Film Club / A Craftsman Whose Main Problem Is the Lack of Perfection in Others

Directed by Michael Mann



If I was going to sum up Michael Mann in one word then that word would be: “process.”

I don’t think that that’s a partially outrageous thing to say tho. Like it’s pretty much his brand. Meticulous research. Painstaking attention to detail. And going through the nitty gritty of things one step at a time. 

Although when you hold this idea up to the light it’s not as convincing as it first appears… In fact the paradox of a movie like Heat is that it uses its approach to realism as a type of style – making sure that everyone looks right and sounds right and making sure to shoot on location in real places and making sure that everything is as true-to-life as possible and everything is perfectly placed and treating it less like a movie and more like a reconstruction of various real things that happened mashed altogether to save time – and yet in spite that (?) or because of that (?) it’s a movie that’s never really as stylistically interesting as it should be. 

I mean everyone holds up Heat as being this cinematic classic right? One of the best heist movies of all time. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together all the screen at last. Blah blah blah – but I think it’s striking that if you close your eyes and try to remember actual cinematic moments from the film there’s very little that comes to mine. Like yeah ok there’s that that restaurant scene – but what is it? Like it’s just cutting back and forth between two different two shots – De Niro on the screen. And then Pacino. And yeah ok lots of acting. But it’s not that far removed from (dare I say it?) just watching a play

Dare I say it but even the big shoot out in the middle of the film isn’t really that visually interesting. Like yeah ok sure – so they used the actual audio of when they fired the guns (and yeah it does sound cool). But it’s all just guys around firing guns. Like that scene in Predator but without the autocritique. And none of the stuff that the camera does is all that interesting. In fact I’m scared to say this in case I get hounded off the internet but Heat kinda feels less like a movie and more like TV (whoops). Everything feels fixed in place. Slow. An unending succession of close ups. But then again – I don’t know – maybe that’s what signals that it’s mature and adult and serious? (And yeah – I’d rather watch Speed Racer). 

In fact here’s another heresy for you – watching Heat got me feeling like I wanted to watch that first scene of The Dark Knight again. And even tho I’m on record as not being much of a Dark Knight fan I’ve gotta say that watching a bunch of guys in clown masks is way more thrilling and exciting than anything in Heat. And I don’t know – maybe that’s just empty calories or something but those 5 minutes have more of an impact because it’s shot in a way that feels way more – how to say this? – iconic? Like there’s more moments that stick in your head because of how they look. And the moments hit harder because it’s people making choices that have ramifications. I mean – what really happens in that Heat heist? Detective Mike Bosko gets killed sure (bet you don’t even know who that is tho). And Michael Cheritto gets taken down too (do you remember him?) but De Niro and Pacino don’t really do much more than… shoot guns. And like wow ok – big whoop. 

To go back to this idea of it being an example of methodical storytelling – obsessed with verisimilitude – and all the rest of it. I mean: it’s actually all pretty low effort. Like there’s a scene right at the start that shows Val Kilmer buying explosives and it’s… ok? He shows his ID and then walks off. And ok yeah maybe that’s more than what most movies show you – but I can’t help but compare it to something like Zodiac (which comes from the same obsessive compulsive kinda place – Fincher and Mann should totally team up and make a movie together). I mean that’s a movie that’s unafraid to take you on a proper deep dive. Heat in comparison seems kinda…. tame?  

Credit where it’s due tho – I mean the plot is… stuffed. Every side character has their own mini adventure and trying to keep it all in mind feels like it would require a diagram. There’s that moment pretty deep into the movie when Pacino comes home to find Natalie Portman in his bath and the effect is… startling. This character that you barely thought about has had this whole arc and dealt with all of these emotions and it’s all been happening off screen. I mean – hats off. That’s quite a trick. 

And yeah I’ve gotta confess that I’m a sucker for the soundtrack too. All of those shimmering guitars that sound like wide open spaces. 

I just wish that the movie itself didn’t look so… small? 

So yeah. Less Heat. More kinda… lukewarm. 

I dislike Heat but I think for the polar opposite reasons to Joel. The functional way in which it’s shot kind of works for me, and perhaps consciously aims to reflect the professionalism of the criminals. Normally the coppers are the ones that dispassionately study the evidence in order to catch the robbers, who live outside society and embody an anarchic and ungovernable spirit (some people just want to watch the world burn etc). Heat flips that by allowing Al Pacino to behave outrageously (it feels like he collars the gang out sheer force of will) whereas Robert De Niro is always cool as a cucumber, does his research and is always looking at the cost benefit. Up until he doesn’t, and it all goes wrong for him.

