Saturday, June 18, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #22: HEAT
When Michael Mann’s HEAT was released in December 1995, I saw it four times in the theater, including once on Christmas Eve. (I joked that since movies were my religion, it was the most appropriate way to spend the holiday.) I was accompanied by three friends: Ben, Chris and John.
Like me, Ben was a die-hard movie geek. He was captivated by the “Two Actors Collide” trailer that promoted HEAT as the onscreen collision of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. We’re talking about the Al Pacino of THE GODFATHER, SCARFACE and CARLITO’S WAY – an actor so much larger than life that he could only play larger than life characters. (In HEAT, his character is prone to restless outbursts – suggesting that he has a bit of a coke problem. Not quite on par with Tony Montana’s coke problem, but still…) We’re also talking about a larger-than-life Robert DeNiro… the Bobby DeNiro invented by Martin Scorsese in MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS and CASINO. A formidable threat (in high school, we used to refer to beat-downs as “doing a little Bobby D.”) before he resorted to self-parody in bullshit like ANALYZE THIS and MEET THE PARENTS. For a movie geek like Ben, HEAT was a mythic clash of the titans. On top of that, Ben fully recognized and appreciated that the film had a stellar supporting cast, excellent cinematography and a pitch-perfect soundtrack. HEAT was action movie high art.
Chris was also a fan of Pacino and DeNiro (probably moreso DeNiro, since DeNiro was in THE DEER HUNTER and Chris was a war movie buff), but I think for him the action was the juice. He was just as interested in the guns as in the actors. A future military man, Chris was drawn to the professional codes of Pacino’s cops and DeNiro’s criminals. In both cases, there is a loyalty among brothers. In both cases, there is a need to live a life stripped down to basics, so you can travel fast and light. In both cases, the characters don’t pull any punches. Like the guys in the movie, Chris is the kind of guy who won’t hesitate to fire or to take a bullet for something he believes in, so he connected with the world of HEAT on that level.
John was the first person I ever met who thought of himself as an “entrepreneur.” At 17, he had dropped out of high school and was setting up his own Internet business. He had his own apartment (with a fully stocked bar) in a trendy section of town, he drove a brand new Ford Explorer, and he always wore a suitcoat wherever he went. Somehow, he managed to not come off like a kid playing dressup. He came across more like a guru at a self-actualization seminar… a young Robert Kiyosaki, pretending that he’s Tom Cruise. John’s favorite films were RISKY BUSINESS and THE COLOR OF MONEY… because the main characters in each film were players. John thought of himself as a player. I remember one time we were having dinner and he said to me: “How much money would you like to have at the end of this year?” At the time I was working for minimum wage as a bag-boy at a small town grocery store, so I thought it was a stupid question. But John honestly believed that an intelligent person could accomplish anything if they put their mind to it. “Just commit to a number,” he said. “And then what?” I asked, “Rob a bank?” He shrugged. “That’s one way…”
I suppose you could say that Ben, Chris and John were my “crew” (though I was certainly not the Pacino or DeNiro of that bunch), which is maybe the main reasons that I liked HEAT so much. In high school, I felt that my own identity was inextricably linked with the identities of my friends, so I could appreciate a film all about crews. Pacino and DeNiro are the headliners – they are the only characters, in writer/director Michael Mann’s estimation, who are “self aware” – but they wouldn’t have been anything without their crew… just ghosts.
DeNiro obviously has the more charismatic crew – a veritable who’s who of mid-90s badasses: Val Kilmer (who earned his stripes as Jim Morrison in THE DOORS and Doc Holliday in TOMBSTONE), Tom Sizemore (the irascible Jack Scagnetti in NATURAL BORN KILLERS) and Danny Trejo (a one-man army in DESPERADO). Even his second string is beyond reproach. Jon (DELIVERANCE) Voight does a great impersonation of crime writer Eddie Bunker (perhaps best known as “Mr. Blue” in RESERVOIR DOGS) and Dennis Haysbert gives a powerfully subdued performance as Michael… a step up from the actor’s voodoo-obsessed batter in MAJOR LEAGUE, and a precursor to his role as the President David Palmer in 24.
