Heat review: A staggeringly gritty crime epic
Chris Bryant | On 01, Sep 2020
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro
A bank job. A car chase. A shootout. Danny Trejo. Heat has all the major hallmarks of a great action blockbuster, but what makes Michael Mann’s adversarial drama such an influential powerhouse is that all of these spectacularly executed action tropes are the background music led by the most powerful duet in cinema.
When Heat was released in 1995, Al Pacino was an eight-time Academy Award nominee with one win (1993’s Best Actor for Scent of a Woman) and Robert De Niro was a six-time nominee with two wins (1975’s Best Supporting for The Godfather Part II, and 1981’s Best Actor for Raging Bull). It was a phenomenal cultural event to see the two face off – picture Avengers if Tony Stark and Steve Rogers had also made The Godfather Part II. Top it off with another Oscar winner, Jon Voight, gritty action stars Tom Sizemore and Trejo, character-actor staples Ted Levine, William Fitchner, and Mykelti Williamson, and throw in Batman (Val Kilmer) for good measure.
Few of these actors have given more adrenaline-inducing performances as they do here. Aaction maestro Michael Mann takes this stunning cast list and crafts a thriller in which the focus isn’t a pile of cash, or an exploding car, or an exchange of gunfire, but a subtle, symbiotic relationship between De Niro’s master criminal and Pacino’s relentless cop. Fraught with moves and countermoves, Heat is an explosive chess game, a deadly dance between cops and robbers. Without the audience ever being put in the position of choosing a side, they can simply sit back and enjoy the conflicting ideologies of both amid the chaos of their flaws and moral codes.
In terms of influence, no film has had more impact on the action genre. Christopher Nolan famously screened Heat twice for the cast of The Dark Knight before production began. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography – filled with sweeping, blue-tinted shots of the city – is instantly associated with 1990s action hits. The cafe in which the two leads calmly trade philosophical blows about their respective purposes typically books that table months in advance. Even darker, within two years of Heat’s release there were reports of armoured car robberies influenced by the opening scene as far as South Africa and Norway. Even the now-infamous 1997 North Hollywood Shootout prompted multiple references to Heat in news reports.
The single-minded machismo of the co-leads has been the blueprint for showdowns on and off screen ever since, the striking car robbery and shootout scenes never bested, and the finale as cinematic and tense as they come. Rightly billed as a staggeringly gritty crime epic, its just as important to note that the personal, dramatic scenes involving Amy Brenneman as De Niro’s love interest, and Natalie Portman’s turn as Pacino’s troubled daughter ensure that among all the untraceable phone calls, bullet casings, and setups, Heat is equally a masterpiece of subtle, dramatic realism.