Joel’s suggestion that it looks like television is astute – the film is long and wouldn’t lose anything by being cut up into six half-hour episodes. Michael Mann worked in television in the 80s and that sensibility may inform the way he makes films. I wouldn’t be surprised if Heat was an influence on the style and themes of The Wire for example.
What bugs me about Heat and Mann generally is the gender politics that underly the conceit. All the women in the film are accessories to their partners, ultimately sticking with them and putting up with their bullshit while they go do what they got to do, having fun robbing banks and chasing criminals. The point of the film is that this kind of obsessive dedication to your work requires no attachments – if the heat is around the corner you have to let go of everything in 30 seconds. Mann is quite an obvious filmmaker – you know that line is important because he keeps repeating it and names the film after it.

Neil fails because he doesn’t take his own advice. Vincent succeeds because he walks out on his partner and stepdaughter even though they’re in the hospital. The women complain about it, but every single one of them ultimately falls in line. I feel like Mann’s noir universe is almost as gendered as Frank Miller, except the women aren’t victims, just unhappy attachments looking after kids and cooking at home while the men chase each other’s tails.

Edie may be the worse culprit. The film is just about open to the possibility that she goes with Neil because she’s lonely, scared and doesn’t have the force of character to resist a strong personality. She’s still a captive even though she’s ostensibly given an out by Neil. But Mann is a romantic and can’t help but portray the relationship as something more meaningful – Edie choosing to love this monster who lies to her. The film lingers on the abandonment in her eyes in a way that’s supposed to be climactic, but to me feels belittling.

Vincent’s partner is a less obvious example of the same tendency. In their final conversation she has to accept that Vincent won’t change and that his job comes first. If she wants something more she’ll have to get a divorce and look elsewhere. That possibility remains open, but Mann instead puts the emphasis on the relationship continuing, especially given the attachment the Natalie Portman character has for him. I guess some dads are even worse, but that doesn’t make the film a great advert for dads generally.

Watching this now I’m out of my twenties and closer in age to the people on screen I’m minded to be kinder on it, just because the dynamics of childcare, cooking and date nights are all far more relatable to me. The best writing in the film is found when the romantic partners cross examine the principles – done with an understated poetry that surpasses the trite recitation of dreams between Pacino and De Niro in the diner. The compromises and disappointments necessary to maintain long-term attachments are very clearly presented. I just wish at least one of the female characters had the backbone to kick back and demand a bit more. In Mann’s universe they never do.

My best friend used to know a guy who worked in a video shop in the 90s. Now for those who don’t recall the physical realm, all films, several years after cinematic release, were painstakingly copied onto chunky plastic boxes and then each precious copy would be leased by a building in exchange for carefully branded pieces of metal and paper. Thankfully those dark days are behind us but their legacy lives on. So this guy said to my impressionable friend that Bladerunner and Heat were the best movies of all time, and the thing is in late 90s you can see exactly why he said that. 

Both films are the perfect 90s currency of seemingly cheap action thrills but with a mildly arthouse sensibility. What if robots only they were sad and maybe you are a robot? What if cops and robbers only the cops and the robbers are sad? And what if the audio for both of these movies was absolutely amazing? You get action, drama and an audio-visual feast. 

Heat was one of the first films I saw in the cinema and was so impressed that I immediately returned to watch again, and the first time I saw it was in Leicester Square who had the very sensible policy of making all their movies ear-splittingly loud. The affect of this was that in the movie there is a scene where the cops are hiding in a truck and it’s tense because they are trying to catch the robbers, but then ***clunk*** one cop makes a small sound which alerts Robbert De Niro and he disappears into the night. Now watching that anywhere else is barely noticeable, but in this cinema that clunk was so loud I almost passed out with shock. And then came the mid-film gun battle. 

All the time spent setting up the different characters means the robbery and the resultant run and gun escape was the most absorbing action sequence I had ever seen. The stakes were right there as Tom Sizemores you were (vaguely) concerned about were bumped off at an alarming volume. And the extra audio emphasis helps to strengthen the show’s commitment to showing-not-telling through long wordless sequences that immerses you in the LA underworld. Except of course while Robert De Nero is in low exposition movie, fortunately (for him) the rest of the characters have a LOT to say. 

For those of you who saw Enola Holmes, that film was almost entirely constructed of devices to explain a plot I can barely remember. The main character had a voice over, and also flash backs, and was a detective who would spend each scene explaining what she thought the plot was to other characters and by extension the audience. And then Sherlock Holmes would also show up to not only do the same but also talk about the main character and her fairly transparent motivations. You spent so much time being told what was happening that the stuff that was supposed to be happening was pushed into the background. 

