The last few weeks here at Cinematic Century have been incredibly difficult. We’re dealing with several years that have just been jam-packed with movies that I not only love, but that have had massive impacts on me as a fan of movies. Which, has led to lot of hard decisions. But, weirdly enough, I don’t really have that problem with 1995. As luck would have it, 1995 handed out several movies that I enjoy, but don’t have much stronger feelings than that. Especially due to the unfortunate experience of containing two of Kevin Spacey’s biggest performances, which now have become virtually unwatchable as we learn more about him. At a certain point in my life I definitely would have jumped at the chance to talk about David Fincher’s insanely dark and twisted serial killer story Se7en, but that movie really has dropped recently in my estimations, and not just because of Spacey’s involvement, it just kind of has gotten sillier and sillier as time has gone on. Likewise, the Usual Suspects once held a pretty high status in my estimations, but the one-two punch of Spacey and Brian Singer have helped tarnish a movie that was already falling on each rewatch, the tricks and seams becoming more and more apparent. I suppose we could have talked about Toy Story, a massively important film in the history of the medium and one that really meant a lot to me as a kid, but that just didn’t offer up anything special for me to sink my teeth into for this project. And, other than that, there’s just not much from 1995 that means that much to me. I like 12 Monkeys a lot, but it really doesn’t hold a candle to Gilliam’s other dytopic masterpiece Brazil. And, as I’ve said before, I weirdly don’t connect with Martin Scorsese’s gangster movies as much as other people do, and Casino just has never done much for me. But, as luck would have it, there was a movie from 1995 that had always been something I’d wanted to see, but had never gotten around to it, primarily due to the somewhat off-putting length. But, thanks to the most recent miniseries on the wonderful Blank Check podcast, I finally decided to check out Michael Mann’s Heat, a movie that I have heard nothing but good things about, and that has widely been heralded as a masterpiece of crime cinema. And, folks, that may even be an understatement. Heat is perfection.
The career of Michael Mann is a fascinating one, never really producing a big box-office hit, but becoming a personal favorite director of many big-deal actors who allowed him to make all sorts of bizarre passion projects, before usually heading back to the world of television, where he first came to prominence. And, during one of his exiles from the silver screen, Mann created a made-for-TV film that would have been a pilot for a new TV series called L.A. Takedown. The script was largely based on the true events of a police detective who spend his career tracking down a meticulous bank robber, and dove into the obsession that the two men felt with their parallel lives. The pilot was never picked up, and Mann moved on, but kept tinkering with the script, which was actually much longer than what he shot for the pilot. And, eventually, Mann was able to get the script reappraised, this time as a motion picture. Mann used his peculiar stature in the entertainment business to convince his two ideal leads, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, to appear in the film, which became a major marketing ploy, proudly claiming the first time that these two titans of American cinema were on screen together. They then got to work filming the movie, taking pains to show parts of Los Angeles that didn’t typically get as much love in movies, hoping to show a side to the city that few outside recognized. The film utilized several experts in both law enforcement and bank robberies to create as realistic a movie as possible, which ended up leading to a spate of copycat robberies around the world, essentially because the film operated as a instructional video for robberies. And, when it came out, it was well-received. Critics enjoyed it, it made a decent amount of money, but was generally thought of as a decent crime flick. However, largely due to extended airplay on cable, the film eventually became canonized as one of the finest films of the era, recognized as a masterpiece in crime cinema, and one of the best bank robber movies ever made.
The film follows two men, professional thief Neil McCauley and police detective Vincent Hanna who spends his career trying to find masterminds like McCauley. McCauley runs a very tight ship, primarily working with a solid crew of Chris Shiherlis, Michael Cheritto, and Trejo. However, an armored car heist requiring another man ends up going sideways when the man selected, Waingro, turns out to be a lunatic and kills some police officers, drawing heat on the men. They successfully managed to steal quite a bit of bearer bonds belonging to a powerful money launderer named Roger Van Zant ,and they get to work trying to sell the bonds back to Van Zant, all while trying to get rid of Waingro, who unfortunately slips out of their hands and vanishes. Hanna is tasked with looking into the case, recognizing the work of McCauley, even though he doesn’t know who the man is at this point. However, Hanna hits a bit of luck when a witness to the armored car robbery was able to overhear Cheritto use a particular phrase that an informant is able to link to him. So, with Cheritto in his sights, Hanna and his crew begin following the robber, eventually leading them to McCauley and the whole crew. Unfortunately, one of Hanna’s men make a mistake during a stakeout, letting McCauley realize that they’re being watched by the police.
