not in our stars, but in ourselves
I’m late to the Michael Mann party, as I am late to most parties. Manhunter was enough to convince me that he is indeed a genius, and worthy of all the hype; now that I’ve seen Heat as well – which I gather is generally thought to be at least one of his masterpieces – I can confirm that the hype is indeed justified. Initially, Heat was based on a real-life story of a cop chasing a career criminal, which Mann told a first time in a TV-pilot-turned-TV-movie, L.A. Takedown. That pedigree, of having been imagined for television first instead of strictly for the screen, means that Heat is filled to capacity with action, without any fat or excess on it (despite the fact that it’s nearly three hours long). Mann knows what he’s doing. I get it now.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a successful career criminal. He leads a small but loyal and precisely organized crew: Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), and Trejo (Danny Trejo, of course). Their specialty is elaborate armed robbery. For their latest, they hire Waingro (Kevin Gage), who loses his cool during the heist and kills one of the three security guards in the armored truck they just hit. McCauley realizes that they have to kill the other two as well, to avoid leaving witnesses to murder, but he also realizes he’s going to have to get rid of Waingro. After the gang has split and gone their separate ways, Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) arrives at the crime scene to investigate. He, in turn, realizes that these aren’t just amateurs. From there, Hanna and McCauley are engaged in mutually respectful, mutually assured destruction – with the added complication of Waingro colluding with rival criminals as well as with the police to try to foil McCauley’s plans. Crime doesn’t pay, but neither do law and order, in the end.
As you can probably tell, this is a very masculine movie. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mann is a much smarter masculine-ponderer than most others (*cough* SCORSESE *cough*), and he never tries to present any of this elective male pain as right, honorable, or noble. During one of the most famous scenes in the film, and one that in itself is worth the price of admission, McCauley and Hanna speak frankly with one another over a cup of coffee at a diner. Since McCauley wasn’t in the process of committing any felonies, and since Hanna wasn’t trying to arrest him, they leave aside their professional duties and open up to one another. It’s hard for both of them to balance the demands of their careers against their personal desires. Hanna is on his third marriage, and McCauley has broken his own cardinal rule – never get involved with anyone or anything you wouldn’t be able to leave behind in thirty seconds flat – to strike up a relationship with a woman named Eady (Amy Brenneman). It’s hard for both of them to find that the only thing they’re good at, these hypermasculine professions, tend to rob them of any chance at a happy, balanced, “normal” life. And of course, it’s also hard for both of them to know that each of them would kill the other without hesitation if and when the situation warranted. There’s something of the creed of the samurai in each of them – and for something as silly and ignoble as robbing banks and examining dead bodies.
To that end, one of my few criticisms is how flat and uninteresting the female characters are in this. Eady is a sweet girl who somehow, for some reason, has noticed and taken a liking to McCauley. After a night of passion, she decides she’s in love. (And so does he, for the record.) These things happen, I guess, but really? Him? Squinty McMumbles? Okay, lady. Justine (Diane Venora), Hanna’s wife, is pretty weak as well. She’s unhappy with her husband because he works absurdly long hours, and because he only thinks about his work during the rare times when he’s at home – fair complaints. She has an affair because she feels neglected – honestly, a reasonable thing to do. (To Hanna’s credit, he accepts that she isn’t all that far in the wrong for it.) And then, when her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) tries to kill herself, and Justine and Vincent sit together quietly and sadly in the hospital waiting room, she calmly agrees that their marriage isn’t working and can never work. Well, all right. Finally, there’s Charlene (Ashley Judd), Chris’s wife. She too is upset that her husband is never around, and she too is carrying on an affair (with Hank Azaria, of all people!) – but when the cops threaten to arrest her and throw her baby into foster care unless she helps them catch Chris, she risks it all to ensure he’s able to escape safely. Because…uh…she loves his sweetass ’90s ponytail, or something. In the grand scheme of the movie, these are very small concerns – but they needled me throughout, because, as you all know, I am a Feminist Killjoy.
Back to the strengths, though. Heat‘s plot is complicated to the point of convoluted – but Mann never lets any of those many moving parts grow unclear or fuzzy. I think this goes back to its original status as a TV project: a story conceived for film will perhaps permit itself a bit more reverie, a few more divertissements, and considerably more opportunities to lose the plot. If you know people are going to the theatre anyway, why not add a few of your own personal directorial flourishes, whether they like it or not? With stories conceived for TV, however, the point is to keep the story moving along, to keep the audience engaged, to keep them wanting to tune in week after week. There’s nothing about Heat that looks or feels like TV – it is most definitely a big-budget action flick – but its DNA is, I’d say, pretty obviously in television – and that’s good. In this case, with Mann at the helm, that’s good.