20 June 2009

MANN'S MEN: HEAT (1995)

Confession time: when I first came up with the idea for this whole big Michael Mann retrospective, there was one overriding motivation for it. See, I was super-excited for the impending Public Enemies, but I couldn't really explain why. "You have no reason to be enthusiastic for a Mann film," I told myself. "You liked The Last of the Mohicans a lot, but otherwise you thought that Collateral was his only other okay film. Jesus, you didn't even like Heat.'

That's right. I didn't even like Heat, the consensus pick for Mann's best film, and one of the most highly-praised crime pictures of the modern era. A film that I knew I probably ought to love, given the kinds of people who tend to love it and the reasons they tend to give for loving it, but for which I had simply no use. It had been a very long time since I saw it - the first half in class in 2000, the whole thing in 2001 - and I've changed much in my tastes since then, and I wondered if maybe the time had come to revisit it with my newer, better perspective. And do I thus like it more? Hmph, like I'm going to spoil the ending.

Heat was first made after the second three years of absolute silence in Mann's career. In 1992, The Last of the Mohicans had been his biggest film yet, both in terms of the production's size and the box office returns, and perhaps this gave him pause. At this moment, he had as much clout as ever in his career: more than during Miami Vice, more than after The Jericho Mile turned him into the hot young director to watch. What he did with that clout was to return to the one great missed opportunity of his career, the screenplay for a grand crime saga that he'd cut down into such a cheap, careless botch with the 1989 telefilm L.A. Takedown, and do it up right this time. And so he did in 1995, making a film infinitely greater in its ambitions, its scale (two hours, fifty-one minutes), its budget (the largest of his career to that point, at an estimated $50 million), even its cast: in an ensemble featuring hardly a single person who wasn't famous or on the road to future fame, Heat managed the incredible coup of pairing, on-screen together for the first time, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, two of the biggest icons of the 1970s, or indeed of cinema altogether.

To the chronological student of Mann, such as we are here, the most obvious thing about the film is that it's shockingly close to L.A. Takedown, not just at the most basic level of plot, but in many passages of dialogue and even in some camera setups, allowing for the fact that L.A. Takedown was framed at 4:3 while Heat luxuriates in the grand old anamorphic 35mm aspect ration of 2.35:1. The chief difference between the two (other than that Heat renames the main criminal from Patrick McLaren to Neil McCauley, the real-life inspiration for the character) is that Heat has a much larger canvas to cover, at 1.75 times the length of its little cousin, and so it presents a much more expansive, "epic" if you will, narrative, focusing not just on the basic story of how a bank robber named McCauley (De Niro) and a cop named Vincent Hanna (Pacino) were alter-egos, opposite numbers in a pas de deux around Los Angeles, but expanding to notice the lives of many characters around them, giving greater emphasis to Hanna's wife (Diane Venora) and introducing his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), but exploring in far greater depth several of the men in McCauley's crew, particularly Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), whose strained marriage is brought front and center, making him the third branch in the story's treatment of how men in this lifestyle can possible manage to keep a personal life.

Of course, thinking of it as an "expansion" is missing the point: L.A. Takedown was a contraction and bowdlerisation, and it showed in every rushed moment and abbreviated conversation indifferently thrown in front of the camera. Heat is undoubtedly better than its forbear in nearly every possible way, for the simple reason that Mann was making the story the way he'd wanted to in the first place, and doing so with a level of care never previously seen in his films, though Mohicans and Thief especially were awfully controlled and careful movies.

And that's why it makes me so sad, embarrassed, and upset to come clean and state that, though I tried my very damnedest, I still don't love Heat (though I like it quite a lot more) - and for the exact reason that it's so vast and rich and full of so many characters with intricate backstories. Frankly, I think it's too long, by a good 40 minutes, and too detailed by at least three characters. Or, it's too short by at least an hour, and underpopulated by at least three characters.

As I see it, there are multiple stories that Heat's basic concept could engender: the story about a cop and a robber who play off each other like mirror images (this was L.A. Takedown); an epic story about the lives of criminals, exploring the backstories of several different thieves and murderers in detail; that epic story, but about the lives of cops; or a gigantic, operatic mishmash of all of it, with several cops and criminals studied in great detail, with two men at the center of it all, jousting like gods against the background of the sprawling city. The problem with Heat is that it wants to be the first and second of these, except that they're not meant to be combined. As I see it, here is the film we have: two opposing characters at the center, their lives looked at like bugs under glass, and several other criminals, their lives looked at with much less detail, mainly to study they ways that they are ultimately not like Neil McCauley. It is absolutely, undeniably the case that McCauley is the most important of the criminals, mind you, but the attempt to make some of them - notably Chris, as I mentioned before - important characters, but not that important that they become co-leads, leaves an unresolved imbalance: is the film about McCauley and Hanna, or a tapestry about the criminal life? And if it's both, why? More importantly, why aren't any of the cops besides Hanna given the same study that McCauley's crew is? Like I said, add an hour, making the cops just as important and interesting as the robbers, and you have an unimpeachable movie. Take a healthy chunk away, removing all the backstory from Chris and Donald (Dennis Haysbert) and so forth, but leave enough so that the story has more room to breathe than it did in L.A. Takedown - in particular, leave all of the stuff about Hanna's family, which is fantastic despite Venora's weak performance and Mann's customary lack of interest in writing strong female characters - and you have an unimpeachable movie. The Heat that we got, to my way of thinking, is too long for the story it appears to be telling, and much too full of extraneous deadwood. I found myself antsy for it to get moving by the two-hour mark, if not frankly bored - a damning criticism, if imprecise.

