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  • Writer's pictureGuy Jeffries


Director: Michael Mann.

This is one film I consider to be an absolute masterpiece, coming in right at the top of its genre and has stayed there quite happily among it's fans. It's Christopher Nolan's favourite film, which is quite a statement and was his inspiration for creating the Dark Knight's Gotham. But what makes this one of the most highly regarded thrillers in cinema history? Was it the clashing of two massive names in Hollywood, a selling point that was heavily marketed? Or is it the artistry or the explosive action? The story itself maybe? Or probably what it's most likely to be, is the perfect amalgamation of all of these keys elements that make this such a grand piece of cinema.

I was lucky enough to catch Heat on it's opening weekend at Odeon 1, Leicester Square back in 1996. An unforgettable experience seeing two of my favourite actors going head to head, I immediately fell in love with the film seeing it multiple times after whilst it remained on the big screens. But it wasn't until long after it’s release when I started to take a deeper interest in the film and the people behind it.

Michael Mann had previously earned his reputation as a director with successful films like The Last of The Mohicans, Thief and Hannibal Lector's first screen appearance in Manhunter but it's fair to say, his name as director wasn't remembered as well as names like Spielberg or Scorsese. It wasn't until Heat that really put Mann in the spotlight.

The story, script and screenplay was written by Mann himself, years before he even turned it into the TV movie, L.A. Takedown in 1989; which was possibly going to be a pilot for a TV saga much like his previously produced series, Miami Vice, making this in affect, a remake of his own film. Much of the TV film was watered-down, cutting a lot away from the original story and it wasn't until producer Art Linston read the full script and encourage Mann to make the big picture, big. With Heat being nearly 3hours long, it's almost double the length of the TV film indicating just how much was chopped away from the original story.

But what is probably more surprising to fans than this being a remake, is that the character's are actually based on real people. Robert De Niro's character, Neil McCauley was in fact a real life professional score taker from Chicago, having already served 25 years in prison with 8 of those years spent in Alcatraz and half of that in solidarity confinement. Al Pacino's Vincent Hanna was based on a former Chicago Detective and good friend of Mann, Chuck Adamson, who actually had a similar conversation with the real life McCauley to the one we encounter in the coffee shop scene. Though it's only the idea of them that form the basis of the characters. The rest is built by the behaviours layered on by Pacino and De Niro.

It's these two characters that brings this film together, but it's so much more than a 'cops and robbers' movie. The character development for both of these was incredible and alluring, having such a dynamic, it was hard for the audience to dislike either, respecting both characters equally making it near impossible to decide who you wanted to lose, or win in the end.

There's an interesting contrast between the two, with De Niro's McCauley being cool, reserved and careful, disciplined by a self-committed and militant ideal where as Pacino's Hanna is relentless, insatiable and unhinged at times and on the verge of being obsessed. But both being equally good at what they do, both bearing a passionate sense of duty as oppose to just being a job and surprisingly, honourably, they share a level of respect and admiration for one another.

Pitting two of the greatest tough guy actors against one another for the first time was quite the exciting spectacle. Yes, they were both in The Godfather: Part II, but they never shared a scene and Heat puts them together in one of the most iconic dialogue pieces in recent cinema history. That coffee shop scene was unrehearsed, a strong suggestion from De Niro so to enforce the unfamiliarity between the two.

The script was brilliant. Powerful, smart, often poetic at times and totally non-judgemental allowing the audience to relate to all of the characters to some degree. This was empowered by having the story encroach on the character's personal lives, their relationships making each of them very human. It's this complex melding of personalities that make the story so rich, which actually raises some interesting issues; particular the reformation of ex-convicts trying to return to society. Matters of the heart including the impact of the relationships of both sides of the law and what you are prepare to sacrifice. The choices we make, that balance of risk versus reward, regret versus promise, dealing with the consequences and living with the decisions we make. All of this from an action thriller.

It doesn't necessarily glorify criminals but it does provide an intriguing, and possible attractive look at the criminal underworld, the network of people and the honour among thieves. It's difficult to not admire the heists they pull off, their proficiency and intellect. You don't feel any less admiration for Hanna's Major Crime Unit, as they steadily try to close in on the gang.

The action is precise and tactical. The L.A. shoot out being incredibly intense in the cinema with the most realistic and deafening sound of gunfire and bullets hitting glass and metal. You're immersed into the scene; it's a rush; there's no hesitation, it's fast, slick and super exciting with some slow motion used only for dramatic effect. Mann wanted everything to be authentic and this included the cast's handling of the firearms used throughout the film. Former SAS Sgt. and novelist, Andy McNab served as technical advisor for the film, training the cast to shoot targets with live ammunition. It certainly worked, as Kilmer's clip-change during a shoot-out is used as an example by the US Marine Corp; much to Kilmer's ecstatic appreciation.

Mann's quest of authenticity didn't stop there. They researched real people relating to their character's as much as possible which involved Pacino and unit to wine and dine with some of LAPD's finest, going out on patrols. De Niro's gang visited convicted professional criminals in prison and also dined with some of LA's underworld. Even Ashley Judd and Diane Verona spent time interviewing wives of cops and robbers to gain insight of the characters they would be playing.

And to add to all this authenticity, Mann refrained from ever using a soundstage and filmed entirely on location, scouting key plots of Los Angeles that would serve as the stage for his story. Some of the scenes actually being filmed in undesirable locations such as a real illegal cockfighting yard that had neighbouring chop shops and the bank robbery sequence was filmed during the weekend. The coffee shop used for that famous scene was filmed in a real restaurant in Beverley Hills with the staff serving as extras; and fans could reserve that very same table at the Kate Mantilini, but sadly the restaurant closed in June 2014. (That was one for the bucketlist)

The city itself was very much a character in this film, the bloody arena which our characters will fight over. But amongst the violence are those moments of reflection and ambience with stunning shots showing the city's night scape. When I was doing my art A-Level, I choose to study art in film with McCauley's beach house scene being a prime example. I actually did an oil pastel picture of this particular shot and little did I know at the time, that that specific shot was inspired by Alex Colville's 1967 painting "Pacific" and is almost an exact copy.

This atmospheric scenery is solidified with an amazing score and soundtrack. One I bought immediately after my first viewing. It's my favourite work of Elliot Goldenthal, who created a tense and experimental score that is so different throughout. Going from sorrowful strings to almost horrifying ascending strings with a haunting guitar; and then there's the industrial crescendo at the bank job. The soundtrack too, was truly amazing and introducing me to a number of artists that I now adore. Lisa Gerrard of Gladiator fame being one of them, this film making me buy all her earlier work. I instantly fell in love with the ambient bluesy sound of Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal with his tracks "Mystery Man" and "Last Nite", musician innovator Michael Brook provides his "Ultramarine" track and if you listen carefully, you might recognise his invented Infinite Guitar sound, an instrument used by U2's The Edge; most notably on their track "With or Without You." U2 also appearing on the soundtrack with their song "Always Forever Now" and let's not forget the two Moby tracks used which was the strangely uplifting and sobering "God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters" and his more rockier "New Dawn Fades" which still gets used in movies today.

With an intricate story, powerhouse performances, incredible action sequences, attention to detail and a brilliant soundtrack, this will always remain as one of the best crime thrillers of all time. It's one of the rare gems where audiences are divided by who they want to win, some, like myself, never actually deciding. It's a grand example of the love and craftsmanship that's provided by a director who directing his own story as oppose to filming someone else's. It's Mann's Iliad, an epic crime saga, his best film to date and will always be the film he'll be remembered for.

Running Time: 10

The Cast: 10

Performance: 10

Direction: 10

Story: 10

Script: 9

Creativity: 10

Soundtrack: 10

Job Description: 10

The Extra Bonus Point: 10 for being the definitive crime thriller that gets everything right.

99% 10/10

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