Heat (1995): Michael Mann

More than 20 years after appearing in The Godfather: Part II, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally appeared together on screen. To drive home the point, both were credited on screen in the opening titles.

Heat hit theaters between Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans and The Insider. Each film is memorable for its uniqueness and Mann’s particular brand of camera work.

And yes, this movie nearly reaches three hours, but three compelling hours, wrapped around an all-time great gun fight.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A cop and robber find themselves more alike than not, try to kill each other anyway. 

Hero (7/10)

Al Pacino has made a career of playing ruthless characters, many villainous. In Heat he plays a cop, a troubled cop, but a man who wants to win, whatever the cost.

We first meet Lt. Detective Vincent Hanna as he makes love to his third wife Justine (Diane Venora). He’s a man of passion, but don’t be fooled, his passion is for catching bad guys.

He’s distant to his wife, who believes he doesn’t share things with her, only stonewalls. “I got three dead bodies off Venice Boulevard,” he says to that. She wants him to open up about that?

That doesn’t make Hanna an uncaring man. Preceding this fight he asks, not about his wife, but about her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman). Did her dad pick her up? Is she upset? Those things.

Later, when Lauren attempts suicide, she picks Hanna’s hotel bathtub to do it in. Hanna’s caring of the girl is well received, if not by the girl’s mother.

On the homefront, Hanna is living a dichotomous life, clashing with his wife when not making love to her. But Heat‘s primary conflict is between Pacino and Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley. Hanna first encounters McCauley’s work investigating an armored truck heist.

Hanna absorbs the murder scene. “Drop of a hat these guys rock and roll,” he says. He also does that thing all detectives do where they rapidly delegate investigatory tasks, but Pacino does it in what feels like slow motion, a manner only Pacino could deliver.

McCauley intrigues Hanna; the detective knows the criminal is the best he’s yet seen. Hanna laughs when realizing he’s been made while standing on the grounds of container facility.

Toward the end, after Lauren attempts suicide, Hanna comforts the mother, his now-estranged wife. He pledges to stay, even through an emergency page (remember pagers?). Justine tells him to answer the call. Cut to Hanna saying, “All I am is what I’m going after,” and running down the stairs like a child on Christmas morning.

That moment proved everything that Justine complained about. Hanna tried, three times, a domestic life. He can’t do it. McCauley lives the life, albeit on the wrong side of the law, that Hanna wants.

Hanna’s wishes don’t obstruct his duty. During the scene midway through Heat in the coffee shop, Hanna warns McCauley that he will take him out. “But I won’t like it,” he says. Before the meeting, he wouldn’t have cared.

Hanna lives life on the edge. He cannot function as a detective unless he does this. Hanna likes to “hold on to my angst, because I need it. It keeps me sharp on the edge where I got to be,” he says edgily.

That edginess is exactly what he needs to track McCauley to their ultimate showdown.

Villain (8/10)

McCauley hesitates more than Hanna to accept a friendship. He offers a similar warning to Hanna. Should the detective box in McCauley, “I will not hesitate, not for one second,” McCauley says, to kill Hanna.

Neil McCauley is a man with a singular mission: never go back to prison. He often alludes to his mysterious mentor, a man who said that criminals should have no attachments in life, nothing they can’t walk away from in thirty seconds if they feel the heat around the corner. When pressed on this belief he says, “I’m alone; I am not lonely.”

In the end McCauley tests that theory. Earlier in Heat he and his crew try to steal some precious metals. McCauley keeps watch outside the building. He hears the bang of a gun touching a metal truck wall. That’s all he needs. He pulls his guys out and they flee. The scene proved that McCauley lived as he spoke.

De Niro wears a goatee of intimidation. His hair is swept back but poofed, giving his face an elongated, trapezoidal look that proves he means business. I can’t explain it, but you look at the guy and you don’t want to mess.

Few actors can intimidate like De Niro, and whoever cooked up his look nailed it. Not sonce Taxi Driver has De Niro appeared as physically intimidating as he does in Heat.

