Thursday, December 13, 2018

Reserved Seating: HEAT

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who will drop this column in 30 seconds flat if we feel the heat around the corner.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: It’s a big week for our All Pacino series, as we’re covering one of Al’s most raucous, ostentatious, and iconic performances: LAPD Lt. Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime thriller masterpiece, Heat. Already up to his knees in killers, rapists, bank robbers, and other deplorables, Lt. Hanna finds his greatest challenge yet in career criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), whose recent armored car heist has put him square in Hanna’s crosshairs. McCauley and his team (including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo) are good, Hanna thinks. Probably the best he’s ever seen. It’s going to take more sacrifices to his already-strained personal life — restless third wife Justine (Diane Venora) and troubled step-daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) — to take down this crew before they pull off their biggest score yet.

That’s just Hanna’s story, of course. Heat is a complex movie. Where do you want to start, Adam?

Adam: Heat might have been my most anticipated All Pacino. Like you, I think it’s fantastic. Let’s start with the hook of the movie, especially in 1995, which is the showdown between screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Though they had both played substantial roles in The Godfather Part II, Heat was the first movie where they shared screen time with one another. It’s a smart decision by the filmmakers to bank on their admiration of each other from afar and embed that into their characters. One of my favorite parts of Heat is the professional fandom Hanna and McCauley have for their opponent. I also love the workaday details of both the criminal and police element. Just like in Thief, it’s obvious that Michael Mann is well-versed in these worlds and it’s our good fortune as an audience that he’s also an incredible director and solid storyteller. Does this movie have a few convenient coincidences? Sure, but it hardly matters. That would be like criticizing a Beatles album because one song has a lyric you don’t adore.
I love Al Pacino in this movie, but Heat (especially on this viewing) is a movie I think Robert De Niro runs away with. His character is fascinating (and probably the more “Mann” of the two) and it’s one of my favorite types of De Niro roles which is the guy in control who is simmering very close to the surface. He’s played characters like this in other movies -- Stone, for example -- and he’s great at playing these types of ugly individuals who can very easily hide among the normal. Pacino is a hoot. His erratic performance enlivens the movie and somehow never detracts from it. It’s a magic trick how he’s able to get away with some of his crazy behavior without it disrupting the rhythm of the rest of the movie. Heat is an appetizer platter of movie delights. There are so many different flavors and they’re all equally enjoyable. Plus, Waingro (Kevin Gage) is the scariest character I’ve ever seen in the movie. I’m not being hyperbolic. I’ve mentioned this many times in the past.

Rob: Pacino’s erratic behavior works because the movie is on such confident, self-assured roller coaster tracks that his energy seems entirely appropriate and never distracting. I totally agree about De Niro, though. One of his core acting strengths is his ability to mull over options and make decisions over the span of a few short facial expressions (the moment when he decides to turn around and go after Waingro being the prime example), and he’s doing so much of that in his role as a leader to these men. He’s so good. You know what it’s like? It’s like Smokey and the Bandit: Al’s Burt Reynolds in the blocker car, cracking wise and attracting all the attention, but De Niro’s in the big rig hauling the priceless booze.

Adam: Who are some of your favorite characters in this film’s large ensemble cast? P.S. I saw this movie for the first time in theaters at age 13 and I remember really getting into the showdown aspect of the film. I would say to myself “Ok, it’s Pacino v. De Niro, Kilmer v. Levine, Sizemore v. Williamson, Trejo v. Studi.” I was a dork. Do you think Sizemore’s character thought he was De Niro’s no. 2 and in denial that it was really Kilmer?

