"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 15, 2023

L.A. Takedown

It says something about the kind of juice Michael Mann had within the industry in 1989 that he was able to create – and get on television – a rough draft for a film he would make six years later. He wrote an early draft of what would become Heat in 1979 that was 180 pages and based on real people he knew both personally and by reputation in Chicago. Ten years later, he cut the screenplay down to 110 pages and raised the financing himself so that he owned the rights to the material. The result was a made-for-television movie entitled L.A. Takedown, a cat-and-mouse story between a career criminal and a dedicated police detective that aired on NBC on August 27, 1989 at 9 p.m.
The origins for the project were based in large part from the experiences of a police officer and an old friend of Mann's, Chuck Adamson, who had been chasing down a high-line thief named Neil McCauley in Chicago in 1963. Mann wrote another draft after making Thief (1981) with no intention of directing it himself. In the late 1980s, he 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 who still needed work. It also lacked an ending.
Early on, L.A. Takedown follows the plot to Heat beat-for-beat with Scott Plank playing Los Angeles Robbery-Homicide division cop Vincent Hanna and Alex McArthur as Patrick McLaren (Neil McCauley in Heat), the veteran thief. It is fascinating to see the different choices that Mann makes, such as the tweaks in dialogue or in the casting of certain characters. For example, Xander Berkley, a fantastic actor in his own right, is cast as Waingro, the loose cannon McLaren hires to help his crew knock over an armored truck. The actor plays him initially as a jittery psychopath, only to later settle on a drugged-out look, whereas in Heat, Kevin Gage brings a scary, simmering intensity to the role – a stone-cold serial killer and agent of chaos.

The most interesting casting in the movie is Hanna’s team, which includes Richard Chaves (Predator), Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), and Daniel Baldwin (John Carpenter’s Vampires). Unfortunately, they hardly get any screen time and therefore make little impact. Plank is okay as Hanna but lacks the confident swagger that Al Pacino brought to the role. That being said, he does have a nice moment with his estranged wife, Lillian (Ely Pouget), near the end, after McLaren is killed, where he admits that he loves her but isn’t going to change.
L.A. Takedown suffers most in the casting of McLaren and his crew. McArthur, eerily chilling in William Friedkin’s Rampage (1987) as a sadistic serial killer, lacks the gravitas of Robert De Niro. The same can be said for the barely seen Peter Dobson (The Frighteners) as Chris Sheherlis who comes off as a glorified extra in this incarnation, whereas the role was expanded significantly in Heat with Val Kilmer taking over the character. Vincent Guastaferro (NYPD Blue) plays Michael Cerrito and lacks the intensity that Tom Sizemore brought to the part. They are simply not convincing as a team of elite thieves but then, they aren’t given the screen-time.
The scene where Hanna and McLaren meet face-to-face is fine but it makes one realize just how much De Niro and Pacino brought to the table – nuance and subtlety –that is lacking from McArthur and Plank. There is stiffness to the line readings from both actors as they fail to bring Mann’s words to life, summing up what’s going on in this movie. The inflexible actors are cast in the lead roles and the actors you’d like to see cut loose, like Rooker, are wasted in nothing roles. The famous bank robbery shoot-out is still exciting to watch and one of the few times L.A. Takedown comes thrillingly to life. It lacks the visceral immediacy of Heat but does have some cool shots, such a McLaren and Sheherlis running back into the bank after Hanna and his team show-up, with them chasing the camera in a slick tracking shot.

There are some enjoyable bits of business, such as a montage of Hanna working the streets of L.A., asking around about McLaren and his crew. Mann gives us a brief slice of the city’s night life via quick, broad strokes. Perhaps what is most striking about L.A. Takedown is how it doesn’t feel or look like a Mann production. While Ron Garcia’s (Twin Peaks) cinematography is just fine, it lacks the widescreen mastery of Dante Spinotti’s work in Heat. The T.V. movie’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio certainly doesn’t do it any favors, giving it a boxed-in feel as opposed to Heat’s 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which opens everything up and gives the film more of an epic feel. The lack of Mann’s distinctive touch may also be due to the incredibly fast shoot – uncharacteristic for the methodical filmmaker – with only ten days of pre-production and 19 days of shooting. In comparison, Heat had a six-month pre-production period and a 107-day shooting schedule.
At the end of the day, L.A. Takedown is a fascinating curio, nothing more – a stripped down, rough draft. Gone is Shiherlis’ subplot, so is the bungled precious metals sting, the subplot involving Hanna's stepdaughter, and McLaren dies differently and less satisfyingly. Due to the short running time, everything feels condensed while Heat’s expanded running time allows the story to breathe and provide nuanced characterization, thereby shedding more light on the motivations for the characters’ actions. Heat shows how more time, millions of dollars and a talented, star-studded cast can make a difference. Afterwards, Mann had a much clearer idea of how he wanted Heat to be structured. More importantly, he also figured out the ending. In 1994, Mann showed producer Art Linson another draft of Heat over lunch and told him that he was thinking of updating it. The producer read it, loved it, and agreed to make the film, giving ‘90s cinema what would prove to be a timeless heist classic.