McCauley seems to be one of Los Angeles’s all time successful criminals. He’s done time, but not for armed robbery. The LAPD has never seen him before, despite knowing much about his two associates.

McCauley’s kept a low profile. His paranoia and laser focus spook him of everyone he meets. Eady (Amy Brenneman) chats him up in a diner beside her bookstore. McCauley’s been coming there a lot and never noticed her, unusual for a career criminal. She asks him about his book purchase, and he seems a hair’s breadth from stabbing her with a fork and escaping.

But he doesn’t. Instead he falls for her, tries to get her to take a trip to New Zealand. (All the best bank robbers want to go to New Zealand. Remember Bhodi from Point Break?)

Eady has her reservations. He’s secretive. Is he married? “Last thing I am is married,” he says. Open, no; loyal, yes. He pays for his friend Chris Shiherlis’s (Val Kilmer) lifestyle, like a father figure. He avenges his friend Trejo’s death, despite the obvious violation of his non-attachment code.

McCauley chooses vengeance over escape. On his way to the airport, escape plan in effect, he diverts to kill Waingro, the jerk who tipped off the cops to the bank robbery. That choice leads to his death, but that’s OK because, as he tells Hanna, “Told you I’m never going back.”

Action/Effects (9/10)

Heat is a tense character portrayal off two similar men on opposite sides of the law. The two men and their best backup show down in the gunfight of the decade.

McCauley and crew walk inside Far East National Bank. This is the home to the $12 million proverbial last big score. Their driver is a new guy, someone McCauley met in the pen, played by future 24 president Dennis Haysbert.

Simultaneously the trio attacks the security guards and puts on masks. Except for Shiherlis, though that doesn’t matter to him. McCauley mounts a dividing wall and shouts, “Your money is insured by the federal government.” They are taking the bank’s money, not the people’s money. Does anyone believe this?

If so, they are keeping quiet about it. Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) watches while Shiherlis and McCauley bag up millions in cash. Within minutes the three walk out the door.

Hanna has received a tip from a criminal informant about the robbery. He and some backup drive to the bank. They exit their cars heavily armed and proceed on foot. I guess there was too much traffic?

Cheritto and McCauley enter the waiting car with their bags. Shiherlis is last to the car door and smiling. Then he spots two cops across the street.

McCauley-like, Shiherlis doesn’t hesitate, dropping the bag and opening machine gun fire on the two. Soon all four robbers are in the car and speeding away.

One cop is dead. Others shoot out a tire on the getaway car. Another shoots the driver dead.

The remaining robbers exit the car with their bags slung over their backs. Their guns are every bit as powerful as what the cops shoot. The gunfire booms like cannons in the streets.

Cars are chopped like salad. More cops get shot. The police box in the robbers. Sometimes the camera ducks when the robbers duck. If any civilians are dying we aren’t seeing it.

Shiherlis is the first robber shot. McCauley goes to him and fireman carries him into a neighboring grocery store parking lot. Hanna carries a shotgun and follows. Somehow he got far away from them and he has to run.

Many shoppers scatter screaming from the hail of bullets. McCauley doesn’t care who he shoots at. Milk bottles explode. Hanna begs people to get down and away while shooting back at McCauley.

McCauley steals a Ford Taurus and drives away. The action shifts to a plaza, where Cheritto has fled. He sprays bullets everywhere.

A frightened child stands near Cheritto. He grabs her. “Come here you little squirt,” he MIGHT have said. Probably not, but something similar.

Hanna runs up a ramp on the opposite end and stares down his gun barrel. Cheritto turns. Hanna doesn’t hesitate. Cheritto falls, dead.

The gun fight was a wordless exchange of hundreds of rounds in a city street. The bank robbers mechanically, maniacally, attacked the cops. They knew they would have to shoot their way out or die trying, and never did they have to say so.

The length and power of the fight makes it one of the best gunfights in the 1990s.

Sidekicks (1/8)

Hanna goes it alone throughout Heat. He tries to live a normal life, but he can’t do any of that right. Justine is tired of his distance.

He has no skill in domestic arts. Late in the movie he arrives home to find a distant Justin preparing to go “out.” Without him. Despondent, he starts to wash the unwashed dishes. Hanna turns on the water, takes a look at the dishes and gives up.

