At precisely the halfway point of Heat, Michael Mann’s 171-minute epic of a crime drama, cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) tucks in behind criminal mastermind Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) on the highway, pulls him over with flashing lights, and asks him if he wants to go get a cup of coffee.

The scene itself — featuring two of America’s most revered actors promising to hit each other, hard — is so congenial, so self-consciously understated, that it almost seems overdone. Much has been made of this scene, and it’s true that it must have taken a great deal of confidence in his work for Mann to restrict the interaction of his two superstar badasses to just one conversation. Everything about Heat, from the meditative cityscapes that help it live and breathe to the loping techno and new age sounds that propel the soundtrack, has a minimalist feel to it. It’s slick and highly produced, but with the exception of the spectacular, show-stopping shootout in downtown L.A. that wraps up the second act, Heat just seems to simmer along in spite of its expert realization. I can agree with all the stock criticism leveled against it — Heat is too long and too contrived, the relationships between its characters are too predictable, Mann’s estimation of himself is still in excess of his considerable abilities. But I love it.

A remarkable number of scenes are played out against the literal backdrop of the L.A. skyline at night. The city is the playing field for the cat-and-mouse game between the cop and the crook. It’s also a symbol of Vincent’s life-consuming career and of the sleek, powder-burned reality Neil finally longs to escape. On a movie screen, the photography is spectacular; on my widescreen laserdisc, it’s less so. I hate to think what this must look like on videotape, but if that’s all you’ve got, use your imagination — Heat‘s L.A. at night is razor-sharp, neon-colored candy.

As notable as the cinematography is De Niro’s performance, which helps you remember why he became a legend in the first place. So severe is his presence that the killers seem as methodical as the script makes them out to be, and even the film’s most maudlin moment feels almost like Casablanca. Pacino, who’s made a career of boxing himself in (c.f. his Serpico role and its loudmouth knockoffs, from Scarface to Dick Tracy) has a harder time differentiating this role, but simply being Pacino is enough to make him De Niro’s perfect foil. The real difference between these two characters is that while Vincent remains addicted to and defined by his professional life, De Niro is working on an escape from his. Vincent shares his downtime with Justine (Diane Venora), a woman who knows she’s getting screwed over and is starting to demand something better. Meanwhile, De Niro is figuring out a way to shoehorn the sweetly naive Eady (Amy Brenneman, an eminently projectable blank) into his own world, plotting a retreat from the business after one last heist.

Right now, Mann may be America’s most underappreciated auteur. Each of the three feature films he produced in the last 10 years — Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, and now Heat — has exhibited his consistently sharp eye for environment and attention to the character of the besieged male hero. Some years ago, Michael Mann invented this particular brand of pop cop fantasia for network television — it was called Miami Vice. Like that series, Heat is less dependent on narrative than it is on environment, and its plotline per se is subservient to the creation of a mood. It’s a violent film, but what’s more memorable are the inexplicable glimpses of harsh beauty — the parallel rows of lights illuminating a runway at night, De Niro’s blazing glare under infrared surveillance, the saturated white glow that splashes car and camera when they enter an impossibly bright tunnel.

It’s true that Mann tries to cram a whole TV series worth of subplots into what is at heart a very simple story. And so it is that we get not one, not two, but three consecutive tender scenes between male protagonists and their women. We get a distasteful bit of business involving a string of sex murders. We get a suicide attempt. Maybe Val Kilmer’s character could have been jettisoned entirely — it would cost us Kilmer’s marquee draw and deny us the presence of Ashley Judd, but it would tighten the film considerably. And what about the ex-con working the grill who gets drawn back into the life when Neil needs a getaway driver? Sure, I feel for him, but he stands out like one of those anonymous crew members on the starship Enterprise who were introduced just so they could meet a nasty end. Still, the performances are mostly terrific, and they help render Los Angeles as a populated world where lives depend on Vincent’s skill and Neil’s schemes.

All of this extraneous information swirls around the core of the story, adding to and subtracting from the key relationship. It may be a routine good guys/bad guys drama, but our loyalties are challenged. We find ourselves looking for ways the bad guy can get out of Los Angeles alive. In this, Mann exploits the American cinema’s longstanding predilection to glamorize the criminal in order to feed the cathartic needs of the audience. The cop may be the good guy, but he’s hardly the more interesting character, and he’s certainly not the one I was rooting for. Pacino’s Vincent may not grow much in this movie, but he does reach a conclusion — you may wonder if he won’t finally look for a new way of living. As the “heat” of the title, Pacino is led by Mann’s hard-boiled New Age style to the devastating blankness at the heart of a place called L.A. You can see it in his eyes at the end of the movie — he’s a cop who’s shell-shocked, starved, and utterly empty.

Written and Directed by Michael Mann

Cinematography by Dante Spinotti

Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Val Kilmer

USA, 1995

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic)

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