It seems rather fitting that it took nearly 15 years for Michael Mann to get his ambitious crime epic Heat (1995) made and it has been 15 years since it was unleashed in theaters. After the commercial and critical success of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), he parlayed its commercial and critical success to get his pet project made. He was able to cast legendary actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as the leads in what would be their first the on-screen appearance together in a film (they were in The Godfather: Part II but never appeared in the same scene). Mann returned to a 1986 draft of a screenplay that had originated before he made The Jericho Mile (1979). He now had a much clearer idea of how he wanted Heat to be structured and decided to expand its scope.
At the core of Heat is the relationship between career criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and dedicated cop, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). Mann takes the career criminal from Thief (1981) and the intensely dedicated cop from Manhunter (1986) and places them in the same film together with the sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles as its backdrop. It is a deadly cat and mouse game realized on an epic level. Imagine Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) but on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The opening of Heat introduces the two main protagonists, McCauley and Hanna without any dialogue. Mann relies entirely on their actions to illustrate their defining characteristics. McCauley, disguised as a paramedic, steals an ambulance. It is how he does it that is so impressive. He walks through a busy hospital purposefully, taking in everything and touching nothing so that he leaves no clues behind for the police to find later. Within a matter of moments he is gone.
We first meet Hanna as he is making passionate love to his wife, Justine (Diane Venora). From the beginning, Mann shows a sharp contrast between Neil and Vincent’s professional and personal lives. McCauley is all business. His life is devoted to preparing for his next score. Mann remarked in an interview that the character “is not an archetypal ex-convict, who steals mindlessly until he gets busted back. This guy is methodical and good at what he does. He's going to accumulate a certain amount of capital, and then he's going to boogie. He has a doctrine of having no attachments, nothing in his life he can't walk out on in thirty seconds flat.” Hanna is married — albeit in a relationship rife with problems but at least he has some semblance of a personal life. During the course of the film, these two men will switch roles and this will determine their respective fates.
Hanna may have a personal life but it is a relationship in decline. He is on his third marriage and is gradually losing touch with Justine and her daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman). After Hanna and Justine make love she tries to invite him to breakfast but he brushes her off to hook up with one of his partners. But not before he comes off as a bit of hypocrite. He criticizes Lauren’s real father for being late in picking her up and for standing her up repeatedly in the past, but he hardly pays attention to her or her mother either. This scene also establishes one of Mann’s prevalent themes: the fracture that exists between parents and their children.
Hanna is not in his element in a domestic setting and this becomes obvious when he appears at the crime scene of the armored car heist perpetrated by McCauley and his crew at the beginning of the film. As soon as Hanna walks on the scene he immediately takes control. It is a real treat to see Pacino act out this scene. He dominates it both physically — in the way he gestures and moves around — and verbally, in the authoritative tone that he speaks to the people around him. Pacino displays a confidence of an actor totally committed to his role, which is appropriate considering his character is someone who is completely committed to his profession. With little prompting, Hanna’s subordinates fill him in on the evidence they found and expertly piece together what they think happened. Hanna listens intently, absorbs everything and then quickly analyzes the situation. He assigns specific tasks to his men with all the efficiency of a professional. This is the complete opposite of what we saw him like at home. He barely hears what Justine has to say and briefly acknowledges Lauren’s presence before quickly leaving for work.
If Hanna is all about the verbal side of the professional Mann protagonist, McCauley is the flip side of the same coin. He is the quiet individual who lets his actions speak for him. Mann defines McCauley’s character visually. This is achieved not only in the exciting armored truck heist sequence — the essence of ruthless efficiency but, more significantly, when he returns to his home. Like most Mann protagonists, he lives in a Spartan, empty place. The establishing shot utilizes a blue filter that saturates the frame, with the ocean infinitely stretching out in the background. This is reminiscent of the scene in Manhunter where Graham and Molly make love in their bedroom. However, Mann uses this scene to illustrate that, unlike Hanna, McCauley is a loner, a prisoner trapped in his own empty surroundings. This is further reinforced by a close-up of his handgun; placed on a coffee table. As he walks over to the large windows overlooking the ocean, the gun looms large, upsetting the composition of the frame as it dwarfs McCauley. He is a man dominated by his profession — it defines who he is as a person. The camera pans up and we see him standing in the middle of this large, empty room, the frames of the window acting as bars, metaphorically trapping him.
