*. Back in 2015 Daniel Engber wrote a piece for Slate looking back on the oeuvre of Michael Mann that started out like this: “Have you seen the newest Michael Mann film? No, not the one about the ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score—you’re thinking of Heat. Nope, also not the one about the ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score—that was Public Enemies. I can see why you’re confused, but this is certainly not the one about the ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score—that was Thief. I’m talking about the one that arrives in theaters Friday, about an ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score. It’s called Blackhat. Have you seen that film before?”
*. Engber’s point humorously underlines the repetitive quality of Mann’s work, the way throughout his career he has recycled not just this same story arc but individual scenes and exchanges of dialogue, sometimes word for word. Indeed, this film is actually a remake of L.A. Takedown, a TV movie he did in 1989. This is not a condemnation of Mann, but I think it does point to one of his big limitations. There’s less to him than the stylistic signatures.
*. If Mann’s work is of a piece then I’d have to say, and I think I’m probably in good company saying it, that Heat is his masterpiece, the movie that marked the arrival of Peak Mann. Opinions may vary on how good a thing that is though.
*. I didn’t like Heat when it first came out. I thought it was dull. I don’t mean it dragged, even though at 3 hours it was too long. It moved well enough, but it just felt dead. Perhaps the best way I can put it is my reaction to the ad copy, which made such a big thing about De Niro . . . and Pacino . . . together! And sure enough, they are together. Cop Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and robber Neil McCauley (De Niro) even sit down and have a coffee. So what happens when these two heavyweights face off? Nothing. Not a damn thing. Their meeting has no purpose and doesn’t advance the plot an inch. Not to mention it being kind of silly.
*. And the dialogue! There they are, Pacino . . . De Niro . . . together! . . . and they have nothing to say to each other. Vince: “You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.” Neil: “There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.” Yeah. I dig it. Heavy, man.
*. What I liked in 1995, and like today, is Ashley Judd. At the time I was infatuated, and I might still argue that she turns in the best performance here. I don’t know what’s behind David Thomson tacking her at the end of a list of supporting players to watch as “even Ashley Judd.” She’s great. What I wondered this time out was if the same hair stylist was doing her coiffure as Val Kilmer’s. They look so alike. And I think his might have even taken more time in the chair.
*. As for the two stars, is it unfair to say that they’re dancing on the line of giving parody performances? Pacino gets to break out several “Hoo-ah!” moments (in early drafts of the script Vince had a cocaine habit) before relapsing into gum-chewing alert indifference, while De Niro is all threatening reticence and shrugs. But, and I’m struggling to defend them here, the fact that they’re going through the motions in such obvious ways does fit. Vince and Neil are characters stuck in routines. Vince is playing the cop and Neil is playing the bad guy. It’s fate, or some spin on the old line about how a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. They lay out the ground rules in the diner.
*. At least we can say that this may have been the last time they were realistically attractive stars (though Pacino was just coming off facelift surgery). They look great. Great enough to rope in younger women? Diane Venora was 12 years younger than Pacino (but the same age as his character), Amy Brenneman 21 years younger than De Niro. But Brenneman is a struggling artist in L.A. and De Niro looks like he might make a good sugar daddy. So there’s that.
*. I am making light of these relationships because I think they’re a joke. Mann likes these problematic pairings but they play out in such predictable, clichéd ways they become unbearable. These women must suffer until they can come to some kind of tearful understanding of their troubled men. The business with Natalie Portman’s attempted suicide bringing Pacino and Venora together at the end, temporarily, was laughable and sickening at the same time. Sorry, babe. That ship has sailed. Back to your weed and Prozac. And Ralph.
*. The epic gunfight in the streets of downtown L.A. is justifiably famous. Indeed, I tend to think it’s really the whole point of the movie, despite how ridiculous it is. How much ammo were the gang carrying on them to keep firing like that? As I’ve pointed out before (see my notes on Predator) ammunition is heavy, and apparently some 800-1000 rounds were being expended here in every take. Also: Nobody can hit the robbers even as they are standing out in the open in broad daylight and being fired on from all sides?
*. And then it ends . . . why? Did everyone just run out of bullets? Did Mann yell “Cut!” Finally, De Niro gets into a car and just drives away and . . . that’s it. Next thing we know he’s getting Kilmer patched up by some hairy sawbones. This isn’t a script that cares very much for connecting tissue.
*. As far as heists go, I’m not sure Mann develops the idea of how professional a crew this is very far. Their big plan for knocking over the bank is to disable the alarm system and then walk in with assault rifles and balaclavas and emptying all the cash in the vault into duffel bags. Then drive away. Wow. As Vince puts it admiringly: these guys are good!
*. You may be getting the impression that I still don’t like Heat very much. However, I did think I liked it more this time than I have previously. It has grown on me somewhat. In some ways it plays almost like a period piece, not as obviously as the MTV cops of Miami Vice but still very much as a ’90s gangster flick. Perhaps it’s the music. Perhaps it’s a style thing, and for Mann style always was the thing. So much else seems disposable. I still think it’s overrated, but there’s no denying it’s watchable and even at times entertaining.
*. As noted by Engber, Mann went on to do a lot less of the same. Pacino and De Niro would appear again — together! — in risible CGI-assisted performances in The Irishman. Val Kilmer got a reputation as being difficult to work with, and has more recently been suffering health problems. Ashley Judd doesn’t do as many films, concentrating on humanitarian work. She came out tops again.