarely have I seen such a thoughtful film that combines so many quality filmmaking elements. You may be drawn in by the chance to see Pacino and De Niro go head-to-head, but it is the rest of this incredible film that will leave you awestruck by the end.
Note on content: There is one scene early in the film that depicts sexual content. There is no nudity, but a married couple is showing kissing and caressing on a bed in close detail. There is also another scene where a woman (who is clearly a young prostitute) is talking to a man she just had sex with. They are both completely clothed, but the dialogue is explicit. There is a great deal of violence in the film, as would be expected in a crime film. Lots of blood is shown, particularly in one scene where a man is talking to another man who has been recently shot. He is laying in a pool of his own blood, and the camera does not flinch in its view of him. There is also a great deal of profanity in the film, again, as might be expected. This film is certainly not for younger viewers, but its thematic elements do make for interesting conversation starters, specifically around the nature of good and bad and the effect one's job can have on their family life.