Rob: I feel like Sizemore knew that Kilmer would eventually implode, so he was doing the legwork now with the hopes that it would pay off later. Anyway, there are so many great minor parts in this movie. I love that Mann asked Hank Azaria to come in and play a complete asshole. Like, how does it feel to get that call? And what’s that guy’s story? He acts like it’s such an inconvenience to fly to L.A. and hang out with Ashley Judd for an hour. I like Ted Levine as the sidekick detective who’s all over his wife at that dinner party, too. That’s a side story we need to explore. My favorite minor part is probably Xander Berkeley, though. I think the ultimate lesson of Heat is that if you work too much overtime, Xander Berkeley will sleep with your wife.
Seriously, though. Aside from our two leads, I found myself a big fan of Diane Venora as Justine on this rewatch. It’s hard to convey annoyance and frustration as “the wife” character in a movie like this without playing it big and angry, trying to match speed with such a hyped-up, testosterone-fueled cast. Venora doesn’t do that, though. I like that Justine knows how to counterbalance Hanna’s intensity with quiet persistence and gives it to him straight when she’s had enough. Their last moment together in the hospital waiting room after he tells her he’s not sure if they’ll stay together is really great. She stares off for a beat and says, “Okay, well. You need to go.” It’s not angry or resentful. It’s composed and intelligent. Accepting. I liked that a lot. How about you?

Adam: I have a few favorites: Ted Levine (who was originally supposed to play a bad guy but requested his cop role to avoid typecasting), Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Amy Brenneman, and Dennis Haysbert. I love the arc they give to Haysbert’s getaway driver. It’s so compelling and it makes a strong impression in just a few brief scenes. It’s like this beautiful little tragedy within the larger story. One of Heat’s greatest strengths is that every character matters and the actors and filmmakers know who these people are and how they are before the story even started. I have really grown to appreciate Amy Brenneman’s character. I hear sometimes about how lonely being a L.A. resident can be and I feel that with her. She’s totally alone and weak by circumstance, but shows some resolve once she learns Neil lied to her. I love that one of her first responses is to ask not just when he’ll let her leave, but if he’d let her leave later because she’s undecided. It says a lot about her character in a single line of dialogue.

We need to talk about the bank robbery, the music score, and the ending. SPOILERS for Heat: Do you think the film would make more sense thematically for Neil and Vincent to have shot each other at the end and they both die? The current ending is good, but it feels like a coin flip or oddly optimistic for a director like Michael Mann. I bet if this were William Friedkin directing, De Niro would have gotten away with Pacino winding up on the short end.

Rob: I actually like that McCauley is the one who goes down. I feel like Hanna had more to gain by learning from McCauley’s mistake and living to try to fix his home life. McCauley’s double whammy of going back for Waingro and leaving Eady behind showed that his self-destructive tendencies weren’t going to change, so I think the “I’m not going back to prison” ending was more appropriate for his character. I agree that it’s a bit more optimistic than we’re used to from Mann, but it works thematically. Hanna needed the incentive to change, to see what it means to be truly alone. Plus, McCauley’s death scene is so powerful and romantic. Hanna admired this man — he knew that the difference between them was just a matter of degrees — and he wanted to make sure that he was the one who saw McCauley through to his end. I think McCauley appreciated that, too. It’s the ultimate sign of mutual respect.

What are your thoughts on the bank heist? I was reading a bit about how often other directors cite it when talking about their approach to staging action. It’s this wonderful, triumphant exhale of all the tension that has built throughout the movie.
Adam: The bank heist is great action cinema, plain and simple. The score (by Elliot Goldenthal) during this sequence beautifully underscores the precision and tension of the scene (I also really love his opening and closing theme) and the robbery spilling out into the streets is thrilling. I read in the IMDB trivia that the way De Niro & team retreats in the gunfight is used as a case study for Marines to learn how to act under fire and that ties into one of my favorite details about this movie that I never noticed before. Hanna and McCauley are both Marines (it’s said in a line of dialogue about Pacino and De Niro has a Marine Corps tattoo), which I think adds a layer to their respect for each other and also inform their exactness and skill. It’s such a throwaway thing, but little details like this make a difference.

Rob: I never knew that! I read somewhere that Pacino played Hanna as a cocaine addict, but I missed the Marine thing entirely. That plays even more into the “two sides of the same coin” dynamic between them. Speaking of which, can we mention The Diner Scene real quick? I use it as an example when I teach screenwriting (along with the adrenaline shot scene from Pulp Fiction), and I may have it memorized, at this point. My favorite line reading is Al going, “No I do naaahht.” It’s like Tommy Wiseau with talent.

