“Wasn’t great” was Michael Owen’s two-word review of this 1995 showdown between the cop (Al Pacino), the thief (Robert De Niro), his wife (Diane Venora) and her lover (Xander Berkeley).
From the pulse-racing opening heist, you know you’re in safe(ish) hands for the foreseeable future. This is a film to live in for three hours, its characters and subplots so detailed it’s almost like watching a miniseries of prestige TV. The way it looks and unfolds underlies Golden Age shows like Breaking Bad and True Detective, as well as the opening heist in The Dark Knight (featuring Heat‘s William Fichtner). Meanwhile the way Al Pacino yells “Come on!” appears to have inspired Joe Biden.
The flip side of the weighty running time is an overindulgence in crime movie clichés and excessive melodrama, with Venora spending the entire thriller complaining that her homicide detective husband is always at work. The not-so-different hero/villain trope is distilled into one iconic scene between Pacino and De Niro, sharing the screen for the first time in their parallel careers (they didn’t get to in The Godfather Part II). Think of it as a neo-Western version of Point Break.
What elevates Heat is an almost ethereal quality generated by glowing cinematography and ambient music, courtesy of Moby and Brian Eno. It looks like it was made yesterday and glides coolly between romance, brutality and Pacino shouting “Great ass!” at Hank Azaria. Elliot Goldenthal’s score encompasses all these moods, making uncommonly effective use of electric guitar that glistens like the sprawling LA nightlights.
The picture plays with the cop and robber archetypes and blurs those lines quite beautifully, humanising De Niro and harshening Pacino in a manner that makes the climax both tragic and satisfying. De Niro is heartbreakingly good and Pacino in that sweet spot where he’s invested but also screaming lines at random, bringing humour to otherwise heavy scenes. All the characters are so well fleshed-out that even Val Kilmer’s near-silent henchman gets an emotionally involving storyline.
Michael Mann navigates this convincing character work, over-the-top drama and heart-pumping action with the effortless class of a sports car test driver. Stylish and ambitious without being overly flashy, this is his masterpiece and one of the greatest ’90s crime flicks. You know what they say: If you can’t stand the Heat, maybe you’re Michael Owen.