Michael Mann’s acclaimed 1995 crime epic ‘Heat’ has been issued in a 2-disk R1 Special Edition from Warners. Nat Tunbridge reviews a disappointing DVD of a fine film.
Michael Mann is an individualist, a master stylist, a director whose films stand head and shoulders above the Hollywood mainstream and which tend to have a distinct, brooding atmosphere. I fell in love with an early film of his, ‘The Keep’, which I saw on video in the early 80s. It’s an extraordinary piece of highly stylised gothic horror, quite unlike anything he’s done since, and it demonstrated both his superb command of atmosphere and at times negligible regard for cogent narrative. Since then I’ve followed his films avidly, developing a love/hate relationship with them. On the one hand, I love his integrity, his intellectual rigour and brusque, unashamedly manly style. On the other, I lament his lack of insight into matters of the heart, his tendency to place high-brow dialogue into the mouths of middle or low-brow characters. These proclivities only serve to undercut the authenticity of his set-ups. ‘Heat’ demonstrates both aspects of his film-making in spades. It has four male-female romances in its near-three hour running time, yet the only real relationship is between the policeman and his prey, the thief and his hunter.
Neil McCauley (De Niro) is a professional thief, running a crew of ruthless, highly disciplined career criminals made up of old pros Michael (Sizemore) and Trejo (Trejo) and young apprentice Chris (Kilmer). When he’s hired to do a job on an armoured car, he’s forced to call in an unknown, Waingro (Gage), to help with the heist, not knowing that the man is a psychotic killer. During the raid, Waingro kills one of the guards, instigating a massacre. Later, when McCauley attempts to eliminate Waingro, he escapes.
The crime attracts the attention of L.A.P.D Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino), a high-flying lawman whose obsessive attention to his job is crashing his third marriage, to Justine (Venora). Hanna’s team, including Drucker (Williamson), Casals (Studi) and Bosko (Levine), go to work on the case and start shadowing the crew. McCauley, who is preparing for a massive bank robbery, becomes aware of the surveillance and begins a cat-and-mouse game with Hanna. He’s unaware, however, that Waingro has hooked up with a businessman, Van Zandt (Fichtner) who previously tried to eliminate McCauley. As the day of the bank job dawns, both McAuley and Hanna are aware that, one way or another, both their lives are going to change permanently.
‘Heat’ is something of a contemporary classic in the crime genre, and with good reason. Its shoot-outs rank among the best ever filmed, it has a moody atmosphere that grips you at the start and never lets go and, at its core, it holds a unique treasure: a coffee shop conversation between De Niro and Pacino which is seven and a half minutes of low-key magic. Did I say atmosphere? ‘Heat’ is – aesthetically at least – a joy to watch. Visually the film is a symphony of reflections. Every surface gleams, from the countless windows that sit flatly behind the characters to the highlights in the numerous cars sliding smoothly through the streets. What they’re all reflecting, of course, is L.A: the city is the film’s central character, ever present, grinding away in the background, and the locations brilliantly integrate it into the action, from grimy chopshops and darkened underpasses to abandoned drive-ins and the entire breathtaking cityscape, seen from a helicopter. Clad in a largely monochromatic wardrobe, the characters slide through the city’s canyons and pits, restless as sharks. From first scene to last, Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is a marvel.
However, stylish though it is, ‘Heat’ is also a case of style over substance. The film is essentially a clichéd TV cops and robbers story dolled up to the nines. In expanding his own 1989 TV police drama ‘L.A Takedown’ for the big screen, Mann has expanded the lives of the central characters and added sub-plots and levels of detail that, while they complicate matters, don’t add as much depth as I think he wanted them to. The screenplay comes across as disjointed, the plot unnecessarily convoluted and the clipped, mumbled dialogue doesn’t help. The world Mann is evoking is fundamentally underpinned by a thundering will-to-power machismo that only reveals its suppurating sentimentality in the final scene (as an absurd cod-fascist synth-anthem blares, no less). That we were forewarned by the wild unevenness of tone is no consolation. The fact that we go along with it anyway is a tribute to Mann’s exceptional ability to sustain tension for large amounts of screen time, something he achieves partly through a highly advanced film-making technique and partly through having a strong rapport with what is by any standards an extraordinary cast.