Pacino’s crew isn’t as glorious… They’re the good guys, after all, and the good guys are never as glorious. Still, this is a solid group of cinematic tough guys: Mykelti Williamson (shaking off his role as “Bubba” in FORREST GUMP so mightily that he’d next get cast as one of the heavies in CON AIR), Wes Studi (a Michael Mann favorite who made an indelible impression on my young psyche in LAST OF THE MOHICANS, and later played Geronimo for Walter Hill), and Ted Levine (who also made an indelible impression on my young psyche as Buffalo “tuck and hide” Bill in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).
The supporting cast of HEAT also includes William Fichtner, Henry Rollins, Tone Loc, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven, Bud Cort and Tom Noonan (best known as Francis Dollarhyde in MANHUNTER). And we haven’t even gotten to the leading ladies yet!
Diane Venora, a classically trained actress who can give Shakespeare a run for his money (she went on to play Juliet’s mother in Baz Luhrman’s ROMEO + JULIET and Hamlet’s mother in Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET) gives Al Pacino a run for his money as a high-maintenance wife. Ashley Judd is the perfect combination of classy and trashy – smart, sexy and a little bit duplicitous… just the right combination of elements to keep Val Kilmer simultaneously addicted and frustrated. NYPD BLUE veteran Amy Brenneman is also perfect as DeNiro’s reluctant love interest… a lonely woman who can’t buy into the lonely world he lives in. (Brenneman got the part because she told Michael Mann that she didn’t like his hyper-masculine script.) And then there’s Natalie Portman, whose role in THE PROFESSIONAL had already established her as an actress wise beyond her years.
After reeling off this long list of names, I’m realizing again just how epic this film truly is. It’s built on the reputations of all of these great actors… and, even more than that, on Michael Mann’s experience as a filmmaker and the experience of several people that he’d met over the course of 20 years while he was developing the script. It would take a pretty comprehensive book to do justice to Michael Mann’s evolution as a filmmaker, but for the sake of brevity we can trace the origins of his undisputed masterpiece HEAT to the 1982 film THIEF, which was itself the culmination of Mann’s years of writing for TV crime shows like STARSKY & HUTCH and POLICE STORY (not to mention an early draft of the Dustin Hoffman movie STRAIGHT TIME).
If you haven’t seen THIEF… shame on you. Michael Mann grew up in Chicago, so this film is his tribute to the criminal world of Chicago. I recently worked on a documentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the field producers got to go on location in Chicago with a couple of mob insiders… and visit some of the same locations where THIEF was filmed. Mann obviously did his homework, and he made the city its own separate character. You could say he did the same thing for Miami in MIAMI VICE and for Los Angeles in L.A. TAKEDOWN. The latter also now looks like a template for HEAT. You just can’t escape the idea that HEAT was the perfection of a form the filmmaker had been chasing for years. In fact, the main characters in HEAT – Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (DeNiro) – were inspired by a real life cop and criminal that Mann originally encountered in Chicago.
The cop was Chuck Adamson, a Chicago PD homicide detective. The criminal was the real-life Neil McCauley, a professional thief who was in fact killed by the bullet of his rival. In real life, as in the film, these two men were flip sides of the same coin. Both are instinctive hunters. Both are self-aware (which is to say they don’t lie to themselves about what they do and why they do it). Both have a fully-developed personal code of ethics. But one, as Mann explains, is ego-centered and the other is ego-centric. One is a protector and the other is a sociopath. The distinction is made, in HEAT, by Al Pacino’s dream speech in the diner. The protector dreams about the death of innocent victims with black eyeballs. The sociopath dreams only about his own death, drowning in a black ocean.