Mann uses architecture to illustrate McCauley’s personality. His apartment is comprised of large, blank white walls, cabinets with the bare minimum of dishes and very little furniture. There is just enough to make it functional. This simple design is also reflected in his fashion sense: simple gray or black suits with a white dress shirt. According to Mann, this was an important clue to McCauley’s character: “His main job, as he sees it, in the way he’s elected to live his life, is to minimize risk. That’s why he wears gray suits and white shirts—he doesn’t want to have anything about his personal appearance that’s memorable. He’s a gray man, just some figure who moves through the umber of a poorly lit coffee shop. It’s all invisible, and it’s strictly pragmatic.” Like Frank in Thief, Graham in Manhunter, and later, Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (1999), McCauley is yet another Mann protagonist who is constantly shown to be a solitary figure in an empty room. He claims, at one point, that “I’m alone. I’m not lonely,” but he is a forlorn figure or else he would not feel the need to get involved with Eady (Amy Brenneman).
Heat is different from other crime films in that it goes to great lengths to show how those around these criminals and the police that chase them are affected by what their loved ones do. Most of the relationships are very dysfunctional and none more so than between Chris Sherilis (Val Kilmer), one of McCauley’s crew, and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd). He gambles away all of the money he makes on scores and this makes her very upset. She tells him, “It means we’re not making forward progress like real grown-up adults living our lives.” They argue and she makes it clear that, for her, it is not about the money but their son, Dominick. She is concerned for his safety and well being. For her role, Ashley Judd met several women who had been prostitutes and were now housewives. Mann located them through the convicts’ wives and ex-cons he had interviewed in his pre-production research. Some of them had turned tricks in their teens and were now middle-aged housewives selling real estate.
This scene of domestic disharmony is paralleled by Hanna’s own problems. When he comes home Justine informs him that she had dinner ready for them four hours ago. She tells him, “Every time I try to maintain a consistent mood between us you withdraw.” He replies, “I got three dead bodies on a sidewalk off Venice Boulevard.” Hanna tries to articulate something resembling an apology but he is unable. This is not good enough for her and she leaves the room leaving him alone and frustrated. The final shot is of him sitting alone watching T.V. Justine, like Charlene, is frustrated with her relationship. Both women are unhappy and not afraid to let their significant others know how they feel. Justine does not understand Vincent’s devotion to his job or his obsession with taking Neil and his crew down and this results in a rift between the two that is not repaired by the film’s conclusion. Both Hanna and Chris are unable to explain themselves to their wives. They may be the best at what they do but their personal lives are a mess.
Up until this point Neil has stayed faithful to his personal credo, “Don't keep anything in your life you're not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” This begins to change when he meets Eady at a coffee shop. Initially, he is guarded and stand-offish — an attitude that comes with his job. But once he realizes that she is genuinely interested in him, he softens somewhat but is still evasive, lying to her about what he does (a salesman) and asking her a lot of questions but offering little information about himself. He gives out only vague details: “My father, I don’t know where he is. I got a brother somewhere.” However, he does offer one interesting insight into his character. As they look out at the city lights of Los Angeles he tells her about his dream: “In Fiji, they have this iridescent algae. They come out once a year in the water … I’m going there someday.” Like Frank’s dream of a family in Thief and Wigand’s vision of seeing his children playing in The Insider, McCauley will be unable to realize his ambitions because of his failure to adhere to his own personal code. His fatal flaw is that he develops feelings for Eady and thereby betraying himself. Mann foreshadows McCauley’s inevitable downfall as a result of this relationship with tragic sounding electronic music that plays while McCauley and Eady kiss.
The film’s centerpiece is undeniably the classic meeting of Pacino and De Niro, on-screen together for the first time in the careers that takes place over coffee at Mantelli's restaurant in Beverly Hills. Although, ironically, Mann edits the scene so that each man is shown in over-the-shoulder shots and we don’t actually see them face-to-face at any time in the scene. This is the moment when both men size each other up and tell each other their personal philosophies. The dialogue between the two men reveals a lot about who they are:
Neil: If you’re one me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?