Similarly Heat’s counterpart to a laconic De Niro is a very talkative Al Pacino explaining, shortly after you have just seen the first heist flawlessly executed, exactly what just happened and why. He then goes to meticulous find out details of people you already know about and crimes you have already seen. We proceed to spend time with every character, their friends, wives, lovers, colleagues, vague acquaintances, and hear their back stories as well. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that this creates a rich and vivid universe but it’s like one those villages in video games filled with non-playable characters who have a house and one line of dialogue they endlessly repeat. Ashley Judd is unhappy in her marriage. Cooking guy doesn’t like cooking. Tom Sizemore likes to call people Slick. Natalie Portman misses her dad. It’s a rich tapestry. 

But to return to the audio, the cast’s incessant whining, combined with a pretty great foreboding score does create a real mood, and as a very moody teenager that really was cool to me. Now as a happy go lucky scamp it’s slightly less effective but I still think Michael Mann did a good job taking a fairly standard 90s crime movie and unraveling it’s stories. 

While I haven’t seen everything Robert De Niro has done in the last 20 years I think it’s fair to say Hear represents the beginning of the end of his “good” performances. Leading into Jackie Brown, and Wag the Dog before moving into “comedy” De Niro mode like Meet the Parents and Analyze This. After such a long career it’s hard to begrudge him a payday, but it feels like Heat was an original character of his which then lent itself to him just showing up and being a grumpy old man for the rest of his career. 

His performance in Heat is excellent though, with a very still manner thrown into sharp relief by Pacino, he manages to combine being a ruthless murderer with a heartbroken loneliness. At the bar with Eedie we seen him soften when he realise he’s forgotten not to be a crook, and then conversely on the phone to Van Zant where we with a breath we almost feel him decide he is gonna kill him. For a movie with such a large array of characters this is undeniably his movie, and despite his relatively few lines his character, MacCauley, transcends the script and the crime film tropes. 

Joel mentioned the Dark Knight and it’s homage to Heat, although when thinking about it The Dark Knight is a fairly pointed critique of the Bank Robber genre that Tarantino, Heat, Point Break and um Quick Change popularised during the 90s. Robbers in Reservoir Dogs were foot soldiers in an endless heist, in Pulp Fiction there were legendary figures like the Wolf, in Heat bank robbery is a skilled trade undertaken by very serious men, and in Point Break its another extreme sport and rebellion against the man. For Quick Change it is a lottery ticket to a better life. It’s a popular genre and the highly watchable but utterly ridiculous Spanish show Money Heist numbers among Netflix’s Top 10 most watched things ever with one series logging 619 million hours of eyeballs. 

The Dark Knight mocks all of this, and shows all the robbers betraying each other before finally bumping off the last robber with a comedy school bus. It transpires the bank itself is a mob bank and the mob are also a bunch of snivelling greedy cowards. The Joker eventually sets all the money on fire because the entire “perfect” robbery was just for banter purposes. The cops are also shown to be equally pointless, not only corrupt and ineffective but with Harvey Dent, just one bad day away from becoming criminals themselves. As The Joker says: “ Don’t talk like you’re one of them! You’re not, even if you’d like to be… See, their morals, their “code”…it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble.  

While of course Heat does have a Code it is clear that MacCauley is not like other criminals. He doesn’t apologise for his crimes, he is an exceptional thief, a craftsman whose main problem is the lack of perfection in others. He is one step ahead for the entire movie to the extent that he can sit down and meet his main antagonist/equal and have a chat without fear. 

The weird thing is that given he is a super criminal his code makes less sense. What does he have to fear in prison? He could just pay for a good lawyer or transition from world’s best bank robber to world’s best prisoner breaker, either way he’d be sitting on a beach earning 20%. However the character is sold so well by De Niro that you believe that the money is not the point. To get caught is to lose the game and the Heat is much more about the rush he gets from the crimes and the chaos he leaves behind him, than it is fear of the police. 

He hates Waingro so much is because he represents that chaos, and all the loose ends he has left behind in his life. MacCauley is a cold, calculating, but not unfeeling “monk.” Waingro is a hot headed murdering pervert who messes things up and sells people out, and ruins all his plans. But in the end it is MacCauley’s poor planning which fucks things up for his friends. He tried to play Van Zant, he led them on to the bank heist, he led them into danger and so Waingro is a bit like the Mal in Inception, Ged to shadow Ged, or Tails to his Sonic, as his rash decisions take on human form to become his undoing. 

Robert De Niro has the same problem. It’s almost sad that when he revisits his other best performance The King of Comedy in Joker he is closer to playing McCauley than Rupert Pupkin. After performances spanning Heat and GoodFellas and Taxi Driver, almost every role since then has been a sort of De Niro call back performance. His own genius took on a life it’s own and became impossible to escape.

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