Somehow I suspect that when writer/director Michael Mann pitched Heat to the studio, all he had to say was “Let’s put Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on opposites sides of a heist movie.” The concept sort of sells itself from there. Throw in Val Kilmer and other assorted renowned actors and character actors, and you have a lot of characters for these personalities to reflect off of during the course of the 1995 film.
This is important, because despite having one of the most intense shoot-outs in cinema, Heat isn’t exactly a standard heist movie. It’s more of a character study, of a protagonist and antagonist (or two opposed protagonists, depending on how you look at it), with the heist as a framework. The heist is not the focus of the film, it’s the backdrop; the focus is how planning the heist and investigating it affect career criminal Neil McCauley (De Niro) and L.A.P.D. Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino).
Which doesn’t mean it lacks the requisite number of things going “boom”.
Neil McCauley is a life-long criminal who orchestrates a series of heists with his crew. There’s Chris (Kilmer), Michael (Tom Sizemore), and Trejo (…Danny Trejo). Jon Voight plays the role of Nate, Neil’s informant and organizer of his escape plans. And then there’s the new guy, Waingro (Kevin Gage). Of the crew, only Chris and Waingro get significant character development, and Waingro is there largely to establish that there are worse people in the world than this group of robbers. He’s a psycho, and on their first job together, he decides to shoot the hostages; his impulsiveness gets him kicked off the team, and also gets Lt. Hanna on their trail. Meanwhile, Neil and his core crew begin planning the next heist.
Neil’s mantra in the film is “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,” and this is the recurring theme that the characters have to deal with. What are you willing to walk away from for the score? Chris is undergoing marital troubles due to his financial irresponsibility (his wife is played by Ashley Judd, who does a good job at acting the part of a woman who has reached the end of her patience). Michael has a wife, but lives for the score alone. Neil has lived alone for most of his life, and when he starts dating bookseller Edey (Amy Brenneman), he has to face up to the fact that being willing to walk away from her isn’t the same as wanting to.
It doesn’t just affect the criminals, either. As Neil rightly notes during the diner scene (the one non-action scene De Niro and Pacino share, and apparently based on an actual event in the life of the real Neil McCauley), him having the “drop it and run” philosophy means that Vincent has to keep the same pace. Vincent’s on his third marriage, and his current wife, Justine (Diane Venora) is becoming increasingly irate about his frequent absences and her being shut out of his life. He has a step-daughter, Lauren, played by a pre-Star Wars Natalie Portman, and despite having only a few scenes, Portman is very convincing as a teenaged basket case. While Lauren arguably has three parents — her father, mother, and step-father — she also arguably has none, as there isn’t one of the three who seems to have time for her. Vincent notices, but duty always calls, and so we see his life start to self-destruct as much as those of the criminals he’s chasing.
It may not take a thief, but it might take someone who lives like one.
Pacino and De Niro are the stars of the film, and both turn in stellar performances. De Niro’s Neil is likeable, even somewhat sympathetic, even as you know that he’s a ruthless criminal. There are times when watching the film in which it’s easy to forget that he is, in fact, the bad guy. And Pacino’s Vincent has just enough of Pacino’s trademark wildness to make you believe that he really will do whatever it takes to bring Neil down. Kilmer plays the not-so-bright Chris to the hilt, making it clear both why he needs to rely on Neil, and why Neil in turn relies on him during heists. While most of the crew are simply “the crew”, you do get a sense of genuine friendship between Neil and Chris.
Besides the main plot lines, alternating between Neil’s planning and Vincent’s investigations, several little subplots are thrown in, often around the home lives of the various characters, or the repercussions of their actions elsewhere. With the movie running nearly three hours, it’s tempting to wonder if all of it really needed to be in there, and if perhaps a tighter movie couldn’t be made by cutting some scenes. But of all the scenes, only the scene showing just how vile Waingro is, and the ones introducing Dennis Haysbert’s character (a former crew member invited back in), seem like they might, arguably, be unnecessary. And both are arguable, and neither is long enough to make a significant difference in the run time. All the other scenes are inarguably significant to the film; it may run long, but it’s long by necessity. If it were just a standard heist movie, and not a study of the personalities involved, it might be otherwise. But getting Neil, Vincent, and Chris to the ends of their respective storylines and showing why they get there in addition to how mandates that these scenes be shown. And Neil’s 30 second rule, and how the characters abide by it or disregard it, shapes all of these ends.
Heat is not a film to lightly sit through on a lazy afternoon. It’s not a popcorn flick such as Ocean’s Eleven. But if you’re prepared for a very deep and intellectual heist movie, it’s a great film — and still throws in a few exceptional action set pieces to keep things exciting.