HEAT - DVD review

I wonder if Pacino and De Niro flipped a coin before the movie began filming to see which of them would play which part?

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: John wrote the primary review, and Eddie wrote the rest of the review.

John Says...:
The centerpiece of "Heat" is a raging gun battle outside a city bank between police lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his army of cops and mastermind Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his gang of robbers. It's one of the scenes viewers will remember most, but action and adventure are not the only elements in this harrowing, nearly three-hour crime saga.

Of equal importance and getting equal attention are the personal lives of the two adversaries and their relationship with one another. It is a lengthy, violent, yet reflective film that perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew. Still, it's an effective thriller that provides intimate portraits of its cops and robbers. By casting two of the world's best actors in the starring roles, writer-director Michael Mann ("Manhunter," "Thief," "The Last of the Mohicans") almost pulls it off.

The first character we meet is Hanna, the policeman. He's having another bad day. His wife (Diane Venora) is about to leave him, his stepdaughter is having a breakdown, and an armed robbery with multiple murders has just been pulled off on his beat. He's a guy whose job is his life. He's tough, restless, jumpy, and more than a little over the edge. To emphasize these attributes, Pacino's performance is more than a little over the top, too. He spends a good deal of his time shouting at people. We're never sure if his character is so moody he's overreacting to every situation, or if Pacino himself is just overacting. In either event, it works fine, making Hanna a more complex fellow than most cops in these kinds of dramas.

McCauley, on the hand, is cool, calm, and calculating as the super crook who pulls off big-scale heists. De Niro's performance is deliberately understated to set off Pacino's high-strung behavior. McCauley is single; in his occupation attachments are a hazard. As he is fond of saying, "Allow nothing in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner." But he, too, finds his existence cold without personal bonds. He meets a young woman in a library, a graphic designer named Eady (Amy Brenneman), with whom he falls in love. She almost makes him forget his favorite dictum.

The third major character in the film is Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), a friend and accomplice of McCauley. Chris is married, and like Hanna is having marital problems directly related to his work. Chris's wife (Ashley Judd) understands him better than Hanna's wife understands her husband, but it's of small consolation. Good or bad, the men in this story place their business ahead of their family or their private affairs. McCauley and Shiherlis's job is to rob stuff. Hanna's job is to stop them. They are men obsessed.

In spite of having two high-profile stars in the same movie, Mann puts Pacino and De Niro together in only a couple of scenes. Their most notable is a brief conversation that they have in a coffee shop in which they reveal how much alike their characters really are. Both men have killed, but neither man is a killer. Both men are dedicated and smart. Both men have chosen a dangerous and unpopular line of work. Both men are consumed by their profession. Both men are doing their job. When they part, one can sense they have a grudging respect and maybe even admiration for one another.

As much as I liked the little scene between Pacino and De Niro, it is the film's action sequences that stand out. The previously mentioned bank holdup is a good example. It's a long, brutal, drawn-out ordeal filled with constant tumult and danger. The camera never stops moving and the excitement never flags for an instant. Other tension-filled scenes take place in the lot of an abandoned drive-in theater; in a precious metals depository; and at an airport hotel.

Mann allows the quieter, transitional scenes to go on too long and lingers on too many peripheral details with minor characters, permitting the film to expand about a half an hour or more beyond what could have been a tighter story. Yet as I've said, the movie has its own rewards, which also include actors Tom Sizemore and Jon Voight in supporting roles.

I wonder if Pacino and De Niro flipped a coin before the movie began filming to see which of them would play which part? It could easily have gone either way. But as both of them contend during the course of the film, "You don't want to know." It's a good film. That's all we need to know.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image needs some clean-up work. The transfer often looks too soft, and some colors look washed out. Moreover, you can often see print damage, dust, dirt, and hairs. I don't know why this movie--barely ten years old and so beloved--looks like it has been treated with neglect, but the video is little better than the video on Warner's previous one-disc release.