Foremost among them is Pacino and De Niro. The Film writer James Woolcott noted that ‘Heat’ came in the middle of Pacino’s ‘hoo-ha!’ period, after his career resurrection in ‘Sea of Love’ but before his absorption into the mainstream with the likes of ‘The Recruit’ and ‘Gigli’. ‘Heat’ is not among his best moments. He’s so good that you follow him anyway, but some of his spontaneous outbursts in the film (“BECAUSE SHE’S GOT A GREAT ASS!”) are frankly laughable for all the wrong reasons; the vaudevillian tone contrasts weirdly with the grim mood of the rest of the film. This isn’t an accident; Mann’s friend Adamson revealed to him that police officers like Hanna, when dealing with their informants, would often spontaneously erupt in order to disconcert and intimidate them. Additionally, Pacino reveals in one of the documentaries that he played Hanna as if he did coke. Hmm, authentic these things may be, but they come across as anything but.
De Niro, by comparison, is pure concentration, a textbook performance in focused intensity. ‘Heat’ is classic late-period De Niro, and that’s high praise indeed. One could argue that 1995 was his last great year, with both ‘Heat’ and ‘Casino’ in cinemas. He would put in good performances after this, but usually as a bit-player with a lot less screen time, and after 2000 there would be the terrible slide into self-parody and cop/crime-by-numbers mugging.
Incidentally, this version of the movie has been edited in parts. There’s some clumsy overdubs and several scenes of violence have been cut, at least from the version I saw in Australia at the time of the film’s release. All of it is to the film’s detriment. It would be interesting to see if the R2 version had the same cuts.
The commentary by Michael Mann is very worthwhile. Mann is not your ‘we shot this in Central Park/that’s-a-special-effects-shot’-type commentator. Serious, quietly spoken and highly articulate, he’s more interested in going into the motivations behind his character’s actions and the considerable research that he and his team did. He’s clearly fascinated by the whole world of crime and goes into a lot of detail about the real-life background to various scenes and people – virtually all of the major characters in the film were based on real people (Mann helpfully reveals that the person on whom Waingro was based ended up being nailed to a shack in Mexico). Discipline, professionalism and the ‘risk versus reward equation’ feature heavily. Mann is also very au fait with elements of police procedure – ordnance, surveillance and so on – and wanted to achieve a high level of technical veracity. In fact, the way he repeats his observations of Hanna and McAuley’s obsessive behaviour makes one wonder about the degree to which he identifies with them!
There’s also 3 theatrical trailers on the first disk.
There are adequate, rather than superlative extras on the second disk: The Making of Heat, Pacino and De Niro: the Conversation, Return to the Scene of the Crime and Deleted Scenes.
The Making of Heat is divided into three sections, True Crime, Crime Stories and Into the Fire. The divisions are somewhat arbitrary, since really this amounts to a fairly standard approx-50-minute long behind-the-scenes feature. True Crime at just under 15 minutes, traces the birth of the story, from Mann’s own childhood in inner-city Chicago and his early fascination with crime, to the development of his friendship with real-life Chicago cop Chuck Adamson – one cop among several that provided a model for the character of Hanna – who hunted and eventually killed the actual Neil McCauley. It’s interesting to see how much of ‘Heat’ derived from the actual events of Adamson and McCauley’s lives, even down to scenes such as the disturbed stake-out and the final shoot-out in 1964. There’s specially recorded soundbites from Dennis Farina, Pacino, Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Haysbert, Sizemore and Eddie Bunker, criminal and author of the acclaimed prison novel ‘No Beast So Fierce’ as well as ‘Animal Factory’ which was made into a film with William Dafoe. De Niro only appears in brief snippets from an interview done at the time of the film’s release. At twenty minutes Crime Stories goes into more detail about the development of the ‘Heat’ project, covering ‘L.A Takedown’, the arrival of producer Art Linson and the development of the characters and casting. The latter talks about the Hanna character and how it corresponds to that of McAuley. It’s interesting to learn that Pacino’s performance was predicated on the understanding that his character was a cocaine addict – this would have made much more sense of Hanna’s histrionic outbursts. Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora, Mykelti Williamson and Tom Noonan add their two bits worth here. Into the Fire goes into more depth about the preparation that Mann and his crew underwent for ‘Heat’. Mann went out with L.A.P.D Commander Tom Elfmont, answering radio calls for homicides and armed robberies. The cast, separated into cops and robber factions, underwent weapons training with Mick Gould and Andy McNab, both of whom briefly appear (the latter only in shadow) as technical advisors. Neil Spisak comments on the production design and the ‘casting’ of L.A through the acquisition of unusual locations and aspects of the city. There’s a section devoted to the explosive downtown L.A shoot-out. Comments for this 24-minute section come from cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Danny Trejo, Ashley Judd, production designer Neil Spisak, composer Elliot Goldenthal, Moby and sound recorder Chris Jenkins.
Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation is a look at the multidimensional study in dualism that is the meeting in a coffee shop between Hanna and McCauley. The scene was shot with four cameras simultaneously, unrehearsed, although virtually only the footage used came from two simple (though very tight) ‘over-the-shoulder’ shots. Voight compares the Pacino/De Niro equation to that of Cagney and Bogart.
Return to the Scene of the Crime follows Location Manager Janice Polley and Associate Producer Gusmano Cesaretti as they revisit the L.A locations they originally sourced for the movie, ‘Heat’.
Deleted Scenes are quite a few, though most very short and none really add to the film. Season’s starting early shows a little of Sizemore’s character buying some gifts for his kids. Nicest guy on the block shows him delivering same gifts to kids. Albert and Hanna is listed as an alternate take, but is really just a few seconds from Hanna’s berating of his informant. Shakedown is one of the more interesting scenes, showing Hanna pressuring another one of his informants, who doesn’t appear in the final film. Murder in C-block adds a bit more to Tone-Loc’s description of Sizemore’s character. Let’s dance has a few seconds of snatched dialogue between Hanna and Justine at the cop’s party. Late arrival adds a precursor to the crim’s meeting after they realise they’ve been ‘made’. Where’s Ana? is another of the more interesting segments, in which Trejo returns to his house to find Waingro, Benny and a couple of heavies lying in wait. Double the worst trouble adds a few seconds before the scene where Neil tells the doctor that treats Chris to take his shirt off. Nate delivers adds another short scene where Neil clarifies his ‘out’ with Nate. Finally No response is a few seconds of hostile silence from Eady.
‘Heat’ is presented in 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen and, while generally watchable, there are a number of problems with the picture, other than the occasional bit of dirt and debris. Firstly, there is edge enhancement, in one or two scenes so severely that I thought my telly was on the blink. Also, the blacks are not pure and solid, in some scenes appearing compressed and washy. Most dramatically, about an hour and half into the film there’s a sudden, dramatic shift in the colour balance. Considering how much care Spinotti and Mann put into the film’s exquisite visuals, this is a disappointment from the usually unimpeachable Warners.
No-one who saw ‘Heat’ in the cinema is ever likely to forget it. The climactic shoot-out on the streets of L.A contained, until ‘Private Ryan’ some of the most devastating gunfire ever recorded for a film. If you’re wondering how it sounds on this DVD, the answer is, awesome, working the surrounds and, on occasion, the subwoofer to outstanding effect. It’s not perfect, however – the film’s naturalistic sound design (or sound non-design) means that it’s sometimes very hard to make out what the hell people are saying (turning on the subtitles reveals a lot, but I don’t think I should have to). Also, given the film’s high acoustic reputation, a DTS track for the Special Edition would seem an obvious step… but no, there ain’t one.
A highly talented, ambitious, individualistic film-maker, Mann’s films are always worth making time for and ‘Heat’ is no exception. This DVD doesn’t do the film justice, however, and fans of the film are advised to wait and see what the upcoming 2-disk R2 is like before making a decision.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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