Vincent: So, then if you spot me coming around that corner, you just gonna walk out on this woman? Not say goodbye?
Neil: That’s the discipline.
Vincent: That’s pretty vacant.
Neil: It is what it is. It’s that or we both better go do something else, pal.
For Mann, the coffee shop scene between De Niro and Pacino is when "every theme and every storyline in the picture winds up in that scene. It's very much the nexus of the film." Mann made sure that nothing distracted from the exchange between these two men. He wanted the place to be as invisible as possible with the “background is as monochromatic and as minimalist as I could get it, because, boy, I did not want anything to take away from what was happening on Al's face and Bob's face.”
It makes sense, then, that these two men understand each other better than they do their wives or girlfriends. They are more open with each other than with their loved ones because there is a mutual respect and bond between them. Over coffee they tell each other their dreams and Neil’s is particularly illuminating: “I have one where I’m drowning. And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I die in my sleep.” Vincent asks him, “You know what that’s about?” To which Neil replies, “Yeah, not enough time.” Like Frank in Thief, Neil’s dilemma is that he does not have enough time to do everything he needs to do. Neil is a fascinating variation on Frank’s character in the sense that he too is forced to decide between preserving a relationship and his work but unlike Frank, he wastes too much time deciding on which one to follow. When Neil finally does make up his mind it is too late and he is punished for his indecision.
Heat’s most exciting action sequence is the now famous bank heist scene. Right from the beginning, Mann establishes a quick pace as Neil enters the bank with pulsating electronic music that anticipates what is going to happen. With incredible precision and timing, McCauley and his crew have taken out the guards, have control of the bank and are taking out large quantities of money in under a minute. The music is underplayed but still effective in creating tension during the sequence. Once McCauley and his crew emerge from the bank and Chris fires the first shot, the music stops and the rest of this exciting sequence plays out with no music — only the deafening roar of the guns firing as McCauley and his men try to escape and turn the streets of Los Angeles into a war zone. Mann made sure that the gunshots sounded realistic and went to great pains to make sure he got the right sounds for the machine guns. He said, “There's a certain pattern to the reverberation. It makes you think you've never heard that in a film before so it feels very real and authentic. Then you really believe the jeopardy these people are in.”
Mann alternates between shaky, hand-held cameras and fluid tracking shots with kinetic editing that brilliantly conveys the exciting action that is taking place. One of the reasons why this sequence works so well and comes across as being so authentic is due in large part to one of the technical advisors for the film: Andy McNab, a Special Forces soldier who infiltrated enemy lines in the Persian Gulf War to sabotage SCUD missiles. De Niro gave Mann his copy of Bravo Two Zero, written by McNab. It so impressed the filmmaker that he hired him to train the cast how to shoot guns for two months. McNab worked from a tape of L.A. Takedown, Mann’s T.V. movie rough draft of Heat, to get an idea of what Mann wanted. The actors rehearsed carrying around the weight of the money they would be stealing in the bank heist. De Niro had to practice how he would carry Kilmer once he was shot and how to fire his weapon with one hand.
Before filming the bank heist sequence, Mann and McNab conducted a dry run with the actors on a real bank. De Niro, Tom Sizemore and Kilmer all wore disguises and body armor. Only the bank manager knew what was really going on. A couple of guys covertly videotaped everything from cameras in bags. The sequence was to be shot at the Far East Bank in Los Angeles. Location manager Janice Polley and the producers spent months beforehand meeting with officials of the bank explaining what was involved. Mann and his crew took over the entire financial district of the city every weekend for five weeks. They were allowed to shoot between 6 pm on Friday and 5 am Monday morning. The production shut down 5th street in L.A. and notified hotels and residents within earshot. The bank heist sequence was so authentic that in 1998, two men foolishly tried to copy what was done in the film. They robbed a bank in L.A. and as McNab remembered, they even "delayed the robbery for three days so they could get exactly the same bags as Kilmer had, and they used machine guns, body armor—everything."
