In this series, I analyze a film and the filmmaker behind it, from how the film is reflection of their style, to how it relates to the rest of their filmography, and finally just talking about why the film is awesome.
Michael Mann – Heat (1995)
For those of you who have never heard of Heat, let this be your introduction. Heat is about two a crew of professional and criminal thieves, headed by Robert De Nero’s Neil McCauley, who are investigated and hunted by police headed by Al Pacino’s Detective Hanna; it also has one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, with Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Dennis Haysbert, just to say a few.
However, the film is Michael Mann’s masterpiece because all the parts move together, like clockwork. No character is extraneous, even the civilians who have nothing to do with any of the heists or plotting are still relevant to the plot, merely because they are relevant to the other characters in the film. Furthermore, one thing that really makes the film hit home emotionally is that with only a few exceptions, every speaking role has an arc; for example, Dennis Haysbert is seemingly unrelated to De Nero’s crew until you realize they did time together in prison, Haysbert’s character is being crushed by his corrupt boss and the system, so he joins them for their next job. Those two arcs don’t meet up until midway through the second act, and it suddenly makes sense why Mann has been devoting time to Haysbert’s character; he is setting up the risks, rewards, and motivations for him joining McCauley’s crew.
Michael Mann is a meticulous filmmaker; he is a clock maker, and a perfectionist, always trying to get everything just right. Heat is really the only time that it completely works, without coming off like he didn’t expend a ton of effort in the process. Maybe it’s because of the all-star, well-trained, and brilliantly directed cast, but the fact that this was Mann’s labor of love for several years may have something to do with it as well. The opening sequence of shots, from the joint on-screen credit for Pacino and De Nero onwards, all drives us to a moment. You realize that De Nero, Kilmer, Sizemore, and Kevin Gage’s characters are all going to the same place; Mann also introduces us to people at a comfortable, yet moving pace, which ensures that we are not lost. Arguably one of my favorite aspects of this is that he doesn’t play around, nor does he dumb it all down for the audience; you need to keep up with him, which means that the moving pace, especially as it begins to accelerate, is not ruined by De Nero calling out every character over the radio to ensure we know who they are.
Heat is the culmination of years of work for Michael Mann. His early films were acclaimed, and his first one, Thief, has been an influence on heist films since. Mann has also explored the criminal mind a lot; Thief gives us a hardened, career criminal who nonetheless tries to have some semblance of a normal life; Manhunter hints at the “what could have been” for a serial killer, to show that even he can love, and be loved; although not about criminals, Mann’s Last of the Mohicans (1992) does explore the lovable rogue, and reactions of other around him. Of course, Mann explored the cop’s mindset when he ran Miami Vice, and the jaded mentality of Sonny and Crockett, i.e. the “whack a mole” reality behind criminal behavior, is found in Vincent Hanna.
Mann would revisit Miami Vice with a 2006 film; however, 2004’s Collateral, in which Tom Cruise’s serene yet nihilistic hit man has a battle of wills with an innocent cabbie, played by Jaime Fox, hits a lot of the points made in Heat, albeit with a different perspective; a cold-blooded killer versus a civilian stuck in his seat, rather than seasoned cops and robbers. I recommend Collateral, and actually think you should watch that first before watching Heat, since it opens the door into Michael Mann’s style a little more gracefully. Mann’s cop and robbers trend has continued, and although 2009’s Public Enemies has polarized the general public, ignore the pacing, and you’ve got a fascinating look into the mirror image that was law enforcement in 1930’s with the thieves who were honored and idolized by the general public.
Michael Mann, in many ways, wants us to look at criminals in a different way, to not sympathize with them, but to understand them. McCauley, after stealing bonds from an “investment advisor”, says rather coldly, “he’s got insurance”; Hanna later in the film plays fast and loose with jurisdiction to entangle, but not entrap, a member of McCauley’s crew, which raises eyebrows and leads the audience to question how far he will go. Multiple viewings, thus, establish that they are mirror images; neither knows how to do anything else, both go to extremes on get the job done, but neither thinks twice or loses sleep over their jobs. As we recognize that the cops and criminals are actually pretty similar, it does open the door to ask which crew you’d rather be with, since McCauley and his crew, in contrast to the “no honor among thieves” axiom, are very close and he risks his life to save his friend’s later on. The cops are also close, and equally dedicated, and Mann shows us how much all this means in the context of their impact on the people around them.
Michael Mann has been more hit or miss in recent years, but no matter what, he is a brilliant filmmaker, and Heat is his greatest work, at least to this point. It never goes too far in any direction, but instead takes us to where he wants us to go, and just leaves us to think about it, which is what a brilliant filmmaker does.