Tom Jolliffe looks back at Heat, which was released on this day in 1995 and remains the best crime thriller in the modern era…
It’s hard to believe, but Heat is fast approaching thirty years old. The enduring neo-noir instantly enraptured fans upon release, bringing two screen titans in Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, together for the first time since The Godfather Part II, and – for the first time ever – sharing scenes together. Both were still riding fairly high, not too removed from success during award ceremonies, even if they weren’t quite as creatively vivacious as the 1970’s when they stormed cinema like bolts of lightning from Zeus himself.
Director Michael Mann (who also wrote the screenplay) was fresh off the success of The Last of the Mohicans, which took him from underground director of cult films like Manhunter to mainstream. Heat was an event. Heavily pushing toward a mature audience in a festive season looking to lure younger viewers. The film made solid returns, greeted with predominantly good reviews from critics and audiences alike. Some felt it was overtly masculine, overly long and were left cold emotionally (which is kind of overriding point of the film, about the emotional disconnection associated with the respective profession of cop and robber).
Since that time it continues to gain in reverence, in fans and hold up to critical analysis. It’s a film with more subtlety than has occasionally been credited to Mann as a filmmaker, but he constructs with a cohesion between his style running above surface and his substance below. Heat is arguably the finest example of this from his canon, and certainly one which holds up to repeat viewings. For me, Mann’s neo-noir trilogy of Thief, Manhunter and Heat are imperious.
In awards season the film’s late release date may have played against it, as did the overriding sense of pessimism more at home in 70’s era cinema. Even though on every technical level the film was as good as any that year (omissions for even sound, cinematography and editing at the Oscars was bizarre). In theory a film this brilliantly constructed, well written, acted and directed, should have been a board sweeper. Perhaps studio oversight, or a withdrawn campaign, but Heat was largely ignored by almost every major award ceremony.
There’s also an argument that the mutual brilliance of Pacino and De Niro, both firmly associated as being in the leading category for this, cancelled each other out. It’s difficult for two actors to grab nominations in the same leading category and picking between the two is tough.
Still when you think back to 1995, Heat remains one of the most iconic of the year, and one which has held up better than most. The legacy has been impressive. The brilliance of Heat is in how intricately it weaves its plot strands and characters together, all aided by Mann’s gift for dialogue. There’s an ability to perfectly divert us from Pacino and De Niro to important character moments for other cast like Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, and Dennis Haysbert (whose small story alongside Kim Staunton is impactful and tragic).
It’s a hefty run time but even when watching it for the first time at 14, I never got bored. It never felt like it sagged. It’s testament to Mann’s skill at the time and a cast that is stuffed top to bottom with exceptional character actors (all on point) from Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Tom Noonan, Wes Studi, William Fichtner, Ted Levine, Natalie Portman, Kevin Gage (superb as Waingro), Danny Trejo, Hank Azaria, Xander Berkeley, Jeremy Piven, and Mykelti Williamson. To say it’s star studded would be an understatement.
Heat has undoubtedly influenced many films in the intervening years, not least The Dark Knight. I love The Dark Knight, but Heat is the better film by a distance. One notable area Heat had a particular affect on cinema was in the gun battle. That infamous post heist shootout, so grounded in its approach and yet thrillingly cinematic, would become a blue print a lot of movie shootouts would follow (if they weren’t going for the pure fantasy of John Woo style for example). Aside from it looking and feeling like it has a sense of reality (no one holds the gun like they’re playing action hero), it was edited to perfection and the sound for the sequence is particularly effective.
Additionally, one reason the sequence has probably never been bettered since, is the practicality of how it was made. Everything is in camera. There are masses of squibs firing off all over and there’s a brutality and finality to the firepower. Ted Levine for example is taken down in blunt and brutal fashion. No airs or graces, no elaborate stunt. He just falls and that’s it. That moment of intense shock and pain, replaced seconds later by death. Additionally, Haysbert is savagely taken out. It’s blunt with its violence.
One area that attracted fans and brought with it a huge level of anticipation was the prospect of De Niro and Pacino sharing the screen. That moment first comes in a dialogue scene that may rank as one of the best scenes of all time. It’s so simple, but so effective. They say little, not trying to be overly profound. It’s a simple chat and a scene that slows the pace and draws us to the most deceptively simple scene in the entire film. No plot points, no arcs, no dynamic between two characters, it’s just these two guys meeting, exchanging words, but it’s mesmerising. Pacino reigns himself back. De Niro doesn’t up his intensity from the level he’s played up to that point. Each man does his thing and the sparks fly. Heat remains as magnetic as ever and it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.