Classic Film Review: Still Feeling the “Heat” (1995)

It’s undeniably iconic. Mention the title and an image comes to any film buff’s mind, burnished and burned onto the retina these past 28 years.

Genre-defining, operatic in scope and soap operatic in its domesticity, Michael Mann’s “Heat” is a saga-length heist picture. It is both intimate and sweeping, a John Woo/Howard Hawks “men with a code” epic, with William Friedkin grit, and maybe a pinch of Peckinpah for those who like their gun violence realistic.

“Heat” seems to have grown in stature and reputation since its 1995 release. Like John Ford’s “The Searchers,” at some point that repute took on a life of its own, almost superceding the actual film, a movie that can be relished on all sorts of levels.

Start with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro near their peaks, LAPD Lt. “HOO Hah” squared off with the soft-spoken Neil, a greedy goateed sociopath with a plan. Throw in a gruff turn by fellow Oscar winner Jon Voight and stellar support by a dozen other “names,” including future Oscar winners Wes Studi and Natalie Portman, and featuring character acting stalwarts like Danny Trejo, Jeremy Piven, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert, Mykelti Williamson and Ted Levine and you’ve got an embarrasment of character-acting riches.

There’s a loud and just-real-enough and get over-the-top LA street shootout that starkly predicted the machine-gunning of America, a cat-and-mouse plot with two cats/no mice, two loners recognizing the “I do what I do best… you do what you do best” fatalism in each other in a tale of two rival “gangs,” often framed in “West Side Story” Jets vs. Sharks compositions.

It’s a movie of “meets” — in diners, an abandoned drive-in, dockside, a string of houses and beach bungalows that could fill an issue of Architectural Digest, most every location coming with a stunning LA view.

And that dialogue — Mann channeling Mamet in flinty, florid flourishes.

“A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat…'”

“He knew the risks, he didn’t have to be there. It rains… you get wet.”

“For me, the action IS the ‘juice!'”

“Ain’t ‘hard time’ that’s ever been invented that I can’t handle.”

For a film fan, especially “guys who love movies for guys,” “Heat” is practically comfort food, excessive running time be damned. There’s just so much to relish, a Tarantino trilogy of cool characters, chewy dialogue and “cool moments,” all more grounded in reality than your average QT exercise in excess.

It’s so good you wish Mann had been a more prolific director, that he hadn’t spent so much of his energy on “Miami Vice” on the small screen, and then the big one. His “Collateral” was impressive, “The Insider” and “Ali” assured his place in the pantheon. And he’s making a sequel to “Heat.”

But here’s the thing. “Heat” isn’t even Michael Mann’s best picture. It’s the gloriously excessive indulgence he allowed himself after his brisk, bracing masterpiece, “The Last of the Mohicans.”

I mean, just the cast here has a Coppola/Wellesian “EVERYbody eats” scale. Here’s William Fitchner as a corrupt tycoon running afoul of DeNiro’s “crew,” Ashley Judd tearing the roof off her married-to-a-crook (played by Val Kilmer) turn in just a few scenes, Diane Venora going toe-to-toe with Pacino, Tone Loc playing the snitch’s snitch, Hank Azaria smacking a small part out of the park.

Is that Martin Ferrero, fresh off a BIG break in “Jurassic Park,” playing a sales clerk at a building supply store in a single scene? Bud Cort as a crooked diner-owner? Almost everybody has a moment or three to show what they’re made of.

It’s almost too much because it is too much. The movie becomes unwieldy thanks to all that excess star power.

There’s a whole serial killer secondary plot that’s introduced and abandoned. And “Heat” has one of those “Raiders of the Lost Ark” lapses in logic that unravels the whole affair in the middle of the second act, something Mann doubles down on when he has Pacino’s bellowing, eye-bugging cop sit down for a friendly, respectful, legend-to-legend “chat” with DeNiro’s pitiless murderer.

“You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas.”

They talk about their dreams and their lonely lives. It’s a star moment and it comes so far AFTER we’ve seen goateed goon Neil OK the slaughter of the armed truck guards in the film’s opening heist that we almost forget how absurd it is.

I wouldn’t cut a second of it, but every time I see this sequence I need a little lie-down, just to recover from the exertion of rolling my eyes into the back of my head. It’s a grandiose flourish more at home in “Miami Vice.”

So no, not all this ballyhoo that’s piled up around “Heat” is justified. It’s a “To Live and Die in LA” to Friedkin’s “French Connection,” a stunning genre piece that isn’t as singular as its creator’s true masterworks.

Mann recognizes it as a critical and box office highlight of his storied career. It’s good and stands up to repeat viewing thanks to the players and the Big Moments. But even Mann knows it’s not some “singular” achievement in crime thrillers. Otherwise, he wouldn’t risk its reputation by making a sequel.

Rating:  R for violence and language

Cast: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Danny Trejo, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Hank Azararia, Ted Levine, Jeremy Piven, Kevin Gage and Jon Voight.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Mann. A Warner Brothers release on Amazon, Netflix, etc.

Running time: 2:50


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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2 Responses to Classic Film Review: Still Feeling the “Heat” (1995)

  1. Eugene DALTON says:

    Heat was the inspiration for the North Hollywood bank robbery.

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