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As a teenager I used to watch Miami Vice when it was on TV but always felt a bit guilty about it. It seemed altogether too slick for a pretentious youngster to enjoy. Luckily, when Heat came out ten years ago I was able to breathe a sigh of relief: this Michael Mann guy was talented after all! I hadn't been watching Hollywood pap all these years! (Although maybe I was - I don't really remember the show any more. And, let's face it, there's been plenty of pap that's passed through my eyes regardless of whether Miami Vice fell into that category.)

What I remember about the movie from that first viewing:

  • Natalie Portman gave a disappointing performance compared to her tour de force turn in Leon.
  • The structure, where the two main characters come face-to-face only twice: once in the middle and once at the end.
  • Ashley Judd was hot!
  • The shootout after the bank heist.
  • Pacino was much better than De Niro.
  • It's a really good movie.

Ten more years of watching films means I recognised a lot more of the supporting cast now: Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert, Amy Brenneman, William Fichtner, Mykelti Williamson, Ted Levine, Jon Voight, Hank Azaria, Xander Berkeley... some well known faces there.

But my opinions haven't really changed. I'm more forgiving of Portman because I realise that the part of Pacino's daughter isn't anywhere near as meaty as Mathilda - she did the best she could.

The firefight on the street - when seen in a cinema - had the same visceral thrill as the ambush in Clear and Present Danger, a genuine "holy crap!" scene. Granted, on a smaller screen with less impressive sound, knowing what to expect, and with the experience of another decade of blockbuster action sequences it doesn't quite have the same impact. But it's still pretty damn good. These guys aren't playing cops and robbers. They're waging urban war.

Ashley Judd is still hot.

Pacino is still hammy, almost a parody of himself. Mann in his commentary says this off-centre volatility is part of the character, a technique Lieutenant Vincent Hanna uses selectively to keep his informants in line. Maybe that was the intent, but it just plays as Pacino chewing the scenery for all its worth. I did detect a thin layer of self-loathing in Pacino's characterisation which I liked.

Pacino's style does contrast nicely with De Niro's stillness; the bitter edge playing off an unhidden sadness.

Mann sees Hanna as the more sympathetic - more emotionally open to the horror of his job, and De Niro's Neil McCauley as a sociopath who feels no remorse or regret when killing even a good friend.

Yet - again - despite Mann's intentions that's not how it comes across to me.

It's a truism that the bad guys are always more interesting, but in this case - despite the fact that they're robbers and murderers - I think they actually also come off as more sympathetic as well. (An exception is truly psychopathic Waingro who has no redeeming qualities at all. That's one instance where Mann's intent is realised.)

Heat derives its name from the credo that McCauley lives by:

Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

Heat is about emotional attachment and detachment and the costs thereof. Neil and Vincent are both superb at their respective professions. But how Neil and Vincent relate to others affects how well they do their jobs, and conversely their jobs affect how they relate to others.

Women are key to this theme in the film. It's true that the women are defined by their relationship to the men, but they go beyond the moll, wife or daughter stereotype. Each of McCauley's crew have strong, real bonds with their girlfriends or wives. Neil's lack of the same is what drives him into the arms of Amy Brenneman's Eady. Ironically while he attaches to Eady his unable to detach from his need for vengeance, and this is what costs him in the end. He let his personal feelings - though not for a woman - over-ride his professionalism.

Incidentally, the moment where he walks away from Eady I actually read not as McCauley detaching from her but actually affirming his bond: he walked away because he saw Hanna coming and didn't want Eady involved. Or maybe that's just my ingrained romanticism coming out.

In the most powerful scene in the film Ashley Judd's Charlene saves her husband Chris (Val Kilmer) knowing that she will never see him again and that she has ruined her own life and that of their child in the process. Chris is able to detach from her, and it saves his life. Though it's clear that this life will no longer be worth living.

Pacino also detaches from his wife and family which is why he's so good at work and so bad at home.

Heat had an interesting evolution. Many of the characters it appears were based on real people. Mann wrote and directed the same story, containing much of the same script, as a TV pilot called LA Takedown in 1989. A few years later he remade the movie as Heat. It's not often that film directors get a chance to revisit their material with a bigger budget and after honing their craft. (Offhand I can only think of one other instance - Wes Anderson made Bottle Rocket twice in two years, though the scale of either incarnation doesn't approach that of Mann's exercise.) Seeing what difference improved production values, talent the calibre of Pacino and De Niro, another 80 minutes running time and five years writing and directing experience made would be fascinating; it's a shame LA Takedown wasn't included on the 10th anniversary DVD edition.

Among an otherwise good set of extras is a low key commentary by Michael Mann recorded recently (he references Collateral). It's really a writer's commentary providing details of the source, backstory and motivation of the characters more than insights into the technical elements of the film. The obligatory praises to his actors are included however.


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 18, 2005 4:02 PM.

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