Wednesday 6 July 2016

Movie Review: Heat (1995)

A contemporary crime drama, Heat unites legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a masterful story of two men on either side of the law willing to do anything to achieve success in their chosen professions.

In Los Angeles, crime boss Neil McCauley (De Niro) and his gang execute their latest score: an audacious robbery of bearer bonds out of an armored truck. Neil's regular and dependable gang members include Chris (Val Kilmer), Michael (Tom Sizemore) and Trejo (Danny Trejo). The unstable Waingro (Kevin Gage) is a late addition to the team, and he perpetuates a bloodbath that results in three security guards being killed. Neil's fence and outlet to the legitimate world is Nate (Jon Voight), and he tries to arrange a buy-back deal for the stolen bonds. But the victim, corrupt businessman Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner), decides that severe revenge is the best response.

The robbery brings Neil gang to the attention of Los Angeles Police Department Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his crew of investigators, and they place Neil's men under surveillance. Neil meets and starts a relationship with Eady (Amy Brenneman), although his personal philosophy is to never get emotionally involved with anyone. Vincent's marriage to Justine (Diane Venora) is in trouble thanks to his obsession with work, and his stepdaughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) is feeling the strain. Meanwhile Chris has a gambling problem and fritters away his crime proceedings, much to the disgust of his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd).

Vincent attempts to nab Neil's gang as they strike against a precious metals depository. But Neil is half a step ahead, and a dangerous chase game ensues, both men determined to continue doing what they do best.

Directed and written by Michael Mann, Heat is a dark, complex, and character-driven crime story, inspired by real events and delivered by a superlative cast in top form. For the first on-screen pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (they both starred in Godfather Part II but in different time eras), Heat conjures up an existential duel suitable for two of the all-time finest actors to sink their teeth into. The film runs for a mammoth 170 minutes, but never drags. Mann injects enough texture, human emotion and deep character interactions to keep the drama humming along at a steady clip.

Heat never betrays its character motivations. At the centre of the film are two professionals who care deeply about what they do and will sacrifice everything to achieve their objectives. Vincent is on his third marriage, and fully understands that his home life is doomed to suffer as his real attachment is to the task of bringing scum to justice. Neil is dedicated to the craft of high-stakes heists, and has simplified his life down to the principle of being ready to abandon absolutely everything and flee in 30 seconds or less. Neither man will yield, and they admit as much to each other in a seminal meeting over coffee about halfway through the film.

Mann surrounds Neil and Vincent with a memorable group of hoods with their own stories and motivations, elevating Heat into a multi-faceted crime epic. Chris has a sizable gambling problem undermining his marriage. Michael has managed his finances much better, and can call it quits whenever he likes. Waingro is a nutcase, and his unpredictable behaviour will play a key role in the story. Van Zant is the wolf in expensive clothing, a tailored suit hiding a monstrous ego and murderous ambitions for bloody revenge. Despite most of the men being despicable criminals, Heat does not forget that they are all also human beings.

The women serve to humanize the men, and the key characters are grounded by domestic fronts that serve as reminders that there may be more to life than crime, investigation and violence. Justine is aching to reclaim her man but is also not beyond hurting him, while her daughter Lauren is in a lot of emotional trouble. Eady unexpectedly eases her way into Neil's heart, adding a reason for him to question whether tangling with the dogged Vincent is worth the risk. And Charlene suffers the cruelest fate, having to contend with all her husband's risk-taking but enjoying none of the rewards, as he gambles away his cut from every score.

And when it's time for the action set-pieces, Mann delivers some astounding beauties. The initial armored truck assault is short, sharp, vivid and ultimately brutal. An ambush in an abandoned drive-in parking lot follows, revealing the depth of treachery among thieves. The highlight is a jaw-dropping and prolonged street shootout after a botched bank hold-up, Neil and his men attempting to fight their way out of Vincent's suddenly tightening noose, Mann turning a section of Los Angeles into a harrowing war zone complete with blazing assault rifles. And the climax works its way through a series of score-settling punctuation marks, ending with a tense one-one-one showdown on the LAX tarmac.

Heat adds a smooth aesthetic augmented by atmospheric music. The Dante Spinotti cinematography is cool and crisp, often making use of the city lights by night to punctuate dark blue hues with glittering gold. Elliot Goldenthal provides a moody and evocative music score.

Ambitious in scale yet taut in execution, Heat shines at a white hot temperature.

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