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Michael Mann is a director who works hard to make every frame of his movies look good. Consequently his films have always been visual treats, even when the story or characters have been weak. With each succeeding film he seems to be shoring up his weaknesses, with last year’s Collateral being his best effort to date. Now his mid-90’s opus, Heat, has been re-released on DVD as a 2-Disk Special Edition. Where does Heat fit in Mann’s maturation as a filmmaker?
Heat tells the story of professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), and his crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo) who pull off an armored car heist which ends with the deaths of three security guards thanks to the loose-cannon actions of new crewmember Waingro (Kevin Gage). A verbal slip-up by Waingro also gives tenacious policeman Lt. Hanna (Al Pacino) the lead he needs to track this crew down.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? However this conventional-sounding story line does not hint at the incredible detail and rich characterization of the entire movie. For instance, one difference between Heat and more standard cops-and-robbers fare are the stories of the women they love (and who try to love them back), and the look at why being a good cop or a good robber just doesn’t lead to a stable home life. The characters are not black and white, either. Although there is a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys, Mann presents these men and women without judgment and allows us to empathize with everyone.
Heat is more than the sum of its parts. The movie might seem too long, the plot might seem formulaic, Pacino tends to overdo it in his portrayal of his flawed but fascinating character, and sometimes the characters seem motivated to do things simply because it’s in the script but, despite these problems, I truly enjoyed the hell out of Heat. Its biggest selling point is most likely putting De Niro (whose intense portrayal of a rigid professional thief is uniform throughout the movie) and Pacino together, but I was also impressed with the cast that surrounded these men, including Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Dennis Haysbert, Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, and a young Natalie Portman. The movie also features many other interesting actors, like William Fichtner, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria, Xander Berkely, and Henry Rollins (!). I’m sure I missed a few.
Also, despite Heat’s length, the movie never seems boring. To expand on what I said earlier about the women characters, while sometimes they did things that made little sense to me, I was happy to see that there were any women at all in Heat. Usually women in these types of hyper-masculine movies exist simply to prove that the men are heterosexual. Here they do things according to their own motivations and influence the motivations and actions of the men involved with them and vice versa. For the most part their frustrations and loyalty (or lack thereof) seems genuine and adds to the overall empathy I felt for all of the characters.
I mentioned earlier about how Mann works hard to make everything in his movies look gorgeous, and Heat is no exception. Just about any random frame from this film could be used as a poster shot and this transfer showcases the meticulous colors and shadings Mann chooses. He does not neglect the sounds in his movies either – one sequence in particular stands out when a violent shooting match occurs during a bank robbery. The sound quality truly shines on this DVD, and the bullets, car crashes, and tire screeches all seemed to ring out in my living room as I watched it. The quiet moments are good, too, as I was able to easily understand the quietest conversations. One of Micheal Mann’s trademarks is unusual scores, and Elliot Goldenthal’s unique scoring is used to good effect and never sounds obtrusive.
Heat was first released on DVD in 1999 with absolutely no extras. This new release makes up for that lack of extras with a vengeance. The nicest addition is a director’s commentary. For the most part it is fascinating but at many times it tends to drag. Mann’s voice is low-key and after three hours it can get draining. One nice side effect of listening to it however is the chance to spend some time just looking at the meticulous cinematography.
The second disc is dedicated to a series of making-of documentaries as well as some deleted scenes. The documentaries delve deeply into the processes of making this movie and are interesting and welcome additions to help the viewer further appreciate Heat. For instance one documentary details the research done on the criminal and police aspects of the characters. I was surprised by one ex-policeman who was talking about the real-live Neil McCauley and the respect he had for him. As I said this respect rang false to me in the movie but this real cop was truly impressed with the robber.
Like I said before, the whole of Heat is more than the sum of its parts. Despite its flaws and its almost too long epic length, this movie is one I could watch many times. I’m not so sure it’s worth a double-dip if you already have the bare-bones edition or not – it would depend on whether you are a bonus feature junkie or how big of a fan you are of Michael Mann’s films. On the other hand, if you do not own this movie yet, this edition is the way to go. Heat is a tasty cinematic treat in which you should definitely indulge.
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