There are precious few directors that know how to wield a single scene quite like Michael Mann. His single greatest moment behind the camera belongs in Heat, a mid-film bank heist that overflows into a stuttery shootout that mashes together the rhythms of an urban jungle, the pageantry of an urban carnival, and a geometric fascination for odd, cutting edits and fascinatingly counter-intuitive visual storytelling. The shootout is one of the most perfect action scenes ever filmed, one of the most perfect scenes of 1990s cinema, and a startling showcase for a director who defines life as a collection of people (usually men) wallowing in their own danger until those men overflow onto each other and bubble till they erupt.
Mann’s tale is much larger than a mere scene – he pits life-long criminal (Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro) and life-long cop (Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino) against one another and provides glimpses into the life’s of a great many other criminals and cops that traffic in their circles. But it all comes down to the scene, a divining rod of Mann in perfect harmony with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, a murderers’ row of editors, and especially a sound team firing on all cylinders making each bullet bruise like a thunder-bolt straight from the gods. It is simply wonderful filmmaking, teetering right on the edge between the stinging brutality of a boxing match and the floating grace of a ballet, and it does more than any bit of dialogue to coax out the core of these men who live life by the streets, waiting around drowning in everyday life, thirsting for conflict, and jumping into action because it is the only life they know how to live. Mann has made a career out of these men, depicting them in their prime and juxtaposing their prime with the harsh, bitter reality that their prime kills them, He is aware that these men – in their inability to find life outside of their modern male quest for the intersection of order and chaos – are able to find life only in death.
If you’re sensing a “but” coming along … Heat – previously adapted by Mann as a television pilot entitled LA Takedown – is a hefty, unwieldy three-hours-long parade of scenes, and it does not justify at least a third of them. For all the impeccable craft, even frighteningly perfect craft, on display within individual scenes, the film has no sense of its own flow, its own existence between the scenes, and the usually reliable, violently blunt Mann indulges in wasted scene after wasted scene. Even when his scenes do work, he develops a habit of dragging them on for minutes on end until they most definitely do not work. This is not the Mann those who saw Heat in 1995 knew, nor is it the Mann that would thrive long after Heat, when he returned to his humility and refused to let his ego get the best of him.
With Heat, however, his ego definitely did get the best of him, taunting him to include characters that have no business being more than mere window dressing in his pas de deux of a film, relentlessly sacrificing all of the taut brutality of the pure, relentless focus on the central two characters in the narrative. A statement that, of course, implies Mann’s intent was to focus on these two characters, and that the material focusing on the other characters is the window-dressing, the usual line of critique for those who don’t smitten to Heat, although not necessarily a proven fact. It is not surprising that most people prefer to take as the core of Heat the two character play – it is the shame of most cinema that it is unable to move beyond a monomaniacal one or two character narrative focus, and most audience members would likely have expected that one or two character focus going in.
The question, however, is whether Mann would have expected that one or two character focus from himself, and on this, the jury is still open. For Michael Mann has a great history of playing around with and subverting character-based narrative cinema, adopting in his best film, 1981’s Thief, an impressionist collage of moods and moments that aimed less to tell the story of a man than of a city as it manifested in that man. Mann later returned to this exact theme with his 2004 feature, also nominally a two-character study, Collateral, a film that was far more invested in evoking the lingering malaise and decrepit, uncanny post-midnight anti-cool of a city trying to wash away its daily nightmares with the dreams of the night. Our two human centers – Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx – were but places on the screen, a Vergil and a Dante on a tour of hell, with hell as the focus and they as our guide and place-holder, respectively.
This is an impressionist tone that Heat often suggests, if not openly states. Certainly, the wonderful cinematography by Dante Spinotti evokes a barely-there cool-blue image of LA as a conceptual mindscape for men who live a certain way. The cinematography glides around the characters rather than fixating on them, painting them as spaces in a larger tapestry of location. In this light, it is possible, and indeed admirable, that Heat was Mann’s own attempt to focus on LA as a sort of harsh dreamscape of criminal and policing activity, the city surrounded by two types of life violently clashing with one another until they realize how similar they actually are. It is possible that he didn’t really want to focus on the two lead characters at all, and his intent was to capture LA as a manifestation of all of these characters bubbling together in a stew of inhumanity.
Which is to say, coming two years after Robert Altman masterminded his own improvisational tapestry of haunted, necrotic LA life with Short Cuts, it would have made sense for Mann to use his enhanced budget to try his own hand at a similar piece. Taken on these terms, the vocal shifts between characters, and the continual desire to focus on characters as they exist as objects within a city, rather than as the focus of the frames, make perfect sense. So too does the film’s almost uncompromised unwillingness to place De Niro and Pacino together in the frame, even when they are together in the scene. For a film that wants to focus on these two men, it does a remarkable job not focusing on those two men, I suspect as a commentary on their shared inability to truly connect with anyone who isn’t their own self. Indeed, the film goes out of its way to avoid focusing on these two men together; when they meet up, their faces are almost never seen in the same shot. A technique that has the effect of distancing them even in togetherness, reminding how similar they are while also evoking their inability to truly bond. And ultimately, evoking how lonely they are even when surrounded by men who live life exactly as they do.
If only Heat had fully committed to being a dissection of a moodscape, a city, filtered through pit-stops into the collective life of a group of humans who adopt that city’s always-moving, never-stopping corporate sheen and internal, soul-destroying drive for success. If only Heat had been a dissection of the way a city manifests in the humans who live there. I’m not entirely convinced that isn’t how it sees itself, in fact, or at least how it wants to see itself.
But, still, Mann’s ego got to him again, and the ability to direct De Niro and Pacino, still two of the biggest stars in film as of 1995, got to his head. He couldn’t resist focusing on them specifically, concocting a story around them, and leaving some of his impressionist assembly of moments as a tapestry of LA life by the wayside. Above all, he couldn’t resist the popular clout of a film that dances De Niro and Pacino around each other in a violent collision where their personalities were the sharpest bullets of all. What could have been a fascinatingly experimental Malick-in-the-city take on life failing to come to terms with itself is instead a film that is in a collision course with itself, torn between a more stripped down narrative focus on two people and an enticingly poetic meditation on life as it exists without narrative. As a result, all of the material focusing on the side-characters ends up feeling like also-ran material in a more singular story of two people, rather than the fascinating collage of characters Mann probably wanted it to be. Heat desperately wants to be both broad and specific, and it ends up being neither.
Making Heat a jittery, hashed-out collage of intermittently brilliant craft, often stumbling narrative, frequently piercing personality, sometimes impersonal storytelling, and messy fascination, all collected under Mann’s all-seeing vision of the human male. Michael Mann has the scene down, but a film is as often or as importantly made in the interstitial regions between scenes, a level at which Mann has over-reached to say the least. His film is fundamentally at war with itself, one part tight-and-trim two-hander between Pacino and De Niro, and one part Altmanesque sketch of societal mess with many characters vying for protagonist status, or simply battling for their slice of turf. Rather than homogenizing, the latter strand pulls apart the core of the former, and the core keeps the film from ever evolving beyond the plane of a central narrative into a more shambolic portrait of a heterogeneous democracy without a singular protagonist (or two). It’s as though Heat wishes to follow the decentralized spirit of Altman’s own Short Cuts, but the molten core of Pacino and De Niro – and Mann’s awareness of their galvanic charisma on camera, and the money he would be liable to make from the first film starring Pacino and De Niro in 20 years – keep neatening up the film, solidifying its gaseous eccentricities and liquid digressions. It adds up to a decent mess of a film, a jumble of worthwhile scenes and occasional blazes of genuine cinematic eruption, but not the full-blooded imbroglio of disarray and disorder it could have been.