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By Hal Hinson
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
violence, language and adult situations

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If there's one thing Michael Mann knows how to do, it's create tension. He's a master of texture and atmosphere, and in "Heat," the volatile though confounding story of a Los Angeles detective's hunt for a master thief, writer-director Mann works as if he were a composer, laying down his super-saturated wide-screen images like a series of menacing, unresolved chords.

The movie pairs Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as sort of Method Twin Towers. It's the first time they have appeared together on screen, although they co-starred in "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), and both actors are in peak shape. But it's the musicality of Mann's direction—and not the macho story line—that pulls us into this world of L.A. cops and robbers. The former executive producer and sometime director of TV's "Miami Vice"—as well as creator of such films as "Manhunter" and "The Last of the Mohicans"—Mann makes full use of the filmmaker's arsenal, seducing his audience with the contrast between the hot sensuality of his editing rhythms and the chilly spareness of his compositions.

Mann's crime stories are unlike anyone else's; they're pulp fiction with a high-buff, modernist veneer. In "Heat," he transforms Los Angeles into a landscape of pure dread. Essentially, Mann is replacing the primordial wood of his previous film, "The Last of the Mohicans," with the steel-and-concrete wilderness of contemporary Southern California. The problem is not so much that the conceit doesn't work as it is that the director has overdressed it in familiar existential chic. He's repeating himself, falling back into the rut that he managed to escape with "Mohicans."

As with many of Mann's films, the story here is about a hunter and his prey. The hunter is Detective Hanna (Pacino), an obsessive robbery-homicide sleuth; the man in his sights is Neil McCauley (De Niro), a robbery specialist whose gang has started taking down big scores in the area. What's obvious from the outset is that the contest is one of powerful equals. Both men are disciplined professionals, willing to sacrifice everything for their work.

On both sides of the law, these men are the best in the business—meticulous, uncompromising, ruthless. And the appreciation Mann shows for them is palpable. What's also clear, though, is that these craftsmen are not fully human. A loner and ex-con, McCauley is a man of shadows who lives by the words of an old prison mate: Never commit yourself to anything you can't walk away from in 30 seconds. And as De Niro plays him, the master thief carries this philosophy almost to the point of not inhabiting his own flesh.

Twice divorced and skating on thin ice with his third wife (Diane Venora), Hanna wants to connect, but can't open himself up. Every day he sees the human animal at its most depraved, but instead of sharing his emotions with those around him, he nurtures his rage and disgust because, he says, that's what gives him his edge.

But, as Hanna puts it, "I am nothing but what I'm going after." And that's the crux of the picture. Though a lot of screen time is devoted to over-the-top shootouts—including a midday gun battle that verges on parody—equal attention is given to the conflicts between these men of action and their women. After one last big score, McCauley plans to get out of the racket and settle down with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a young graphic artist. For the first time, he has broken his rule about attachments and allowed himself to care about another person—and about having a real life.

Mann has always been fascinated by conflicts between the professional and the domestic. His characters are driven, almost monastically single-minded. What he seems to be saying here is that these men—perhaps all men—are too destructive, too violent, for domestication; their real mates are one another. The only genuine connection in the film is between men—and between Hanna and McCauley in particular.

As impressive and viscerally stirring as Mann's major set pieces might be, the film's true poetry is in the faces of these actors. As aesthetic objects alone, they are virtually unmatched on the screen, and Mann's camera caresses every exquisite inch. In one beautifully directed scene, Hanna offers to buy his startled adversary a cup of coffee, and sitting there across from one another in a restaurant, they acknowledge—in that special nonverbal Morse code of the warrior—that they are the same, outsiders, bound to each other by the bonds of crime and punishment. Everything else disappears. Life is simple.

What these actors do, however, is magnetic and not in the least simple. They're heavy, these guys. Of the two, Pacino is more florid and animated. He loves to talk, and the words tumble out in a wired rush. De Niro is focused, watchful, deeply cautious. He knows if Hanna makes a mistake, he blows the case. But if he makes a mistake, he blows his life, and the weight of every word is precisely measured.

There are some marvelous supporting performances here as well, especially from Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd and (an underused) Val Kilmer. Ultimately, though, the movie never transcends the limitations of its Hemingwayesque, men-with-men attitudes. Its point of view about the innate violence of men is essentially that of Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," but while the idea itself remains valid and even relevant, Mann cancels all that out with a ridiculous ending that suggests some sort of final spiritual, metaphysical mind-meld. To call it mythic absurdity is a kindness.

Heat is rated R for violence, language and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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