Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has just watched Heat. Stay out of his way for a few days, because he will not hesitate to take you down. Not for one second.
An epic tale of crime and obsession and two men on opposite sides of the law.
After you watch Heat, for the next few days you are walking tall. Your jacket, sneakers, and the cell phone in your pocket become an Italian suit, crocodile shoes, and high-caliber pistol. You don't so much walk down the street as stride down it, sneering at passersby, flushed with secret power as the strains of Moby pulsate through your mind. The heat is on, but you will not be stopped. Not for a second.
Facts of the Case
The plot of Heat is so complex, convoluted, and full of cons that writing a summary would do it gross injustice. The basic gist of the picture is this: Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew (Michael Cheritto, played by Tom Sizemore; Chris Shiherlis, played by Val Kilmer; and a series of "the other guy" who is usually ill-fated) pull off an impressive heist that grabs the attention of supercop Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). As McCauley preps for another score and Hanna homes in on the crew, we come to realize the absolute professionalism and incorrigible drive of these men. We watch this drive ruin their relationships and chances at normal lives—which doesn't deter the men at all. But above all, we learn that only a thin line between law and crime separates them; not in a clichéd "cop on the edge of the law" way, but through a meaningful exploration of character, innate drive, and disdain for the commonplace.
For years, I've thought that Michael Mann is a highly underrated director. Year after year he cranks out films that live within, yet constantly exceed, familiar genres. His direction is lean and precise, but allows his characters and scenes to expand. His characters observe, calculate, and execute within frantic plots that somehow suggest infinite mysteries of the universe hidden just behind the unreasoning mask. His women are significantly developed, his men possess nearly mythical drives. Everything in the worlds he creates is realistic and detailed. Mann has received Oscar nods, and Collateral has finally cemented his respect in our media consciousness, but Mann still isn't on the tip of enough tongues.
Heat is but one entry in the long list of great films that Mann has created, but the passage of time suggests that it may be his greatest work of all. Initial marketing miscalculations and undeserved negative buzz have eroded over the years, leaving only the adulation of millions of fans. The most frequent descriptor I hear applied to Heat is "masterwork"; as a Mann appreciator and critic, I see no reason to dispute that lofty claim. (If you know the movie inside and out and just want to hear what the Special Edition treatment has to offer, skip to the "Rebuttal Witnesses" section.)
DVD Verdict Case Number 0082, decided in 1999 by Judge Sean Fitzgibbons, gave a verdict on the first DVD release of Heat. (If you'll indulge a bit of horn-tooting, it gives me pride to write for an internet publication that has been reviewing DVDs without pause for so long.) Sean's enthusiasm for the film is still appropriate today, but let's peek at the film with the perspective of six additional years.
We'll start with the opening credits, but I warn you now that the cast is as epic as the film. As the credits played on, a little glow of joy sparked and bloomed into light. Each name brought an ooh of appreciation from my lips, and the cast list just kept getting more impressive. You have to move very far down into the cast list to find an actor who couldn't assume top billing on a major film or television series, and you have to move even further down to reach obscure names. There are very few bit parts in Heat. Atypically for such an eye-popping ensemble, the clash of big names doesn't lead to inexplicable dullness, hammy overacting, or a parade of fluffy cameos. To take a random example or two, Amy Brenneman's comely mix of offbeat intellect with vulnerability took her into a starring role in the long-running Judging Amy; in Heat she turns what could have been an unwitting mob-girlfriend cliché with little screen time into a living, touching character that you long to see more of. Dennis Haysbert's scant few minutes of subplot would convert easily into a fairly compelling film about ex-cons re-entering society.
You can heap the praise for such an overwhelming effort on the shoulders of the cast; after all, they deserve kudos for managing to shine when surrounded by so many fellow heavyweights. You could go to the source and fawn over the sharp perception of casting director Bonnie Timmermann. But at some level, you must acknowledge that Michael Mann successfully juggled the contrasting styles of a metric buttload of big-name actors. Some directors can't manage to coax worthwhile performances out of one or two stars, but Mann coaxed a memorable performance out of almost everyone in this film.
Two of the best performances belong, of course, to De Niro and Pacino. Two different styles—one huge explosion of chemistry. As each actor assumes the screen, the static electricity in the air changes to a slightly different pitch, but otherwise there is no drop in intensity. There are roughly 8,000 lines spoken in this film, and 7,950 of them are quotable. About 6,000 of them are split between Pacino and De Niro. Basically, you could throw a dart at the screen while either of them is talking and hit a gem of dialogue or facial expression.
Moving down the ranks, we hit McCauley's lieutenants Chris and Michael. For
once, Val Kilmer underacts, and still manages to create a memorable character.
He delivers two of the most compelling lines in the film:
The women in these men's lives are constantly struggling to balance their love with the incredible toll the adrenaline takes on relationships. Natalie Portman escalates Lauren's despair from a hissy fit about hair barrettes to a well-earned ambulance ride. Ashley Judd gives Chris's wife Charlene just the right blend of exasperation, rebellion, street smarts, and fatigue. I was a little less enamored of Diane Venora's portrayal of Lt. Hanna's wife Justine, but it may be because her part was unnecessarily bloated, which diluted her character too much.
Look at that, we started with the opening credits and I went off on a tangent. That's how great the cast is.
