Weekend Film Recommendation: Heat

This month’s reviews of great movie remakes draws to a close with the film that finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together, face to face. It’s Michael Mann’s remake of his own TV Movie LA Takedown, which six years later became Heat (1995).

A heist organized by a slick team of gangsters goes wrong. An impetuous last-minute recruit kills the three guards without authorization from the gang’s leader Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro) to cover up the gang’s tracks. The gang departs the crime scene, leaving the investigating cop Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) with little more than the certainty that he’s up against a team with as much dedication to their craft as he to his.

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At the most superficial level, this is a film about cops, robbers, and heists. Hanna is trying to catch McCauley, while McCauley tries to settle the score with the renegade gang-member who screwed up the heist in the opening scene. But just below the surface, there are multiple plotlines that make the movie’s three hours pass by surprisingly quickly. The dénouement of the film isn’t the big shoot-‘em-up that would usually book-end a high-budget film from the same genre; instead, the final scenes are intimate affairs, designed to show how both of the lead characters are shaped by one another.

Mann makes the symmetries and inversions between the two main characters abundantly clear. McCauley lives by a code of detachment, whereby he makes himself free to disappear as soon as he notices the eponymous ‘heat’ around the corner. Nonetheless, he finds himself inexorably drawn toward the charming ingénue Eady (played with admirable sophistication by Amy Brenneman). On the other hand, Hanna can’t seem to muster affection for the people around him even if he wanted to: his third marriage is looking to be about as successful as his previous two, and he barely notices that his stepdaughter is spiraling into a self-destructive pattern of fear and isolation. The parallel is present in their professional lives, too: McCauley commands an air of cool, calculated, precision in just about everything he does – he senses when he’s on the precipice of being made by the cops and correctly orders a strategic withdrawal. Hanna, however, is so bellicose that he alienates his colleagues with his irate and wanton pursuit of McCauley.

Whatever subtleties about the characters’ similarities and differences might have been obscured until the half-way point in the film are explicitly brought to the fore in one of the finest scenes in recent movie history. Hanna, upon realizing that McCauley is aware of his pursuit, invites the latter for a cup of coffee. The two frostily discuss their respective approaches to their work, and reach a common understanding about the obligations of their positions should they encounter one another in less propitious circumstances. Despite the spare choice of wording and the tense shifting in their seats, Hanna and McCauley share the expression that they’ve finally met someone who understands them in a way that others can’t. It’s magnificent.

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Years working on the aesthetic in shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story honed Mann’s stylistic flair. Heat is seriously slick. The clothes, the panache, and the tightly rehearsed action shots make this film cooler to look at than your first iPhone. Even the sounds of the assault rifles have an unusual percussive resonance that brings out your basest I-like-fast-cars-and-big-guns impulse. This is all the more impressive considering that although Heat is nominally a heist film, it’s the most character-driven heist film of which I’m aware. Each member of the long list of secondary characters, played by heavy hitters including Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert, and Natalie Portman, has a distinctive and identifiable backstory.

Trivia time! My choices for remake films definitely overlooked some worthwhile contenders. Name some of your favorite remake films that you think deserve an honorable mention! Who’s going to suggest Sex and the City, that superb remake of Tenko? Anyone? No, no-one?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.