But what do I know? I would have been delighted out of my mind for the 201-minute Jeanne Dielman to be twice that length, and indisputably, less activity happens in that whole film than in any given ten minutes of Heat. So it's all in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Setting this quibble - all right, it's much more than quibble, it's a conceptual argument with the entire thesis of the film, but one that I know most people will disagree with - and we do, certainly, have just about the most accomplished film of Mann's career, from a craftsmanship standpoint. It is perhaps cinematographer Dante Spinotti's masterpiece, for a start: the inky blues of the city at night sing with an abstract poeticism not seen in the director's films since Thief, though where that city reduced Chicago to an indeterminate Everywhere, Heat could only possibly take place in Los Angeles - the city is as important a character as anyone, perhaps more so. L.A. Takedown tried for a similar goal, but failed entirely: it's cheapness worked against it, or perhaps just the filmmakers' revulsion at that cheapness. Besides, L.A. Takedown was trying for a '70s-style "gritty urban realism" approach, whereas Heat suggests the mood and feel and consciousness of L.A. without urgently trying to capture its specific look: it is perhaps the filmed version of how Los Angeles sees itself in its dreams.

And in Heat also do we find the very best setpieces of any of Mann's films, just after Mohicans proved that he could "do" action: the opening armed car robbery, and the mid-film bank heist even more, are immaculate mini-movies that aren't quite as extraordinary as the similar scenes in Thief, but nevertheless capture the detail of how to commit a robbery with directness but also a certain level of formal abstraction that makes them almost more arty than thrilling. But neither of them are a patch on the shoot-out following the bank heist, the one scene I clearly remember loving from all the way back in 2001: edited to remain just on this side of coherent, the sequence manages to evoke at the same time sheer violent anarchy of guns blazing on all sides at once, with the rigid professionalism of men who know how to move from place to place under fire. Whatever else is true of the movie's reputation, this one scene surely is among the most perfect action sequence in any American film of the 1990s.

I've gone on long enough, and shot far enough past my self-imposed deadline, so I'm going to try to wrap this up quickly. Heat, I feel, is the quintessential example of a film that's less than the sum of its parts: every frame is directed with the greatest precision - this could almost make it seem over-fussy, but then, Mann is not a filmmaker given to looseness and improvisation - and nearly every performance is note-perfect - only an overacting Venora, and a stone-faced Tom Sizemore really fell flat for me, although Pacino was right on the cusp at some times (his ("Awful Ham" period had already started, and would quickly become his default mode within just a couple of years) - and every scene works so well individually, if two or three stretch on just a wee bit (especially the very last confrontation between Hanna and McCauley); and when you throw it all together, the result is a slow-moving, overburdened, well-meant and at times quite entertaining slog. There are scenes as good as anything else in the whole history of the crime film, and yet overall, I am curiously unmoved. But at least I no longer actively dislike Heat - indeed, I actively like it now - let us see what happens in another eight years.

3 comments:

Neil Fulwood said...

Although I love 'Heat' unashamedly - it's probably a photo-finish for my second favourite Mann film after 'Thief' (gawd bless my old VHS copy of the theatrical cut - no stupid speeded-up footage to detract from its brilliance) - I have to say that you've insightfully and articulately pinned down the essential problem of the film.

I remember critics at the time of its release either buying in wholeheartedly to the 'Heat'-as-existential-crime-movie school of thought, or dismissing its visual stylisations as attempts at cod-intellectualism.

I think this is Mann's great flaw as a filmmaker: his talent for the detailed mise-en-scene or visceral set-piece is always struggling with his predilection to the cerebral approach, the longueurs of contemplative filmic space.

Christ, that sounds pretentious, but I hope it makes sense. It's kind of like, for Mann, his craftsmanship is the id and his intellectualism the ego. This was certainly the kiss of death in 'Miami Vice' where the whole thing was so po-faced bloody serious when what it called for was sports cars, rock music and a cathartic cutting loose in the action scenes.

Looking forward to your take on 'The Insider', which I featured in my personal faves project recently.

dfantico said...

In total agreement with Neil, I can hardly wait to read your take on The Insider, oscar bait or not, I loved every minute of it.

Jeanne said...

EVERYTHING About this movie is why they call it the Miracle movie HEAT! Michael Mann did a brilliant job in all aspects on this one!!