McCauley has become paranoid, and decides that they need to end their reign of terror, but only after pulling off one last heist that they’ve been working on, a bank robbery that could net them more than $12 million. Things are somewhat complicated though when McCauley is randomly pulled over on the highway by Hanna, who offers to have a chat. The two men pull into a diner, and end up having a heart-to-heart, admitting what’s going on in their lives, while also recognizing the fact that there’s nothing on McCauley that could currently get him arrested. The two men realize that their obsessions with their careers have left them broken people, but also acknowledge the fact that nothing is ever going to change, and that they are who they are. McCauley then begin working on making this final heist as air-tight as possible, keeping all of his men in line, and even forcing the wife of Shiherlis to not leave him so that he’ll be mentally prepared for the heist.
But, before the bank robbery can occur, disaster strikes. It turns out that Waingro has gotten in league with Van Zant, who eagerly wants McCauley dead for the armored car robbery. Through Waingro’s information they’re able to kill Trejo, and provide information on the heist to the police, who arrive just in time to start a shootout in downtown Los Angeles. Cheritto and an alternate driver named Donald Breeden are killed in the process, Shiherlis is wounded, and McCauley is forced to flee for his life. He becomes enraged, and begins piecing everything together, finding Trejo’s dying body in his home. Shiherlis flees the country, while McCauley begins seeking revenge instead of just leaving town like he always said he would. He tracks down Van Zant and kills the man in his home, and then prepares the leave the country with his girlfriend. However, when he learns the location of Waingro he puts his escape in jeopardy and tracks the killer down, murdering the man, and giving Hanna enough time to track him down. McCauley attempts to flee, but both he and Hanna end up fleeing around the Los Angeles Airport, eventually confronting each other on the tarmac and having a fire-fight while ends with McCauley being mortally wounded, dying in Hanna’s arms.
Michael Mann’s career is honestly one of the most interesting careers I’ve ever seen from a major director. He’s rarely had a financial hit, and his movies by and large were generally dismissed as pop-corn fluff when they came out. But, as time as has gone on, he’s been hailed as a visionary director, a meticulous and masterful director who is able to make intense and beautiful films out of incredibly simple concepts. When it all boils down, this is a movie about cops and robbers, simple bank robbery stories that could easily have been made in a far more pulpy style, but that manages to become elevated to the point of masterpiece thanks to Mann’s obsession to detail and his innate ability to create deeply flawed and fascinating protagonists. As long as they’re men. Mann certainly has some issues as a storyteller, but when you get into his specific wheelhouse there’s almost no one who can tell the types of stories he tells better than him. I’ve seen it described as “tough stories about tough men making tough decisions,” and that really does kind of describe everything that there’s to know about Mann. At it’s heart Heat is a simple film, a story about a cop chasing a bank robber. But, it’s all brought to such vivid life, largely thanks to Dante Spinotti’s beautiful cinematography that drops us into the hot, sweaty, and angry Los Angeles, and also thanks to the powerhouse performances from both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Both men are rightfully considered towering figures in American cinematic acting, and I really think that this film shows two of their finest performances, playing two men who are just absolutely ruined by their obsessions.
Obsession is a fascinating thing, and Michael Mann is one of those directors who just seems to bring it to life in all of it’s alluring and self-destructing nature. Mann himself is clearly a person who struggles with obsession, creating insanely intricate films of staggering length, unable to cut any moment. Plus, when given the chance, he always tends to come back to his films, perfectly willing to release new editions with minor tweaks and changes, always willing to look for new ways to make the film as perfectly representative of what’s in his mind as possible. And, it’s through that personal knowledge of obsession that he’s able to portray it so perfectly. Both McCauley and Hanna are incredibly obsessive men, both completely dominated by their chosen professions to the point that they’re barely fully human any more. McCauley lives a ghost, always willing to drop absolutely everything in his life at the drop of a dime so that he can flee, his entire life revolving around finding the next score, and never having the ability to enjoy his spoils. Hanna has left a string of destructive marriages in his wake, unable to enjoy a normal life because he only feels alive chasing down the absolute worst of humanity, allowing himself to become a cynical shell of a man so that others don’t have to. On the surface ,they’re both appealing figures. The dashing bank-robber who seems to know everything and always has a plan up his sleeve, and the daring detective who is able to track down the worst or the worst and bring them to justice. But, when you actually start to examine these men you start to realize that it may not be worth it, because they’ve sacrificed so much of themselves to reach this point that they’ve become thoroughly broken people. And that obsession is responsible for that, the double-edged blade that promises perfection in their chosen field at the expense of their humanity. It’s just a question of whether or not that price is worth it.
Heat was written and directed by Michael Mann and released by Warner Bros, 1995.
Categories: Cinematic Century