If you want to go back even further to trace the origins of HEAT, I’d recommend checking out the 1939 western film JESSE JAMES, starring Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott. The same duality between cop and criminal exists in that film. In fact, the cop and the criminal in JESSE JAMES even love the same woman. There’s a scene were Tyrone Power’s outlaw and Randolph Scott’s sheriff come face to face, and it’s a lot like the diner scene in HEAT. Scott knows that Power is a criminal. Power knows that Scott knows. But each lets the other man go his way. There is a kind of mutual respect that goes beyond words. They understand each other and, up to a point, respect each other as “men’s men.” That said, both are professionals and they will not hesitate to kill each other under different circumstances. The same themes are what make HEAT, in my opinion, a modern-day western. I’ve never heard that that was a conscious idea on Michael Mann’s part, but it’s so glaringly obvious to me that I find it hard to believe that any “self-aware” storyteller wouldn’t recognize it as such.
JESSE JAMES and HEAT both culminate with a bank heist gone awry and a shootout in the streets. For me, the shootout in HEAT was so overwhelming the first time I saw it, I swear I held my breath for twenty minutes. Today, I can’t visit downtown Los Angeles without thinking of he way that gunfire echoed off of the buildings on those strangely hollow streets. This scene too is a culmination of Mann’s work… In many of his previous projects, and in every scene prior in HEAT, the filmmaker strives to capture the essence of the city of Los Angeles. There are people who balk at the idea of “Michael Mann’s L.A.” (they love to point out that he mistakenly sainted the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Long Beach), but I am not one of them. In my estimation, he captures it perfectly… a kind of beautiful vacancy.
Los Angeles is a dream landscape – a semi-real city built on elaborate lies and illusions, many of them simultaneously alluring and grossly deformed. Mann captures the surreal, noir aspect of L.A. from the first scene where DeNiro gets off the blue line train to the final scene at LAX airport. These landscapes aren’t real… The art department had to place all of the red and white cargo boxes that Pacino and DeNiro use to play cat-and-mouse at LAX… and, simply put, nobody rides the train in L.A. (It’s worth noting that Mann’s film COLLATERAL ends at the same train station… which, to me, underscores the idea that COLLATERAL is comprised mostly of reheated leftovers from HEAT, the blue flame of HEAT’s intensity turned into the autumnal orange palette of COLLATERAL…) When I first saw HEAT, I fell in love with Mann’s Los Angeles… with DeNiro’s austere, glassed-in Malibu apartment overlooking a black ocean, and especially with Amy Brenneman’s Sunset Plaza apartment overlooking the night lights of the sleepless city. That scene, and DeNiro’s speech about iridescent algae, still gets me -- because I’ve always understood one thing about Los Angeles: Only in a place this bright and busy can you feel so isolated.
If you’ve watched the behind the scenes features on the HEAT and COLLATERAL DVDs, then you know Michael Mann chooses his filming locations carefully. When Pacino is chasing DeNiro down the 405 freeway, he uses brief shots of the 105 freeway because the twisted architecture of the overpasses suggests something about the complexity of the situation. (Oh, what a tangled web… etc.) When DeNiro and Brenneman pass through a bright white tunnel on their way to LAX at the end of the film, the setting itself seems to be granting DeNiro’s character an insight. This is exactly what I mean about turning the city into a character. Mann’s Los Angeles is alive – constantly communicating in whispers to the characters (and to us, the audience) even when the characters aren’t communicating explicitly with each other. There’s something absolutely brilliant about that… something that Mann manages to achieve at least once or twice in all of his films, but which really shines through in HEAT because the acting and the characterizations have the same depth, complexity and nuance… because the characters are usually communicating with each other in the same subtle ways.
In all of my rambling, I haven’t said anything about the soundtrack to HEAT, which also deserves praise. I listened to the soundtrack for months after I saw the film, and it still casts a spell on me today, especially the final track. For four teenage guys watching the film in the theater on Christmas Eve 1995, Pacino and DeNiro’s denouement set to Moby’s “God Moving His Face Over the Waters” was a borderline religious experience. I don’t hesitate in the least to call this film a classic.