The rest of Heat plays out the aftermath and fallout of the bank heist as McCauley ties up loose ends and attempts to escape with Eady before Hanna can catch him. Ultimately, Heat is about choices. Neil’s final choice in the film is also his most crucial. He has to decide whether to stay with Eady or run on his own from Hanna who is now in hot pursuit. However, Neil hesitates too long and this is what ultimately defeats him. He goes against his own personal code and is punished. Hanna does not and is willing to sacrifice his personal life so that he can take McCauley down. The film ends as it began — without dialogue as Hanna tracks Neil down.
The origins of Heat were based in large part from the experiences of an old friend of Mann's, Chuck Adamson. The police officer had been chasing down a high-line thief named Neil McCauley in Chicago in 1963. One day, "they simply bumped into one another. Chuck didn't know what to do: arrest him, shoot him or have a cup of coffee." Heat was also based on another person according to Mann: “Another is a guy I can't really talk about, who's bright, intuitive, and driven, and runs large operations against drug cartels in foreign countries. He's a singularly focused individual and much of the core of Hanna's character comes from him.” From these two sources, Mann created a story that explored the relationship between Neil McCauley, a career criminal and Vincent Hanna, a dedicated cop with very similar approaches to their professions but on opposite sides of the law.
Mann wrote an early draft of Heat in 1979 that was 180 pages and based on real people he knew personally and by reputation in Chicago. He wrote another draft after making Thief with no intention of directing it himself. During a promotional interview for The Keep (1983), Mann talked about making Heat into a film and was still looking for another director to make it. In the late 1980s, Mann tried to produce the film several times and offered it to his friend and fellow filmmaker, Walter Hill but he turned it down. Mann was still not satisfied with the script, which had developed the character of McCauley but Hanna still needed work.
After making The Last of the Mohicans, Mann returned to a 1986 draft of Heat and decided that he would make it himself. He felt that the L.A. Robbery-Homicide division would be an ideal basis for a television show and took his script and “abridged it severely. I abstracted probably something like 110 pages from 180 pages ... so it’s lacking in the sense that it’s not fully developed.” The result was a made-for-television movie entitled, L.A. Takedown. It was an incredibly fast shoot – uncharacteristic for the methodical Mann – with only ten days of pre-production and 19 days of shooting. In comparison, Heat would have a six-month pre-production period and a 107-day shooting schedule. Takedown starred Scott Plank as Hanna and Alex McArthur as Patrick McLaren, the character that became Neil McCauley in Heat, with Michael Rooker, Xander Berkley (who has a small role in Heat), and Daniel Baldwin. It aired on NBC on August 27, 1989 at 9 pm. In many respects, Takedown was another draft of Heat. The director said in an interview, "it had a similar kind of nucleus, which was the rapport between the thief and the cop." In the L.A. Takedown script, McCauley's gang is not fleshed out all that much. The Chris Shiherlis sub-plot does not exist, the bungled bank robbery sting is gone, and Hanna's step-daughter's sub-plot does not exist. NBC was willing to buy the show if Mann recast the lead actor. He refused and the network did not pick it up.
After L.A. Takedown, Mann had a much clearer idea of how he wanted Heat to be structured. "I charted the film out like a 2 hr 45 min piece of music, so I'd know where to be smooth, where not to be smooth, where to be staccato, where to use a pulse like a heartbeat." In 1994, Mann showed producer Art Linson another draft of Heat over lunch and told him that he was thinking of updating it. Linson read it, loved it and agreed to make the film with Mann. On April 5, 1994, Variety announced that Mann was abandoning his James Dean biopic and prepping Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro attached to the project with filming to take place in either Chicago or Los Angeles.
De Niro got the script first and then showed it to Pacino who read it and wanted to be a part of the film. De Niro thought it was a "very good story, had a particular feel to it, a reality and authenticity." To research their roles Mann took Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and De Niro to Folsom prison and interviewed several inmates. Sizemore talked to one career criminal in particular who was a multi-millionaire and “had socked away several million dollars and continued to do it, you know one more score ... The guys we educated ourselves about only do big jobs, they won't do anything under $2 million. It's all true, that's what's amazing,” the actor remembered.
