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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 15, 1995


Michael Mann
Robert De Niro;
Al Pacino;
Val Kilmer;
Ashley Judd;
Mykelti Williamson;
Amy Brenneman;
Diane Venora;
Wes Studi;
Ted Levine;
Jon Voight;
Tom Sizemore
considerable violence, nudity and sexual scenes

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ON PAPER at least, "Heat" is little more than another killing-spree entertainment from the Time-Warner conglomerate. A crime saga about cops and robbers in Los Angeles, it starts with three violent deaths and concludes with many more, as innocent bystanders lie dead and wounded in the streets following a botched bank robbery.

But if "Heat" tells a shopworn story, full of jaded cops, professional criminals and random deaths, it does so on a high aesthetic plane.

Writer-director Michael Mann, the creator of "Miami Vice" and director of "Manhunter" and "The Last of the Mohicans," is a masterly image-maker. As with his other works, he binds sound, music and pictures into one hypnotic triaxial cable and plugs it right into your brain. He makes this almost-three-hour experience practically glide by.

There are two other reasons for watching the movie: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. They stoke up this otherwise banal drama until sparks fly overhead.

De Niro's a high-stakes robber who hits banks, armored cars and other pecuniary fortresses with partners Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Jon Voight. When one of De Niro's jobs goes awry—three guards are left dead—Los Angeles detective Pacino gets the assignment to track down the gang. With electronic eavesdroppers, gunmen and other operatives, Pacino goes obsessively after his man.

There are other developments. Pacino's grueling job is severely affecting his relationship with wife Diane Venora. De Niro, who lives by a loner's code, becomes involved with a trusting graphic artist, Amy Brenneman, who has no idea what he does for a living.

As Pacino closes in, De Niro senses that he's one greedy move away from prison. But he decides to go for one last bank, so he can finance a golden retirement for himself and Brenneman.

When Pacino meets De Niro for the first time in a diner, the confrontation is electric. It marks the first time the actors have performed together, and it seems to have been worth the wait.

As the opponents ironically compare lives, jobs and romantic problems, the movie becomes immeasurably powerful. You can feel the hair rise on the back of your neck, as if you're watching an updated Sergio Leone western. But instead of echoey whistling in the background and itchy fingers on six-guns, you've got jaded souls muttering over coffee, while, on the soundtrack, the Kronos Quartet and Brian Eno serenade these modern warriors.

Should Mann be condemned or congratulated for pushing this genre to such heights? Probably both. He doesn't morally address the violent domain his characters live in. In that diner scene, Pacino and De Niro emphasize their need to continue doing what they do. But "Heat" is undeniably compelling. Not unlike the cultish gangster films of John Woo, Mann's movie creates comic book symphonies, in which one-dimensional characters grapple almost allegorically with each other. Given that violence is a part of our real and moviegoing lives, this classical treatment may give it a serenity it doesn't deserve, but it's a serenity just the same.

HEAT (R) — Contains considerable violence, nudity and sexual scenes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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