Friday, December 26, 2008

Target #252: Heat (1995, Michael Mann)

TSPDT placing: #381
Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Like him or not, director Michael Mann has his own distinctive style, but what matters is how well he is able to use it to tell a story. Manhunter (1986), a solid and well-acted thriller, was tarnished by Mann's excessively "trendy" style, and a musical soundtrack that has kept the film perpetually trapped in the 1980s. More recently, Collateral (2004) demonstrated a precise and balanced combination of style and substance, making excellent use of the digital Viper FilmStream Camera, perfect for capturing the low-key lighting of Mann's favoured night-time urban landscape. His follow-up, Miami Vice (2006), was almost entirely devoid of substance, a meandering crime story redeemed only by a thrilling shoot-out in the final act. Heat (1995) is among Mann's most lauded achievements, and I'm happy to say that it's probably the finest of the director's films I've seen so far. Most noted for being the first film in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared the same screen (they were separated by decades in Coppola's The Godfather: Part II (1974)), Heat is sizzling, action-packed drama.

Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is something of a cliché, the hard-working homicide detective who is distant from his family. However, Pacino gives the character depth, a hard-edged, street-wise cop who is basically good at heart. When writing dialogue for Al Pacino, the temptation is always there to make him shout a lot, and there are several scenes when Mann does exactly that, but the character is strongest when he's not talking at all, lost in silent contemplation or embracing the hysterical mother of a murder victim. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) sits on the opposite side of the law, a principled professional thief who has dedicated his entire life to crime. McCauley has a motto: "don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." His failure to adhere to this advice is ultimately what gets him killed, for, though he is prepared to discard his relationship with a sincere art designer (Amy Brenneman), McCauley unable to walk away from his own principles.

Heat boasts an impressive supporting cast – including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert and Jon Voight – but it's no surprise that Pacino and De Niro dominate the film. Their single face-to-face encounter is a corker, as they sit opposite each other sipping coffee (the table between them representing not only the border between police and criminal, but also a mirror of sorts). Hanna and McCauley exchange terse pleasantries like old friends, despite having never met before, and the two master actors coolly and effortlessly exude charisma with every word. The film's promotional tagline boasts "a Los Angeles crime saga," suggesting that Mann was attempting something akin to his own The Godfather (1972), though he doesn't quite pull it off as readily as Coppola. His film could have done with a few trimmings, excising a few largely superfluous personal subplots, including an impromptu suicide attempt that came right out of left-field. Nevertheless, Heat is a gripping crime story, with great performances, and one of the best shootouts that you'll see anywhere.

Currently my #3 film of 1995:
1) Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam)
2) Se7en (David Fincher)
3) Heat (Michael Mann)
4) GoldenEye (Martin Campbell)
5) La Cité des enfants perdus {The City of Lost Children} (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
6) Braveheart (Mel Gibson)
7) Apollo 13 (Ron Howard)
8) Babe (Chris Noonan)
9) Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan)
10) Toy Story (John Lasseter)

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