Next morning he catches his wife and her paramour, the latter watching HIS TV. That sets Hanna off. He attempts to break the TV, but moves it around like a monkey toying with an advanced tool. Even domestic rage is too much for Hanna.

The detective has underlings, but they barely help. Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson) leads a team using Mrs. Shiherlis (Ashley Judd) to flush out Mr. Shiherlis. It works, but she tips off her husband. Drucker is fooled.

While surveilling the precious metals heist, a cop stooge itching for action sits down. The gun strapped to his back bangs against the wall of the truck, tipping McCauley, who calls off the heist.

Hanna kills McCauley with zero help from his family and colleagues. His wits and drive were enough to do the job.

Henchmen (5/8)

McCauley has plenty of help. His top aide is Chris Shiherlis, played by the insanely coiffed Val Kilmer. Shiherlis doesn’t believe in McCauley’s code. For him the “sun rises and sets” with his wife and child.

Shiherlis is a t-shirt-tucked-in-unbelted-jeans kind of badass. But he has a gambling problem. It drives him to sleep on McCauley’s floor and drives his wife into the arms of Hank Azaria. Professor Frink? That would piss me off, too.

Shiherlis is the doer of the team. He’s the guy drilling holes in walls. He’s the guy buying bomb supplies and making ’em. He likes getting involved, mixing it up, a man of passion.

Tom Sizemore plays the freewheeling Cheritto. He’s a braggart, and his bragging leads Hanna to him and to McCauley. He also seems to be the guy who brought the neo-Nazi Waingro aboard, and that helped do in everyone as well.

Both of these guys are loyal to McCauley. Their boss presents them with a chance to walk away from the $12 million bank job. They consider it, but they trust McCauley’s plan and join him.

And when it goes down in the streets, they don’t hesitate. Shiherlis spots a cop and immediately shoots at them, and for minutes more, until he’s shot.

Cheritto collects a child from a plaza to fend off his pursuers. That choice ends his life, but he went out hardcore. These are men in McCauley’s own image.

Stunts (2/6)

I was hoping for a car chase or a fistfight. Heat is not that kind of movie.Mann chose to focus on the domestic lives of his two lead characters, cutting lengthy chase scenes instead.

McCauley steals a Taurus, Hall of fame car of the ’90s, and drives away with the trunk open. No chase.

The opening robbery is the best stunt of the movie. McCauley steals an ambulance and uses that to block in the armored truck and to get away from the scene.

The camera tracks beside the huge tow truck that rams and flips the armored truck onto its side. The truck slides into a used car dealership, smashing cars from 1988. The shot stays with the truck long enough for us to see the dealership streamers float to the ground.

Shiherlis attaches a makeshift bomb to the plated door. It explodes and shatters the windshields of the cars for sale, tragically undermining their resale value.

Wait, does running a lot count as a stunt? Maybe for Pacino and De Niro. They ran across most of the tarmac at LAX, an enormous airport.

Climax (4/6)

McCauley is tipped to Waingro’s wherabouts; he’s staying in a suite in a hotel abutting LAX. For several moments McCauley considers the likelihood of avenging Trejo’s death and getting away.

To capture his prey, McCauley enters the hotel and pulls the fire alarm. If I’ve learned anything from movies, it’s that a lot a fire alarms precede murders. Next time you find yourself in a public place and you hear alarm bells, it could be someone coming for you.

Waingro learned this trick from before. As the rest of the hotel guests, and the cops watching Waingro’s door, flee, Waingro, wearing only a robe, stays inside.

A friendly security guard tries to get him to leave, but Waingro refuses. That security guard, turns out, ain’t friendly. It’s McCauley kicking in the room door.

Waingro falls back onto the fancy couch after McCauley clocks his nose with a pistol. McCauley blasts him in the chest, an entry wound between the wings of the racist eagle tattooed on his chest.

One cop waits outside and draws a gun on McCauley. The master criminal throws up his hands, steps back, turns, and bashes the cop’s knee and stomach with the flashlight.