Scouting locations for Heat started in August of 1994 and continued through December with location manager Janice Polley, who had first worked with Mann on Last of the Mohicans. She had a staff of three to four people who went all over Los Angeles to find locations that had not been filmed before — no easy task. Mann let them know the kinds of houses each character would live in according to their income and financial status, the look of the house and the surrounding area. For example, Chris Shiherlis lived in Sherman Oaks, Vincent Hanna lived in Santa Monica, Neil McCauley's house was on the beach in Malibu, and Eady's house was in the Hollywood Hills. Polley did her job: less than 10% of the 85 locations used had previously appeared in a film. Not a single soundstage was used.
It was important for Mann to capture a certain vibe of L.A. It was almost another character in the film. The director remembers, “I wanted to capture basically the way the city felt to me being out in the middle of it at two in the morning or on top of the gas tower or on top of a roof or flying over it with the LAPD helicopters. You know, there’s a glow that it has, it’s unique western.” The most challenging location for Polley to get was Los Angeles Airport, one of the busiest in the country. After much negotiation, permission was given to shoot in a restricted area where the radar towers are located. At the last minute, Polley got a call. The Unabomber had threatened the post office at LAX and the FBI were called in to investigate. A delay in filming would have cost the production thousands of dollars. They met with LAX security and the FBI and it was determined that the area they were going to shoot in was far enough away from any potential danger.
Heat was released on December 15, 1995 in 1,325 theaters, grossing $8.4 million on its opening weekend. The film was a commercial success, grossing $67.4 million in North America and $120 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $187.4 million.
Heat received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. In his review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel praised Mann’s direction: “An opening sequence that may be the best armored-car robbery ever placed on film. He proceeds to a crazily orchestrated bank heist that goes awry and finishes in a wild firefight on a crowded downtown street that is a masterpiece of sustained invention.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Mann’s not interested in good or evil, but in behavior: the choices people make, the internal pressures that can cause the best-laid plans to go awry.” Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “It's not just an action picture. Above all, the dialogue is complex enough to allow the characters to say what they're thinking: They are eloquent, insightful, fanciful, poetic when necessary. They're not trapped with clichés.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The huge, well-chosen cast for Heat attests to Mr. Mann's eye for both esthetic interest and acting talent. Even small roles are so well emphasized that they show these performers off to fine advantage.”
However, in his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Ultimately, though, the movie never transcends the limitations of its Hemingwayesque, men-with-men attitudes. Its point of view about the innate violence of men is essentially that of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, but while the idea itself remains valid and even relevant, Mann cancels all that out with a ridiculous ending that suggests some sort of final spiritual, metaphysical mind-meld. To call it mythic absurdity is a kindness.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Mann's most perverse decision was to cast these two legends and then keep them apart from each other. Half-way through, they finally get an extended dialogue in a coffee shop (it's the first time the actors have ever been in a scene together), and you can feel their joy in performing. We're not watching McCauley and Hanna anymore; we're watching De Niro and Pacino trying to out-insinuate each other. For a few moments, Heat truly has some.”
One of the problems critics (and some viewers) had with Heat was Pacino's sudden, loud outbursts of outrageous dialogue. However, the actor justified his character's behavior in an interview: “I think that the character is prone to these kind of explosive irrational outbursts. A lot of those interrogations and that kind of thing, I got from watching detectives working, going into a kind of, flipping into a kind of–flipomatic, as they say–this state of just general chaos in order to get something. The hysteria shakes up the subject and gets to the truth.” Mann further elaborated in an interview where he explained that Pacino's character "will rock that person of his foundation, to the point where the man loses whatever defense mechanisms he may have set up against this detective coming in."
Heat has gone on to inspire numerous other films and filmmakers. Directors for both the Hong Kong crime film Infernal Affairs (2002) and the British gangster film Layer Cake (2004) have cited the look of Heat as an influence on their own work. Most impressively, before going into production on The Dark Knight (2008), director Christopher Nolan screened Heat for all his department heads. He said, “I always felt Heat to be a remarkable demonstration of how you can create a vast universe with one city and balance a very large number of characters and their emotional journeys in an effective manner.” Indeed, the bank heist that begins the film is reminiscent of the one staged in Heat right down to a cameo by William Fichtner as a defiant bank manager in a nice reference to the actor’s role in Mann’s film.