May 29, 2003
"For me, the action is the juice."
When someone tells me that they find HEAT to be vastly overrated, boring, drawn out, lame, whatever, well, it just knocks me for a loop. It’s at that point that I throw everything out the window. The education, the unbiased eye, the mental filters, the critical lenses, all that crap, I want to throw it right out the window, and with my best Al Pacino, I want to scream, “Brother, you are going down!”
Thankfully, I am not alone in my convictions and love for the film. BFI MODERN CLASSICS has recently released a new volume in their series, this time analyzing Michael Mann’s crime epic, HEAT. The book was authored by Nick James, who has written for the GUARDIAN, the OBSERVER, the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS, and VOGUE. He has also edited SIGHT AND SOUND since 1997.
I stumbled across the book, which can be ordered at Amazon.com, in a recent VANITY FAIR piece by James Wolcott, who also gushes over the movie. Wolcott tosses around terms like “classic noir” and “unexplainably beautiful” when describing HEAT and some of its scenes. He also says of the film: “HEAT’s duration alone guarantees that the viewer isn’t just seeing a movie but undergoing a submersion.” And you have the audacity to tell me that the film is overrated?
Looking for even more validation of my belief that HEAT deserves to be considered one of the greatest movies of all time, and searching for more ammo to have at my disposal just in case someone dare disagree with me, I sought out Nick James’ bible, er, book. James provides 87 pages of fine film critique, often making points that I overlooked, even after viewing the film countless times. You have to love HEAT to enjoy the analysis in this book. Non-believers need not apply.
Chances are, you’re familiar with HEAT, or else you’d be skipping this column. For those just joining the game, HEAT was released at the tail end of 1995, directed by Michael Mann of MIAMI VICE and LAST OF THE MOHICANS fame. It’s a crime epic, but really, it’s more than that and it feels confined if you label it with the parameters of any one particular genre. It stars Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna, an LAPD detective out to stop Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley before he takes down one last “score,” a bank heist in the middle of downtown L.A.
The film just didn’t garner the type of accolades that I thought it deserved. Indeed, it is only recently enjoying a cult like following after many airings on cable networks. Although Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the biggest film geek of them all, on an appearance on TOM SNYDER, called HEAT his favorite movie of the year, the film only enjoyed moderate success. With a reported budget of 60 million, it made approximately 67 million in the U.S. Not exactly what’d I call a score.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s take a look at the main criticisms that some of opponents of the film hold:
1. Pacino’s overacting.
Ouch. This is a tough call. I’ve heard people say, “I would have loved HEAT if it wasn’t for Pacino yelling and spitting his lines everywhere like some pro wrestler jacked up on crank.” This one is a matter of preference. Granted, most of Pacino’s mid-career performances, those probably since DICK TRACY and made famous in SCENT OF A WOMAN, have been this kind of barking, over-the-top spectacle. For this role, that was the point. I believe that Pacino did exactly as planned. He was countering DeNiro’s restrained, calm-like-a-bomb tour de force. Mann wanted to show the cop/robber as two sides of the same coin, to paraphrase DeNiro’s McCauley. Pacino was the yin to DeNiro’s yang.
Pacino’s Vincent Hanna is being eaten alive during every waking moment, knowing that somewhere, Neil McCauley, his doppelganger of sorts, is on the prowl. And it’s this force that drives him to no end.
And let’s not forget that Pacino can be a masterful actor. Funny that I even have to make a statement like that; this is after all, the man that gave us Michael Corleone. Do you think that he simply showed up on the set of HEAT one day and said, “Yep, I’m gonna play this one over the top, too”? I doubt it. He knows how to turn it on and off. Just watch the subtle performance he gives in 1997’s DONNIE BRASCO, perhaps his most subdued performance in almost two decades. Maybe it’s not that Pacino has lost control of his bite, but instead, he’s choosing too many roles that require too much bark.
2. The weak female roles in the movie.
Diane Venora plays Justine, Pacino’s wife in the film. Amy Brenneman is Eady, DeNiro’s love interest. And Ashley Judd gives us Charlene Shiherlis, the wife of Chris Shiherlis, played by Val Kilmer.