Outside is chaos. Hanna approaches in a helicopter and is let on the ground. A good shot shows a flood of people fleeing the hotel and Hanna the lone person against the grain.

The next few minutes are mostly dialogue free. The kinetic energy of hundreds of extras moving where the two principal actors don’t wish to go creates its own drama.

Hanna, his Pacino-eyes buggin’, hunts for McCauley. He notices Eady sitting in a car, looking intently out the window. She’s not in the driver’s seat.

Hanna has never seen Eady, but he remembers that McCauley told him he had a woman. That Eady is waiting for someone, that she is not in the driver’s seat, that she is a woman: these click in Hanna’s mind to complete the puzzle–she waits for McCauley.

Hanna draws his gun and tries to wade through the crowd of people and vehicles. It’s a mess. McCauley, meanwhile, calmly exits the hotel rear and throws away his tie. He approaches the car door. He feels the heat.

Decision time. Eady, McCauley, and Hanna face each other wordlessly. McCauley knows what he must do, and he does it. He doesn’t hesitate and leaves the perplexed Eady.

Hanna ignores Eady and runs after him. He rounds a corner, takes a shotgun from a beat cop, and pursues his prey.

Right into LAX. The hotel was near the airport, convenient for McCauley because his escape ride awaits in the charter terminal.

What follows is a lot of running. McCauley runs along the tarmac. Hanna chases him. Planes taxi around, but no alarms are raised. Remember that this is pre 9/11.

More running. The two enter a group of luggage cars. Hanna shoots at McCauley and misses. McCauley shoots at Hanna and misses.

They run again. Still no dialogue. We don’t know where McCauley is running. He seemed to have passed the charter plane hangars.

McCauley runs to a group of four checkered buildings beneath the airway. Planes landing at LAX every 50 seconds or so, provide the scene’s soundscape.

The running is finished. Hanna and McCauley play hide-and-seek. Each man waits for a plane to pass overhead, using the sound to mask their move from one wall to another.

Hanna walks around the edge, guessing McCauley to be hiding amongst the buildings. As the planes streak by, a bank of lights flash to illuminate the final approach.

McCauley is the first to notice this. He waits for a flash before stepping into the open, expecting the lights to illuminate Hanna.

Hanna has moved into open ground. His handgun is drawn. The lights flash and draw out McCauley. Hanna sees the shadow of McCauley moving against the motion of the plane. It’s Hanna who doesn’t hesitate. He turns, fires, and fires again to down McCauley.

“Told you I’d never go back,” McCauley says as he bleeds out on a power box. Hanna approaches him. They clasp hands. Fade to black.

Jokes (1/4)

Michael Mann movies are usually dour affairs and Heat is no exception. Al Pacino, however, tries his best, perhaps unintentionally, to make us laugh.

It’s a testament to his acting skill that Pacino can toe the line between funny and serious and make that work. Pacino uses his patented eye-bug coupled with his yelling of random words.

Hanna tough talks a CI. He slaps away his lunch and tells him not to waste his time. Later, Hanna tough talks Hank Azaria. Azaria asks why he should help his lover, Mrs. Shiherlis. “Because she’s got a GREAT ASS,” Hanna shouts.

Here are some other choice moments: Drucker calls a guy a “jag off,” a term that should be in every insulter’s rotation. Voight’s character, when describing Hanna to McCauley, says that he blew away some guy named Frankie in Chicago. Has any white people crime movie ever gone without mentioning a guy named “Frankie?”

Pacino-isms aside, Heat is not funny. But it need not be.

Setting (2/4)

The Los Angeles filmed in Heat is a staid city. Criminals often act in dirty places, unseen places, areas beyond public eyes. These are the dusty corners and dirty cracks of an urban landscape.

Mann’s Los Angeles eschews that. His streets are clean and empty. In the opening truck robbery, a huge tow truck parks beneath an overpass. No homeless community, no gathering of drivers, nothing is there but the truck.

In the bank robbery street fight, the streets are again empty, but that’s probably because two dozen people were laying down hundreds of rounds on a regular street.

