A Legitimate Three Hour Thrill Ride


I have been told, for years, that I needed to watch Heat. Plenty of movies come and go, and what's good one decade made fade from memory the next, but Heat, released back in 1995, has stayed around, held up as one of the best of the crime drama genre. When you talk about cops, and robbers, and good crime films to watch, someone will always materialize out of the ether to say, "but, man, what about Heat. Such a good film." That's the legacy it's had.

It's not like I was opposed to every watching Heat, mind you. While I might not be the biggest fan of either Al Pacino or Robert De Niro (the two biggest stars in this densely packed film), I also didn't hold them against the film. No, the single biggest reason that, up until now, I haven't watched Heat is because the film is three hours. I like movies, and I'll sit down to watch a lot of films regularly, but even for me, three hours is a bit of an investment. You have to make time for a three hours film. You don't go into it just on a lark.

And then I went into it on a lark. There I was, on my couch, scrolling through Max (man, I liked it better when we could call it HBO Max) and there was Heat. I'd put it off, I'd ignored it, I'd watched all kinds of other films... but then Heat was there, just calling to me. For whatever reason I put it on, and then sat back for three hours as this crazily paced film played out. And, yes, it was just as good as everyone has said. Heat is brilliant.

The film is really about two people: Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a career criminal who plots out meticulous heists, and Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), the LAPD detective in charge of the investigation into McCauley latest score. We open with McCauley and his crew -- including Val Kilmer as Chris Shiherlis, Tom Sizemore as Michael Cheritto, Danny Trejo as Gilbert Trejo, and Kevin Gage as Waingro -- hit an armored car, going in for specific loot (bearer bonds) before making their escape. However, Waingro proves himself to be a violent loose cannon, shooting one of the guards (simply because he wants too), which elevates the charges that could be leveled for this crime (up from robbery to murder one). To cover, McCauley and his people try to kill Waingro at a diner after the fact, but that goes sideways and Waingro goes on the run, a seeming weight hanging over all of them.

Meanwhile, Vincent Hanna is on the case. He takes over quickly and sees how the crime went down, what went wrong, and just what the criminals were thinking. While not two steps ahead, he's basically right there, able to chase these guys to the ends of the earth. Unfortunately for McCauley's crew, one of them gets made later and that puts the heat right on them. Then, when their next heist gets tipped off (by, you guessed it, Waingro), suddenly the cops are after them and a massive shootout happens in L.A. Somehow McCauley and some of his men escape, but now they have to make a run for it, and stay running, even if it means never being able to come back back Hanna is there, waiting for them.

Summarizing this film really doesn't do it justice as we only really get to the bare bones story. There's a lot more to this tale than just a simple cops and robbers story as there's also Hanna dealing with his marriage falling apart (because he's too dedicated to his job) and his step-daughter struggling with an absent blood-father, depression, and suicidal thoughts. There's McCauley, finding love and suddenly setting down roots even though he's sworn he never would. Hell, there's a subplot about banker, Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner), robbed by McCauley in that armored car heist and out for revenge. The film, as I noted, is densely packed and just about any summary of the film really doesn't do it justice.

This was actually proven the first time writer / director Michael Mann tries to adapt his work. With studios disinterested in making it into a movie, Mann condensed the story down into a 90 minute TV pilot which was eventually released as L.A. Takedown. That pilot was unsuccessful in garnering a series, but Mann was able to go back to his original script, rework it, and, six years later, create the better, more complete version with Heat.

It's all the stuff that Mann had to cut from the TV version that make this movie brilliant. All the side stories, the other plot lines, the things that don't directly tie into the three heists that McCauley, they all add depth to the characters. Hanna wouldn't be nearly as interesting if he wasn't struggling to balance his work and his marriage, and he wouldn't be a character you could care about nearly as much if he didn't show real love and affection for his step-daughter. McCauley, in finding love with a graphic designer, Eady (Amy Brenneman), is given depth as well. He's not just a career criminal but a real person with wants and needs outside of greed. Cut all that and the film would be more of a generic cops and robbers film lacking depth and nuance.

Not that it would be a bad cops and robbers film, mind you, as the movie knows its way around thrilling action. The opening armored car heist is good, quick and efficient while showing off the core skills of the criminal team. The bank robbery sequence much later in the film shows that same precision, but then it leads to a lot of frenetic action, blood, and violence when that exact precision breaks down. And the final sequence of the film is a tight and taut foot chase between McCauley and Hanna that really does leave you on the edge of your seat. It's amazing.

But even then, the action works as well as it does because you care about these characters. You understand that one is a criminal and one a detective, but you don't necessarily want either of them to fail, to get caught, to die. The movie could easily have just made you care about the cop, because he's the good guy, but it spends the time working both sides of the story equally, and with equal depth, so that you really feel for all the actors. Any ending is going to be a tragedy, you realize, because not everyone can come out of this story a winner, and they really don't. But somehow a bond is shared between these men, and the audience, that is hard to shake.

I can understand why people rave about this film. I can also see why Mann found it so hard to shake this story. He loved it so much he had to make it twice just to get it right, and then he wrote a prequel / sequel novel, Heat 2 (that he's now adapting into a second film). This is his great film, in a way his magnum opus, and it rightly cemented him in modern crime film. There's depth and compassion in this film that Mann was lacking in his far more clinical Manhunter, and it really does show the skill that Mann has with a finely crafted story.

So yeah, I'm gonna be one of those guys Online: if you haven't seen Heat you really need to. It's three hours, yes, but those three hours go by fast, and what you get is one of the best crime dramas you're ever going to see. There is no better way to put it: Heat is brilliant.