Pacino understands that this is an opera, about Men who Do What They Gotta Do and the Women who Love Them.

The script has a lot of plot, even for a three-hour movie, so there isn’t a lot of time for irony. Tough guys announce who they are, what they stand for and what they’re feeling at any given moment. Seems a little counterintuitive for tough guys, but the director is looking to humanize them, to make them accessible to an audience, especially women.

De Niro plays against the poetry of the script, holding back, holding back, holding back. Even when he’s announcing who he is and what he stands for, he makes it seem like he’s not telling you anything. He gets that Dispeptic De Niro look on his face, as if revealing himself makes him literally sick to his stomach. Pacino, on the other hand, goes in the other direction, blowing some lines up to absurd, laugh-inducing proportions. He carries the same sickness inside him, but he directs it outward, even when he’s announcing how he keeps everything inside (because it “Keeps me sharp. (snap) On the edge. (snap) Where I gotta be.”).

The story is preposterous, so the direction is crisp and efficient without drawing attention to itself. That makes the action scenes seem matter-of-fact and human somehow, exciting in a way a “slicker” directing style would not be. Another director might have employed a hundred different devices to “jazz up” the action sequences, but Mann keeps it simple and lets the mayhem of the moment speak for itself.

In a cast full of present and future stars (Dennis Haysbert! Natalie Portman! Wes Studi! Tone Loc! Hank Azaria! Jeremy Piven! Xander Berkeley! Mykelti Williamson! William Fichtner! Jon Voight! Henry Rollins! Danny Trejo [playing the role of “Trejo,” no less]!), Diane Venora has the job of being Pacino’s long-suffering wife. She is given some of the densest, most purple lines in the script (“I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you,” a moment of sober clarity unheard of in any of my messy breakup scenes) and somehow holds her own.
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15 Responses to “Heat”
  1. urbaniak says:

    Gimmeallyagot! GIMMEALLYAGOT!!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Am I the only one disappointed by the famous meeting between Pacino and De Niro? I think the way how everyone described the scene (AMAZING!!!) was setting it up for failure to me.

    • Todd says:

      I think the reason some people find it disappointing is because it’s so low-key. Sure, these two guys have somehow never appeared on screen together, and when the “big scene” comes, it’s at a table in a restaurant and they sit there and talk quietly.

      Another interesting thing about the scene is that it’s not necessary. I may be wrong, but I think I remember reading something about how it wasn’t in the original script, but someone thought “hey, we’ve got Vito and Michael Corleone in this picture, why don’t we put them in a scene together?” Because the physical stakes are exactly the same before the scene as they are afterward. Al and Bob meet, have coffee, then go back to doing exactly what they were doing before. The emotional stakes are a little higher, if only because they’ve sat and looked each other in the eye.

      The scene works fine for me, but only in the context of the rest of the movie. You have to be aware of all the other stuff in these guys’ lives in order to get the import of the tip-of-the-iceberg lines of dialogue.

      • urbaniak says:

        I may be wrong, but I think I remember reading something about how it wasn’t in the original script

        I’m sure that’s true since “Heat” itself is a remake of the 1989 TV Movie “L.A. Takedown,” which Michael Mann also wrote and directed and which did not star Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

        • Todd says:

          But it does feature Xander Berkeley. I wonder if he plays the same role in the remake.

          I remember when I saw it in ’95 thinking “Well, that’s all well and good, but isn’t it just a 3-hour episode of Police Story? I had no idea I was that close.

  3. toliverchap says:


    I know this movie has all sorts of noir/crime cliches with the tough guys and the dames that love them but it is probably my favorite movie of all time. For me the execution of the story and the dense workings of the plot result in such a great collection of themes. The soundtrack is pretty cool too. I don’t know even while studying film I cannot seem to get into the real good stuff; I guess I lack the academic spirit and intellect to really tear into the high art pictures and since I’m only 25, older movies seem to have a limited appeal. But for me a solid story (remake/no new tale to tell) executed with near perfect precision is where I find the most joy.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Apologia

      No apologia necessary around here. Everybody needs a favorite movie. Mine is The Godfather. I wouldn’t call Heat high art, but it does actually have a new take on an old genre, one I haven’t seen repeated.

      And the soundtrack is cool, surprisingly so. I had forgotten how much of the music is by Brian Eno. And what a strange choice for an action picture.

      The DVD box refers to Heat as a “crime saga,” but that’s kind of misleading. A saga, if I’m not mistaken, is the story of a family. The Godfather is a crime saga. But I see what they’re getting at; it’s a movie about cops and robbers and their families. The action in Heat is terrific but it’s the emotional undertow that makes the action matter. The Sopranos manages to do this on a weekly basis.

      Over lunch today I was thinking seriously about how to do Heat as an opera. And why hasn’t it been done before? Why are operas always set in Europe A Long Time Ago? Why not an action opera, with shootouts and car chases (obviously this opera would have to be conceived as a film) and interrogation scenes? Sounds like a natural to me.

      If Heat is your favorite movie of all time, can I assume you have the newly remastered DVD? If so, is it a better transfer than the old one?

      • Todd says:

        Re: Apologia

        Apologies for the runaway italics in the last line. I didn’t mean to sound that emphatic.

        • toliverchap says:

          Re: Apologia

          Heat is such a favorite of mine that like some others, Bladerunner, etc. I have got the new DVD (still waiting on the Bladerunner 5.1 mix hopefully someday) but I have not yet watched it, since I’m so particular about watching good stuff at the right time. Even though I did watch a widescreen VHS of Heat years ago on a little 9″ TV/VCR combo while living in the dorms as an undergrad once . . . but that was the right time at the time. I don’t remember the old DVD looking too bad though but I don’t really notice that stuff too well and I’m still watching my stuff on old school tube televisions.

  4. craigjclark says:

    I remember seeing this in theaters when it first came out and being blown away by it. The big shootout in the middle of the film is arguably the greatest sustained action scene since Peckinpah hung up his spurs, and it’s one of those rare three-hour films that justifies its length.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, it always cracked me up that Danny Trejo plays “Trejo”.

    The resterant meeting between De Niro and Pacino was always in the script, it was in LA Takedown, versions of the dialouge in that scene were in an early draft of Thief, it has echoes in Manhunter, Last Of The Mohicans, Ali, Public Enemies–and a real life meeting between a police detective and a bank robber in a Chicago diner in 1965 was what inspired the whole thing in the first place. As Mann has often said Chuck Adamson shot and killed the real Neil McCauley in Chicago, but after he had coffee with him a month earlier.