Year – 1995
Certificate – 15
Runtime – 170 mins
Country – USA
Director – Michael Mann
Cast – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd
There are only a handful of film directors who have become masters of their chosen genre. When you hear their name, you instantly know that film is worth watching. Wes Craven is a powerhouse of horror, Quentin Tarantino is the post modern auteur, Kathryn Bigelow brutally documents the experience of war and Judd Apatow has created his own modern day comedy blueprint. When it comes to the action thriller, Michael Mann is the name you want to hear.
Having directed films like Manhunter (1986), Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Insider (1999) and Public Enemies (2009), Mann knows how to captivate an audience with intelligent storytelling. For many people, however, 1995’s Heat is his crowning glory. Written and directed by Mann, Heat brings together an unstoppable cast in a thriller which is honest edge-of-your-seat viewing until the last second.
Heat stars Pacino as LAPD veteran, Vincent Hanna, who wears his tired skin as a badge of honour. Vincent’s latest case involves a robbery and three executed corpses, with only a single word as the clue to the culprits. Quickly, Vincent links the robbery to a sophisticated criminal gang led by the unknown Neil McCauley (De Niro). With one big score on the cards and the heat rising around them, McCauley’s gang make a choice whether to run from the heat or pull off the score of their dreams to go out guns blazing.
Mann’s film is a success on so many levels. His ability to combine the popcorn action necessary for a wide audience, with intelligent characterisation and storytelling is so very rare. Future writer/directors such as Christopher Nolan (The Batman Trilogy, Inception) must have been influenced by the ease at which Mann is able to blend serious award-worthy performances with unforgettable plots and extreme action sequences. His technique proves that action cinema does not have to be dumb and that the thriller doesn’t have to be a slow burn. Clocking in at almost three hours in length, it is a testament to everyone involved in the film that the audience is never left with their mind wandering elsewhere.
Of course the performances are outstanding. Pacino plays his crazy-eyed best, being just lovable enough but never really being the character you want to see succeed. As we watch his home life descend into neglect due to his instance on catching the criminal, it’s a bitter sweet sensation for the audience due to the charismatic joys of his nemesis. The choice to ignore good-guy-bad-guy etiquette is certainly what makes the film so enthralling. The notorious scene which sees Pacino and De Niro meet for a tense cup of coffee is still one of the best in cinema history.
De Niro’s McCauley character is a surprising foreshadowing of one of TV’s greatest creations: Tony Soprano. McCauley’s obsession with family, love and comradery is contrasted with his ruthless actions in the same way as David Chase’s Italian mobster. The audience cannot help but cheer for McCauley and his team: especially Kilmer’s long-haired, gambler, Chris who acts to enhance McCauley’s paternal nature.
The only slight niggle with Heat is its lack of compelling soundtrack. A good thriller can lure an audience in with the right combination of notes, such as David Grusin’s score for The Firm (1993) but Heat’s soundtrack is just a little lacklustre; though this is an instantly forgettable ingredient in an otherwise perfect delicacy.
Heat is just a one of those movies which will never fail to restore your faith in the craft of Hollywood cinema. As much as some of us (me) despair at the monopoly of the Hollywood machine, when it works like this, you can’t help but fall in love with it… for three hours at least.