The credits fade to the film's opening moments, where Heat plants a little seed of unrest in the pit of your stomach. That seed expands into a leaden knot, then recedes, and expands again in a continuous cycle. Mann knows how to keep the tension flowing while providing a periodic counterbalance to reset our apprehension. For a three-hour film to maintain such adrenaline is remarkable. The film is a sustained burst of small climaxes that roll into one drawn-out bang of an ending. (Warning: If the scenes where Frodo and Sam hold hands in the Lord of the Rings movies give you the creeps, you may want to avert your eyes when Heat closes.) I could write about the opening robbery, or the hotel hit, or any of the exceptional action scenes, but one scene steals the show. You'll know it when you see it: when all hell breaks lose and McCauley's crew sprays bullets into the streets of Los Angeles. I can hear these bullets in my sleep. This is what action is all about; properly established, realistically executed, with a hair-raising payoff. For this scene alone, Heat stands in the upper echelon of all action films.
But above all, Heat is not about the action scenes or the acting; it is about how the film makes you feel. Action and acting are part of it, along with Mann's attention to detail, but this is a case of the whole eclipsing the parts. The scene that best represents this sense of identification (minor spoiler, by the way) is when McCauley is driving down the highway with a new lover, a trunk full of cash, the heat off his tail, and a plane waiting to take him to New Zealand. He's got it all, scot free, and can lead any kind of life he wants to from here on out. But there is one loose end, a scumbag who did him harm. The car turns around, and we know in that moment who Neil McCauley is and will always be. We get to know all of these men, see what drives them. Heat is a borrowed experience in a world most of us will never know. This is why movies will continue to fascinate us.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Have I sold you on the film yet? Maybe, maybe not, but the real question is whether this DVD puts the previous edition to rest. That story is a little less clear.
Sean's 1999 review on DVD Verdict was mostly positive, though he did point out some visual flaws. Also in 1999, IMDb reviewer Michel Hafner told us that, among other disappointments in the DVD transfer, "there is a distracting color balance shift from colder to warmer in chapter 17 at 1:36 which shouldn't be there." Well, 1999 was an era ago in DVD terms; the technical presentation was fine for the time, but the situation hasn't improved much, and we're accustomed to better. The distracting color balance shift is still there. In fact, it is so dramatic and unsettling that I assumed a lost snippet of footage had been restored from a completely different print. That specific instance is the most dramatic, but Heat has some of the worst fluctuations in color balance and overall intensity I've seen in a modern release. The DVD also exhibits dirt, scratches, and noticeably poor black levels. There is edge enhancement and other compression, but the worst offender is unbelievable softness in some of the scenes. On the plus side, some scenes have high detail, and the film is blessed with ethereal, kinetic cinematography that squeezes every hint of mood from the locations. Heat is a visually brilliant film, with movements and compositions that will take your breath away.
Music and video are a blessed pairing! I've heard the Moby songs "New Dawn Fades" and "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" countless times, and though they were moderately catchy I had finally decided that Moby just doesn't do it for me. But when Moby's moody strains hit my ears as the police chopper cuts a swath through waves of heat in pursuit of the crooks below, it jolted me into bliss. That said, the 5.1 mix is not as impressive as I'd hoped for. Mann did not use any sound stages at all in the production of Heat, which is commendable, but it is often hard to hear the actors. I frequently rewound to engage subtitles, which takes me out of the movie. The shootout sequence is high in glorious background details and realistic sounds, a joy of noise and chaos, but it wasn't as punchy as I'd expect. The bass is tepid. Don't get me wrong, it is still a fantastic-sounding scene, but the 5.1 mix overall is lacking "it."
The extras are as follows:
Disc One: Main Feature
• Three theatrical trailers
Disc Two: Extra Features
• 11 additional scenes
• "Return to the Scene of the Crime" (Location manager
Janice Polley and associate producer Gusmano Cesaretti, visit the real-life LA
locations used in the film.)
• "Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation" (Mann, cast,
and crew explore this historic on-screen showdown in the pivotal confrontation
at Kate Mantellini's.)
• "The Making of Heat: True Crime" (Michael Mann
and Chuck Adamson, technical advisor and real-life inspiration for the Lt.
Vincent Hanna character, discuss the Chicago crime scene and the events
surrounding the real Neil McCauley [who Adamson took down in the late '60s] that
inspired the film.)
• "The Making of Heat: Crime Stories" (Mann, cast and crew discuss the twenty-year origin of the script, the film's genesis, and the complexity of the characters portrayed on screen.)
• "The Making of Heat: Into the Fire" (Mann, cast, and crew discuss training for their roles, filming in LA, shooting the climatic downtown heist, and postproduction.)
That wraps up the extras. I could close out the Rebuttal Witnesses with some comments about the film's confusing structure, or a handful of unnecessary scenes that detract from the cohesiveness of the narrative, or even ask why the hell L.A. Takedown isn't included as an extra, but this review is epic enough already.
Michael Mann does epic the way that Oliver Stone wishes he could, and he does it without the overblown theatrics. There is absolutely no doubt that this taut tale of obsession is worth owning by any fan of crime, action, or drama. The three hours fly by, giving us ten films' worth of plot in the process.
The real question is: Is this recent release a substantial improvement over the 1999 release? That one had surround sound and anamorphic video, ahead of the pack and a tribute to Warner Brothers' historical focus on consumer friendliness. I don't own the previous release, so I cannot do a direct comparison, but it seems that the video issues that plagued it are still around, and the soundtrack on the special edition is not enveloping enough to represent a "must have." Perhaps Warner Brothers decided that the existing anamorphic widescreen transfer and 5.1 mix were sufficient. The full house of extras only has one truly compelling featurette. Unless this three-headed "Making of" featurette really interests you, I'd say the previous release is not entirely obsolete.
Now that it's over, I'm gonna grab a shower and sleep for a week.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Writer-Producer-Director Michael Mann
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