Michael Mann’s revelatory crime film sprawls across LA as it zeroes in on a game of cat and mouse between Al Pacino’s cop and Robert De Niro’s bank robber. Hanna (Pacino) and McAuley (De Niro) criss-cross the bubbling city, as the film makes breath-taking use of the varied freeways, rundown diners and postmodern architecture to depict slick gunfights, robberies and procedural work. But, it’s in the tragic, mirrored trajectories of Hanna and McAuley – one a family man drawn out of his collapsing home life, the other a lone-wolf, tempted to abandon his principles for a shot at happiness – where Heat separates itself from its imitators.
Mann is known for his crime movies, with early heist flick Thief — featuring a spectacular star turn from the recently departed James Caan — setting the tone for a distinct, moody and textured body of existential genre work. As in Heat, these films are characterised by neon-lit cities, professional characters in high stakes situations and an unapologetically earnest romanticism. It’s a potent combination: with the director exploring the tension and push-pull allures of domesticity and obsessive, high-stakes work; finding as much energy and feeling in the pull of a trigger as in the embrace of a loved one.
Heat, especially, is notable as proof of the poetic capability of the mainstream Hollywood machine when it is turned over to a director with skill and individual style. Set pieces, such as the hockey-mask freeway shootout or the famously quiet, chess-like diner confrontation, are presented with a hyper-reality; a movie escapism that’s rooted in sensory immediateness and emotional truth. Mann’s film thrives due to its capacity for exemplary myth-making and detail-orientated specificity. Look at the film’s final moments – where Mann holds the shot on Hanna and McAuley holding hands – for a striking example of both.
The film has been recently restored in 4K, and always with this kind of loud and rangy epic, it plays best on the big screen.