Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are two monumental actors who previously worked together in Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed epic Godfather II. However, there they existed in disparate timelines; their characters never interacted. The first time these two actors appeared onscreen together was during Heat, Michael Mann’s epic heist movie that sets the standard for the genre.
Heat pits the two of them in direct opposition to one another in a battle of the titans. Pacino plays the cop and De Niro plays the robber, but don’t be expect those roles to decide who the movie presents as good and bad. Heat transcends such simplicity and focuses equal time on lawman and criminal, with an extensive probing into other characters as well. The film is much less an action film than one rooted in its performances; it’s multiple character studies rolled into one, with a formidable cast in roles both big and small.
Of course the two leads are the film’s claim to fame. These two men and their relationship makes Heat the fantastic film that it is. Both are at the top of their game and providing some of their greatest acting talent, no small tribute from careers that include many brilliant pictures.
Pacino’s LAPD Lieutenant is an obsessive man. He’s on his third marriage, and if the current situation is anything like his former ones, then you can guess that they ended because of his work. Pacino is his work; he’s devoted to his job for all hours of most days, straining his relationship with both his wife and his step daughter, played by Natalie Portman in a fine if sparse role. It’s taken its toll on him, as well. He shakes, yells, is frantic in every way; you wouldn’t want to hang out with him just in fear of ending up on his bad side. There are moments where Pacino reaches sheer craziness, and the role is perfect for his explosive and expressive style.
De Niro stands in stark contrast to Pacino’s character. Although he’s beginning to see a graphic designer played by Amy Brenneman, he still sticks to a rule of never letting himself get attached to anything he couldn’t leave in 30 seconds. He’s cool, calm, and collected. He can be ruthlessly efficient, but he never blows up in anger like Pacino does. They are antitheses to each other.
Despite their differences, the two characters have a lot in common, which discover for themselves over a very memorable diner scene. As they exchange facts that grow more intimate as the conversation continues, they discover that both of them are driven to obsession over their goals; goals that are mutually exclusive and necessarily combative. Mann doesn’t overuse the confrontations between the two leads. Their meetings are few and far between, but every one of them is powerful and very enjoyable.
Right after the infamous diner scene, at the film’s midpoint, is an exhilarating shootout on the streets of Los Angeles. The camera never slows down for an instant and keeps up with the frantic pace of the dangerous urban firefight. By time it ends, some of the characters have tragically been killed, and the audience member’s breath has been taken away.
It’s likely one of the best shootouts in the history of cinema. The climactic shootout is also very memorable. It balances out the earlier sequence with a very quiet and dark one-on-one chase. Though it’s not pure excitement like the first, it still is intensely suspenseful, and likely to immerse the viewer just as much if not more. Both scenes are supporting evidence for the claim that Mann is one of the best action thriller directors of our time.
The cinematography by Dante Spinotti is very involved and complimentary. Symmetry has supremacy, and its balanced compositions reflect the competing but equal forces at odds in the form of De Niro and Pacino. Other times, the camera is used as though to creep around the characters. With that, the tangential threads that develop so many characters are made all the more intimate.
Val Kilmer plays one of De Niro’s gang in a large role. He also sees problems with his lover as per Pacino, showing that the lifestyle of both cop and criminal proves to be incompatible with healthy and sustained relationships. Tom Sizemore is another member of the gang that refutes that position because of his family, but Sizemore and Danny Trejo, the last member of the gang, are a bit underused. They’re not as developed as the others, but by no means are they wasted.
Only one subplot stood out to me as superfluous and unnecessary. Dennis Haysbert plays a released criminal who eventually ends up with De Niro and his gang. His backstory seems out of place for a while, and though it provides another insight into a life of crime and its effects, in the end the film probably could have benefited from cutting it. Though the movie’s near-3 hour span is enjoyable throughout, a more parsimonious film would have been that much closer to perfection.
Heat is not only an amazing crime film, it’s also a very good film against any genre. The characters are unusually intelligent and articulate, and their meaningful insights are what allow us to root for both characters even though they are hopelessly at odds with one another. Though its story becomes somewhat complicated at times, it only does so because it trusts that the viewer is as intelligent as the characters on the screen.
Final rating: 8/10
–James A. Janisse
This entry was posted on February 14, 2010 by James A. Janisse. It was filed under 8 - 8.5, Crime, Genre, Ratings and was tagged with al pacino, Amy Brenneman, danny trejo, Dante Spinotti, dennis haysbert, jon voight, michael mann, robert de niro, tom sizemore, val kilmer.