I'll start this edition of the Discount Bin Film Club with an admission: For a long time, I didn't really think very highly of Michael Mann's film Heat*.
Of course I missed it in the theatres, and had only seen a pretty badly pan & scanned, "edited for content" and "compressed for time" version on TV, so my you can probably understand why.
Now I liked Michael Mann's Manhunter, and his show Robbery Homicide Division, and everyone I knew who saw it properly, loved it, so when I saw a basic wide-screen edition in the $5.00 bin I decided to give the movie a second chance.
I don't regret that decision.
Heat is a grand, sprawling yet engrossing story about crime, criminals, but mostly about the city of Los Angeles itself. It's more like a novel than a standard thriller, with its characters, subplots, and thematic excursions.
One on side of the film is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) the man in charge of the LAPD's Robbery Homicide Division. He's work obsessed, and heads up a team of LAPD's top detectives Bosko (Ted Levine), Casal (Wes Studi) and Druker (Mykelti Williamson).
The flip side is Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) a master thief who tries to live without any connection to anyone or anything that can't drop in 30 seconds. He commands a robbery crew staffed by gambling addict/incurable romantic Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and ex-con Michael Cherrito (Tom Sizemore).
Both have their troubles.
Hanna is on his third marriage to a somewhat solipsistic LA socialite named Justine (Diane Venora), and has a stepdaughter Lauren Gustafson (Natalie Portman) who is neglected by her biological father, and all but ignored by her mother. This relationship is not going well at all.
McCauley saw a perfectly good armoured car heist turn into a triple homicide thanks to a recently recruited scumbag named Waingro (Kevin Gage). This heist starts a mini-war with an oily yuppie money launderer named Van Zant (William Fichtner) and puts them in need of a real big final score. And he's broken his own rule of having no connections by getting romantically involved with a young woman named Eady (Amy Brenneman).
This starts a game of cat and mouse between the cops and the robbers.
Now trust me, that's just a bare bones summary of what happens in the film, with a city full of supporting characters and subplots who all seem to have lives outside of this film.
And it's interesting, in a Freudian sense, that I use the term "city" to describe the film, because the real star of the film isn't Pacino, DeNiro, or even Tom Noonan, it's the city of Los Angeles itself.
This isn't the Los Angeles shown to the tourists, there's none of the usual visual cliches, instead it shows a certain combination of affection with the City of Angels, but also a certain amount of disappointment. Which brings me to what I think is the real theme of this film: Loneliness.
Almost all the major characters are alone in their own way. Some are in relationships, but most of them are unhappy, usually caused by narcissism, selfishness, and addiction. The most happy conversations are about business, and that goes for both the cops and the criminals. When someone does make some sort of emotional connection, they cling to it desperately like a drowning person to a thin thread.
For the rest, it's a life of quiet desperation in a city where millions dwell, but so few actually know each other.
On a technical level, the film is masterfully constructed, maintaining interest despite its long running time. Also the action scenes are a refreshing combination of realism and suspense that's missing from most movies these days, replaced by cartoonish over-the-top theatrics.
Overall the acting is excellent and low key, with Pacino only having a few instances of the histrionics that have come to define his career since Scent of a Woman.
So if you like crime films, complex plots, and well done action, then you really should add some Heat to your collection.
*Trivia note: Heat is actually a remake of an unsold TV pilot Michael Mann made in 1989 called LA Takedown.