Adam: I love the scene. I wish it were longer. It’s a long movie so I wish this scene took more advantage of the extra time. It’s one of those great movie moments where the director, the actors and the audience all want this scene so bad and it delivers. My favorite part is when Hanna confides in McCauley about how messed up his stepdaughter is by her father. It’s the type of thing you’re more comfortable telling to a stranger or a psychologist than a close confidant or spouse. Just another good, interesting detail. I want Hanna and McCauley to have a podcast together. Anything else you want to say about Heat? Mark Ahn for me obviously.
Rob: And me. One of my first pieces for F This Movie! was a little dissection of the movie’s themes of loneliness and loose ends, so I’ll just direct our readers to that and close by saying that Heat rules. It rules so hard that I put the Blu-ray in my player, pressed play, and stood in front of my TV for the first half hour without even consciously realizing it. I got lost in Heat right away — a movie I’ve seen at least ten to fifteen times now — which is all I can ask for. What are we tackling next week?

Adam: Next week we’re going to take a look back at Reserved Seating 2018 - go over the highlights, the memes, talk about reviews we stand by, what we’d re-do, etc. It’ll be fun! Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. This is a great article, guys. I love this movie, and Rob, I hope you'll notice that I commented the LAST time you wrote about it as well. Because, I have a question for you two that I don't want you to take the wrong way, and it's this: Does Pacino's performance in Heat only work because he's Al Pacino? If any other actor had moments like "GIVE ME ALL YOU GOT!", "...killed walking your DOGGIE", "Cause she's got a GREAT ASS...", etc., wouldn't we just call it a terrible performance? I love Al Pacino, but there are sections of this movie where it feels like Michael Mann just threw his hands up and went, "Okay. I guess that's what we're going to get." Your thoughts?

    1. I see your point. I think there's a few other actors that could pull it off (e.g. Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty), but I'm definitely enjoying it in a persona way.

    2. Thanks for both comments, Mookie! I agree with Adam that while there are other actors who could do it, Al makes it special because he's Al.

      I think it's easy to dismiss the performance as over-the-top for the sake of it (not saying you're doing that, but many do), but I honestly feel like the extremity of the performance is true to Hanna's struggle to cope with the brutality of his job. Instead of communicating and commiserating with his wife in a healthy, balanced way (the exact way she requests), he's firing off these bursts of built-up angst and energy at other people in his life. It's one of the self-destructive tenancies that he (hopefully) arcs through by the end of the film. In that way, it works really well for me.

  2. I'm with you Adam on Waingro. An unbelievably terrifying character. Even the less showy scene when he's just at a bar gathering info, he's so fully realized and "real" feeling. Why is Kevin Gage not in every movie?

    Also I'll never forget the moment Rob mentions where De Niro makes the decision to turn around. In Mann's commentary he refers to the character's thoughts as reflected by De Niro's expressions: "celebratory nihilistic aggression", which is probably the most Michael Manniest thing I've ever heard. So cool!

    1. "Celebratory nihilistic aggression" is incredible, and Kevin Gage isn't in every movie because he's obviously a volatile psychopath. I grew up with scary dudes like that.

  3. Dang, I also saw this in the theatre when I was 12 or 13, twice solo then I took a date. She was immediately bored but I didn't have much time to talk or make out because Heat was playing. Afterwards when we were waiting ouitside for her Mom to pick us uip I said something like, "so did you feel the Heat"? She didn't.

    Haven't seen it in forever, but I used to see it all the time on the double VHS. Can't wait to watch it now, thanks guys!

  4. Thank you for the write up, Misters Riske and DiCristino! I have seen this film many times, but not for a long time, and had a lot of fun tonight revisiting it thanks to your column. The cast, acting, directing, score, story, LA backdrop, action, angst, all so good.

    Some things to ponder, though, because I’m a negative guy:
    1. “One of Heat’s greatest strengths is that every character matters.” Henry Rollins’s and Hank Azaria’s characters absolutely didn’t need to be in this movie, though I’m glad they were.
    2. Why sell the bonds back to Van Zantz?! Seems like asking for trouble.
    3. Despite McCauley’s 30 second rule, everyone in his crew but him is happily and dangerously attached, and he almost so.
    4. Danny Trejo’s character’s name is Trejo? Come on.

    These issues float through my mind while watching, because it’s a darn long movie and I have lots of time to think. But I love it nonetheless.