Warner Bros. // 1995 // 170 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 10th, 2009
A Los Angeles crime saga.
After two standard-definition DVD releases (the original bare-bones release and a two-disc "special edition" in 2005), Michael Mann's crime epic comes to Blu-ray. Is it worth the upgrade?
Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro, Jackie Brown) is a career criminal who's just pulled off a major score, accompanied by his crew: Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore, True Romance), Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer, Stateside) and a loose cannon fill-in who goes by the name of Waingro (Kevin Gage, Chaos). Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino, People I Know) is a dedicated cop working the McCauley case. Slowly, the master thief and the master policeman are drawn into each other's worlds, gaining mutual respect as they circle one another on the way to the score of a lifetime.
Director Michael Mann was hardly a household name back when his magnum opus Heat was released in 1995. He had created TV series both popular (Miami Vice) and ignored (Crime Story); he had directed a few good but overlooked movies (Manhunter, Thief) and one fairly disastrous one (The Keep). His biggest claim to fame at that point was likely his adaptation of Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day Lewis; it earned him some box office and good critical notices, but didn't really announce who he was as a director. That job would be left to Heat.
By no means a blockbuster upon its release, Heat found some success largely thanks to the onscreen pairing of stars Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. But as audiences learned that the two screen titans shared but a single scene (which isn't even entirely accurate, but whatever), the heat around Heat faded for many. That is, those of us who didn't instantly fall in love with one of the most kick-ass cops n' robbers movies ever made -- the movie that Michael Mann was born to make. It's the real deal: sprawling, ambitious, occasionally messy and operatic, while still maintaining Mann's usual coolness and precision. Time has been kind to the film, and with home video and cable showings Heat eventually achieved the classic status it deserves.
What the movie still remains most famous for is the pairing of DeNiro and Pacino; though they share precious little screen time, their performances are a fascinating study in styles and characterization. DeNiro's Neil McCauley's is the film's brain: ice-cold, reserved, steely and sharp. It's a great example of the less-is-more approach to acting, with every moment masterfully understated and perfectly realized. Pacino, on the other hand, is Heat's fast-beating heart -- a coke-addled (he says as much in the special features), wildly gesticulating mess of a man. If DeNiro is always in perfect control, Pacino is always just on the edge of losing it. The performance is one of those showy, too-loud performances Pacino became known for later in his career, but it actually works here largely because Mann has created an environment where the actor's amped-up energy makes sense. Sure, the DeNiro stuff is almost always more compelling and the performance infinitely more interesting, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the hell out of Pacino's live-for-the-job cop story line. The two halves add up to an electric whole.
Like in all of his films, Mann fills out even the smallest role with a first-rate actor, each of whom brings something authentic to the table. His Los Angeles feels lived-in and alive; though he would revisit the city again in subsequent films, we see a side of it in Heat that's unique and exciting. Sure, the acting is a little uneven at times -- Ashley Judd has one terrible scene and at the end of the day Al Pacino is still Al Pacino -- but it works within the world that Mann is creating. It's operatic histrionics on one side, cool detachment on the other (Heat may actually mark the last of Mann's films before he went all cool detachment). It's a dynamic that feels obvious but works despite itself.
Heat still has its flaws, Pacino's performance aside. There are those that argue it's too long and indulgent. It is, and I still don't care -- Mann is a director I'm happy to indulge. The film's narrative doesn't entirely hold up, either, as characters make decisions that make little sense and betray the nature we're expected to invest in (this betrayal is actually the point, but Mann undersells it a bit). I could also make a case that movie has a fairly thick streak of misogyny; it's very much an amped-up "man's" world in which women do little more than betray men and bring them down. Only Natalie Portman's teenage character remains an innocent, but even that innocence is corrupted -- the Sins of the Father and whatnot. But black and white morality doesn't really have a place in Heat, and that's one of its strong suits. It creates a World Unto Itself, where cops and criminals are near mirror images of one another and divided not so much by the law as by the badge.
Because all of the special features are the same as those included on the 2005 "special edition" release, it's only the HD upgrade that might make this disc worth owning. Though I wasn't able to do a side-by-side comparison with the DVD, I can say that the Blu-ray looks and sounds very good. The film is presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and Warner Bros.' 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer provides a great deal of detail even in the film's numerous nighttime sequences; blacks are strong and skin tones are consistent throughout. There is some occasional softness to the image, but I suspect that's a source issue and not the fault of the HD transfer. Both a digital 5.1 surround track and a lossless TruHD track are available on the audio front, and both are quite good. The dialogue is clear, the excellent score sounds, well, excellent and (best of all) the action sequences threaten to tear the room up (the bank heist sequence -- already the highlight of the film -- works best of all). There's some disparity between the dialogue mix and the intense sound effects at times, so be cautious about cranking your system up too high.
As noted, there are no new special features included on the Blu-ray release; everything included has been ported over from the previous DVD release. Michael Mann sits down for a solo commentary track, and though he's an incredibly intelligent and obsessively detail-oriented filmmaker, his talk is dry and disappointing. Mann spends way too much simply commenting on what's happening on screen and there are several long gaps in the commentary. Considerably better is a series of "making-of" featurettes (which can be combined into one longer feature by selecting the "Play all" option), in which Mann and several cast and crew sit down to reminisce about the making of the film. The first section, called "True Crime," in which Mann reveals that Heat is largely based on a real-life criminal named Neil McCauley, is the best. I've always been fascinated by the way in which Mann consults (and even casts) real cops and criminals for his films, and this piece provides a great example.
Two more featurettes are present: a location-scouting piece called "Return to the Scene of the Crime" and a look at the now-famous scene between Pacion and DeNiro -- though its legacy was tarnished by Righteous Kill; to be fair, almost everything was tarnished by Righteous Kill, including my survival instincts. A collection of 11 deleted scenes are included; while they're interesting for fans of the film (like myself), it's better that they were removed as the movie already runs just under three hours. Rounding out the bonus material is a assemblage of trailers for the movie, several stressing the participation of Pacino and DeNiro and nearly all of which use the great "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" song by Moby, which I will never hear without thinking of Heat. I mean that in a nice way.
If you don't already own Heat, this new Blu-ray edition is obviously the way to go. But if you've got the special edition DVD, you may want to think twice before making an upgrade; yes, the film looks great in HD, but the features are all the same. Because Heat is such a visually and sonically striking film, I'd say the Blu-ray is worth the investment. The movie is always compelling and endlessly rewatchable. It's a modern classic, and while it may not be Mann's best film, it's my favorite.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
* German (SDH)
Running Time: 170 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes