'Heat,' a film of epic proportions on a common placed scale, provides all the essentials of a great crime drama and then some. With a fascinating storyline, involving characters, and Mann's sometimes poetic, sometimes gritty directing, 'Heat' is arguably one of the best crime dramas.
Perhaps the most unique feature of this movie is its manifold storyline, which focuses primarily on the main characters: Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. Because of this complex storyline, it almost seems as if one is watching two movies, with one about each of the two characters. While following Hanna's personal life, the movie shows how it is about more than just a cop in pursuit of a criminal. Hanna's marriage is deteriorating, his step daughter is falling apart, and, as wife Justine says, he lives his life more among the "remnants of dead people." A man of two other failed marriages, Hanna's story is that of the strain of trying to fulfill both his professional and personal, where, every time, the professional wins out. Neil McCauley's story is that of a man who used to know his role: his job. Everything in his life revolved around making the next score (whether it be large or small). His story chronicles his relationships with the other men in his crew, and his relationship with Eady, his girlfriend who does not know all she should about him. The tensions build as Mann shows the two opposing strategies of each man as their paths (and thus their stories) draw closer together. When the two storylines do meet (at different points in the movie), the result is--for lack of a better word--epic. To say that these two major storylines are the only strong ones of the movie would do injustice to the many others (following Chris and his wife, for example); but to say that they are the driving force of the movie, to say that they are responsible for transforming a typical cops-and-robbers story is the best explanation.
In addition, the characters in this movie undoubtedly make it so successful. This cast comes as close as possible to being ensemble with two such huge main characters. And the cast is one of the best, at that. DeNiro. Little more needs to be said. Ever the master, his character, McCauley, can be on the one hand a ruthless robber and cold-hearted killer, on the other a warm friend and tender lover. And, despite his life of crime, McCauley's human side shows through. He will not kill unless he must, as seen through his anger at Waingro and bank heist. His warmer side shows through his relationships with his friends and girlfriend Eady. Pacino. Equally without need of praise. As always, he delivers an intense performance, here as Hanna, a workaholic obsessed with catching his man, while also fighting a
losing battle to save his personal relationships. He may seem just the harsh cop, but he cares about every man under his command, about his stepdaughter, and, yes, even about McCauley. Through Hanna, Pacino shows just how torn such a man can be. Hanna demonstrates both coldness and compassion, both anger and sensitivity. Additionally strong is Val Kilmer, as Chris Shiherlis; with a raging temper, undying devotion, and a fierce will to persevere. Kilmer does an excellent job with the character of a flawed individual, whose flaws prevent him from lasting contentment, but against which flaws he continually strives. Ashley Judd is an unforgettable Charlene Shiherlis, who, despite a smaller roll, makes a lasting impression on the film. Tom Sizemore, as the implacable Michael Cheritto, and Jon Voight, as a gruff Nate, are both likeable (because of their human sides) and despicable (because of their professions). Each does excellent work. And equally fine are Diane Venora, as Justine, and Natalie Portman, as Justine's daughter Lauren. As Venora is strong opposite Pacino, so Amy Brenneman, Eady, is an equally strong opposite of DeNiro. In a cast so full of big names, it is so rewarding to see everyone come together to make the characters each have their own place in the film.
And Michael Mann's direction of the movie keeps the film moving while providing a tremendous combination of action and drama. He moves from scene to scene quickly and effortlessly. He also switches between the many storylines logically and fluidly, none of the story being lost. Each scene leaves its own, unmistakable impression, and each scene of each storyline builds upon the previous. Action scenes are handles crisply but grittily. The gunshots are loud, the blood is abundant, but Mann wisely does not linger on the horror of the moment. He paints a realistic picture, but keeps to the topic. The action never becomes more important than the drama. Mann is also responsible for what is perhaps the greatest robbery scene ever. Here, his more gritty sense of style is what makes this scene so believable. And, despite the enormous cast, Mann was still able to keep his agenda clear, and orchestrate so much talent into a coherent movie. Michael Mann deserves credit for both his vision and ability to express it.
Because of these and other well done aspects, 'Heat' is one of the most powerful crime dramas ever made.