The main argument people have here is that the female characters are simply weak, following around their men, even though they are neglected by these men, emotionally battered, and taken for granted. Indeed, author James writes that the film portrays “women as domestic partners.” He adds: “It’s an awkward fit at first because of the common Hollywood tension needing to show women in terms of self-empowerment while at the same time corralling them in essentially nurturing roles.” James also mentions the script’s dialogue, where the female characters often talk in “therapy-speak,” such as when Chris and Charlene Shiherlis find themselves in a heated argument. Here the movie reads like a transcript from an episode of Dr. Phil:
CHARLENE: There is no point talking to you because all you are is a child growing older.
CHRIS: What does that mean?
CHARLENE It means that we’re not making forward progress like real grown-up adults because I’m married to a gambling junkie who won’t listen.
One can argue that the female characters here are indeed, weak. Again, isn’t that the point? They’re in this neck deep, just like their significant others. They’re not seeing the big picture. They’re being driven by an unhealthy force that will only lead them to dead ends. Others might even say that the women are actually strong; they are, after all, sticking by their lovers through thick and thin. That argument is a little shallow, but it exists nonetheless.
The bottom line here for me is that, strong willed or not, the female characters are realistic. I’m not saying they’re representative of women in general, or even all women put in situations like this, but I could see it happen to anyone. Like self-help guru Tony Robbins says, the definition of crazy is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. Call them weak, call them insane, but the women here are feeding off their men in codependent relationships (much like Pacino’s cop to DeNiro’s thief), expecting results other than doom and despair. Maybe these characters should have added Robbins to their list of self help books.
3. The Film’s Length.
“Man, that film was too long! I thought it’d never end.” Again, this is a matter of preference. You either sat through this one with baited breath, or you simply sat through it. To be sure, it is long, 171 minutes long. I find that not only is it epic, but the pacing feels episodic. (Could this be Mann’s TV career creeping in?) I never held that against the film, though. To me, the film was always about the tension, slowly simmering like a blue flame until reaching the inevitable climax. And for me, it delivered.
What I find unique about this film is that people have such strong opinions about it, usually in polar opposite directions. They either loved it, or hated it, and conversations are often based around either attacking it as overcooked or defending it as overlooked.
Nick James includes a section in his book examining what was excluded or added from the film L.A. TAKEDOWN to HEAT. To be precise, it should be noted that HEAT is a remake of sorts. Its first incarnation was as a TV movie-of-the-week in 1989, called L.A. TAKEDOWN, from Mann’s script, which as been floating around since 1980. Apparently, L.A. TAKEDOWN is a very watered down version of HEAT, a blueprint, lacking any of the fiery punch that HEAT packs. (If anyone can direct me to a copy of that TV version, I’d be much obliged.) The film’s length, specifically, the pacing, is deliberate, and therefore, essential to the overall experience.
A guy told me one time, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you’re not willing to walk out on, if you feel the heat coming round the corner, in 30 seconds flat.
If you don’t like HEAT, there’s probably nothing that I can say to change your mind. What is it about this film that I, personally, find so compelling? The attention paid to even the smallest details? The realism? The meeting of two of the finest actors of their respective generation? One of the greatest, if not the greatest cinematic shoot-out of all time? All of the above, I’m sure, among other things.
HEAT’s scope is all-encompassing. Mann portrays L.A. as a world of ghosts, of men who are faded, driven, and jaded, of phantoms packing pistols, of vacant eyes bearing menacing looks. It’s a world full of blue tinted shadows, where the living are practicing death, and the darkness brings out the dead. For me, Michael Mann has created a film that feels lived-in, a world that is glossy, slick, yet broken-in, somehow not there, but its presence cannot be denied, much like the heat surrounding a flame.
Next week in Squib Central: Finally, we get around to looking at some reader comments. As always, your comments are greatly appreciated.
Squib Central’s Ass-Kicker of the Week Award: COMICS 101 by MoviePoopShoot.com’s own Scott Tipton. This man is a mad genius.
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