Hanna and the police watch McCauley break into a facility to steal precious metals. It’s late at night, but the street is again picture-perfect for Los Angeles. Across the street is a group of delivery trucks, where Hanna waits.

Contrast these empty streets with crowded restaurants. McCauley meets Eady at a diner’s counter. The camera frames McCauley as he motionlessly studies Eady. All around him, in focus and out, foreground and back-, people move nonstop. The world’s moving, McCauley stays the same.

Is LA a city where people are scared to go outside? Could be. But life continues in the estates of the city’s rich. Hanna lives in a decent home, while McCauley, Shiherlis, and Van Zant live in palaces.

Commentary (1/2)

The mansions of the rich and criminal are as empty as they are beautiful. Shiherlis even chides McCauley for not having any furniture. The homes seem to say that their owners are flashy on the outside, empty on the inside.

In Heat we continuously see the criminal living nice lives. Waingro stays in a great suite at the hotel after giving up McCauley to Van Zant.

Crime pays, until you die. That seems to be the message.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Heat avoids stereotyping but shoehorns women and minorities into supporting roles. Dennis Haysbert receives a subplot. He’s a parolee who shows up ready to work as a line cook in a diner. The shady boss tells him he will clean the floors, pay him 25%, and like it.

Haysbert’s character ended up as the getaway driver for the bank robbery gone wrong. He dies minutes after fleeing the robbery. His subplot was unnecessary.

Ashley Judd and Diane Verona played wives jaded by their husband’s career and life choices. These women, like their husbands, fall on opposite sides of the law. Brenneman played a stooge, smart but unable to think for herself, or simply desperate.

Eady learns that McCauley is not a traveling businessman (the world’s oldest lie). In practically the same sentence, McCauley gives up his real life and asks her to flee to New Zealand with him.

At first she runs, literally. But she can’t escape. Probably she went along out of fear. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. McCauley poured out his soul. He rambled about not knowing what he was doing and violating codes and such things that all desperate men say.

Eady embraces him, accepting his murderous ways. She happily, piningly waits for him outside the airport hotel. She wasn’t pining. It just looked that way. Eady was apprehensive, especially when the fire alarm sounded and people poured from the building.


  • Few of the shooting locations had ever been shot before. Los Angeles is a large city, of course, but so is its film industry. Credit to the set designers and location managers.
  • (-3) Jon Voight played Nate, an advisor to McCauley. He laundered the truck money. He set up McCauley’s escape. He suggested ways to repay Van Zant for his crimes. Voight was unintelligible. Many characters were poorly recorded, but Voight was the worst. It’s forgivable to have bad sound effects, but when dialogue can’t be understood, that’s a problem. This could all be Voight’s fault, though.
  • Justine’s bedroom seemed to be in the middle of the floor, with no doors. Of course her daughter is screwed up, she probably listens to her mother having sex all the time.

Summary (36/68): 53%

Despite nearly three hours of runtime, Heat never drags. The actors are too good to let it, and the characters are too well drawn.

Both Hanna and McCauley are guys atop their game. We don’t care much who wins; we just want to see it go seven.

Heat became a gleam in the eyes of the public when Pacino and De Niro signed on. For 90 minutes they did not appear in a scene together. Then Pacino invited De Niro for coffee. One imagines this situation playing out in the real world about as it did on film.

These actors are as revered as any in Hollywood history. They’ve played Dons, they’ve worked with Scorcese, they’ve won Oscars.

The coffee scene was as good as imagined. Here are two enemies finding out that they are similar people, just on different teams. They are the Magic and Bird of Los Angeles. “My life’s a disaster zone,” Hanna, the cop, says.

Both guys dream. Hanna dreams of all the victims of murders he’s investigated watching him, saying nothing. McCauley dreams that he’s drowning. One can imagine these characters dreaming either dream.

To wrap up their coffee, Hanna says that he doesn’t know how to do anything else. “Neither do I,” McCauley says. “And I don’t want to,” Hanna says. Neither does McCauley.

Two peas in a pod, Pacino and De Niro. If they tried to do something else, we wouldn’t let them.