For me, the Dolby Digital 5.1 English sound design is subtly impressive. The famous street battle actually sounds hollow and lacking in oomph to me. However, the tiny details are all there. Take, for instance, the final confrontation at the airport. As Pacino and DeNiro work their way through a maze of power generators, you can hear an electrical buzzing emanating from the rear speakers.

There's a DD 5.1 French dub. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.

I have to say that this two-disc special edition of "Heat" is very disappointing. Warner Bros. bothered to re-release the movie without giving viewers stuff worth watching more than once. I mean, we could've been given "L.A. Takedown", the TV movie that Mann directed several years before he re-made it as "Heat". (Mann has said that "L.A. Takedown" was a rehearsal for "Heat".) For the most part, what we do get is informational but dry and brief.

--Disc 1--
I've never found Michael Mann to be an engaging talker when he's by himself, and the audio commentary by him on Disc 1 is no different from other Mann snoozefests. Mann says a lot of things that are found in the extras on Disc 2, and a good deal of his other comments are of the "in this scene, this happens" variety. I actually found myself more engaged by the DVD's three theatrical trailers than by the audio commentary.

--Disc 2--
"The Making of ‘Heat'" is a three-part overview of the background information that Michael Mann collected to form his screenplay. There are some interviews with members of the cast and crew, and we see some footage of the actors practicing using weapons in some deserted area before shooting the street battle in downtown Los Angeles.

"Pacino and DeNiro: The Conversation" is a superficial breakdown of the historic meeting of Pacino and DeNiro in a movie. Mann and others talk about using a lot of different cameras to capture Pacino and DeNiro simultaneously so that their shot/reverse-shot reactions would be from the same takes. However, we don't see any of that footage but instead see footage from the final cut of the movie (which we can see just by watching the movie itself!). Still, at least we get confirmation that the actors were indeed on the set at the same time talking to each other (as opposed to being shot separately as some have theorized).

"Return to the Scene of the Crime" is a featurette that follows location scouts returning to places where they decided would represent Mann's conception of an industrial L.A.

Finally, there are deleted/alternate/extended scenes that are mildly interesting but not eye-opening. Considering that the movie was about four-hours long during the editing stage, I'm sure that there are good deleted scenes that could've been included in this set.

A cardboard slipcase replicating the DVD cover art slides over the slim double-keepcase, though you don't get any inserts or booklets with this package.

Eddie Says...:
Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995) is the movie that Martin Scorsese has wanted to make all his life. Unlike similar Scorsese movies such as "Goodfellas" and "Gangs of New York", "Heat" is sprawling but not messy, detailed but not short-sighted, aggressive but not loutish, and impassioned but not bombastic. Mann is a modernist and a visual stylist, but his art-for-art's-sake choices never strike me as over-the-top or annoying as Scorsese's do. For comparison, watch the confusing, headache-inducing, and ultimately uninvolving opening and closing street battles in "Gangs of New York" and put them next to the thrilling, well-orchestrated street battles in "Heat".

"Heat" made its reputation with its grandness--sweeping camera moves, dynamic music selections, an impressive assemblage of talented actors, and, of course, stunning gun fights that rank amongst the best-ever action sequences. Yet, what really makes the movie worth watching repeatedly are the small, intimate moments between only two or three characters. Mann isn't given enough credit for the movie's rich, literate dialogue. Lines like

"I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I need to be."


"You search for signs of passing...the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're committed to--the rest is the mess you leave as you pass through."

are powerful descriptions of our contemporary alienation. Since Pacino and DeNiro--the two titans in the cast--don't even talk to each other much, the heavy lifting resides on many shoulders. Pacino and Diane Venora are a memorable couple, as are Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd. Pacino's playful interactions with his police colleagues are also memorable, especially when you know the cost in lives that hunting DeNiro and Co. takes.

"Heat" is Michael Mann's masterpiece. It is one of the few movies that inspire me because its greatness makes me believe that something close to perfection is possible.


Film Value