Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Heat is On: A Michael Mann Crime Classic

Heat must be a good name for a movie. By my count there have been five English-language films with that exact title, starting with a 1972 flick starring and directed by protégés of Andy Warhol. Most recently we’ve had an action comedy called The Heat, featuring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as buddy cops chasing down bad guys, while hilarity ensues.

But what I have in mind right now is a tough-minded cops-and-robbers thriller from 1995, written and directed by Michael Mann. Mann has been in Hollywood since the 1980s, making acclaimed dramatic films like The Insider and Collateral.  But many of us continue to remember him for glamorizing the shores of South Beach in TV’s Miami Vice. Clearly, Mann is a guy who likes his characters to walk on the wild side. And so they do in Heat, which is set in the city of my birth, Los Angeles. Mann chose authentic locations all over downtown L.A. and the Hollywood Hills, then staged a striking climax on the tarmac of LAX. The nighttime skyline glitters; the views from stylish hilltop homes are breathtaking. Result: L.A. has never looked so dazzling,  nor so dangerous.

No, I can’t pretend I caught every nuance of the complicated plot. There are lots of feints, lots of betrayals, lots of gunfire and explosions, and it’s not always clear who’s doing what to whom. Suffice it to say that the film’s two mega-stars, sharing the screen for the first time, are Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, one playing a career criminal and the other the cop who has sworn to take him down. Their few scenes together are mesmerizing: suffice it to say that, despite the fact they’re on opposite sides of the law, these two are birds of a feather. Both, that is to say, are angry and driven loners who hold a mighty grudge against the powers that be. They both recognize their kinship, and yet each is sworn to take the other one down. That’s why the last scene of the film is a doozy.

De Niro and Pacino are not the only names in Heat. There’s a major role for Val Kilmer, a thug whose love for wife Ashley Judd almost does him in. Jon Voigt plays another not-so-good guy, and a number of well-known character actors play parts on both sides of the law. It should be noted that Heat stands out for having a goodly number of developed female characters. They don’t exactly pass the Bechdel test: all of them exist in relation to their male counterparts. Still, these women (Diane Venora and Amy Brenneman in addition to Judd) are handled with admiration and respect, along with pity. (One surprise for me was the presence of a very young Natalie Portman in a small but key role as Pacino’s stepdaughter.)

The reason for the well-developed female roles speaks to the central theme of the movie. It’s voiced several times, including in this De Niro line: “A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’” It’s a mantra by which the central characters live—and die. In the course of the film, De Niro’s character falls hard for the nice young woman played by Amy Brenneman, to the point where his solitary days seem on the brink of being over.  But the warmth of a woman’s love is no match for the heat generated by a life of crime.

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