Poor old Michael Mann. Here he was getting ready to make what was going to be the Lawrence of Arabia/Citizen Kane of cops-and-robbers movies, and he thought he had the legendary Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino working together for the first time. What happens? They pull a switcheroo on him and stick him with the world’s worst Pacino impersonator.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little too harsh. He certainly looks like Al and, when things are low-key, this faux-Pacino isn’t half-bad, but when the character of Det. Vince Hanna has to really emote, it’s like someone wired jumper cables to his ball sack.
When faux-Pacino isn’t making a damn fool of himself, however, this movie is everything it should be, which is epic.
Neal McCauley (DeNiro) is the leader of an elite bank robbery crew. His colleagues include Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), whose wife (Ashley Judd) is getting a little tired of the gambling addiction that feeds his need to join Neal on his “scores.” Also part of the crew is Mike Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), a loving family man who’s actually made a comfortable living from working for Neal. He seems to have everything to live for, so you know he’s pretty much screwed before this movie is over.
We catch up with them in the process of a very efficient armored car robbery. Unfortunately, a new hired hand is a trigger-happy loser named Waingro (Kevin Gage), who decides to off one of the guards just for the fun of it. Neal and his crew take out the other two to eliminate the witnesses but they don’t appreciate him escalating robbery to murder on his own. Waingro slips away, however, before they can permanently retire him.
The murder of the guards involves the equally elite robbery-homicide squad led by Hanna, who is one of those obsessive detectives who shuts out everything else in his life to avoid bringing the ugliness of his job home. He’s “on the downslope” of his third marriage, this time to Justine (Diana Venora), whose relationship to her own teenage daughter (Natalie Portman) is in its own death spiral.
The ultimate success of this movie hinges on the believability of the character of McCauley, and DeNiro brings the whole package. This guy keeps his emotions in check, like they’re in a box by the door, ready for him to disappear if he has to. He lives a monastic existence in a nice beachfront house completely devoid of furniture, totally consistent with his rule against allowing anything in his life that he isn’t willing to ditch in thirty seconds if he has to go on the run.
McCauley is, however, getting the sense that it’s closer to the end than the beginning, allowing himself to think about leaving this life behind. To that end, he permits himself to consider the previously unthinkable, falling in love with an art student named Eady (Amy Brenneman) that he met while planning their next job.
The plot of this film is satisfying complex, fully justifying the nearly three-hour running time. It involves multiple robberies and a double-cross by a ruthless money launderer (William Fichtner) who was the victim of the armored car heist, culminating in a shootout that, at the time, seemed like cops-and-robbers fantasy. Barely two years later, it was just film at eleven.
Ultimately, this movie boils down to the battle of wits between its two stars. Fortunately, McCauley is vintage DeNiro at his prime, before he met Ben Stiller and everything went to hell. His performance is subtly suggested emotions buried under a skin of barely concealed menace. He’s not a good person by any stretch of the imagination, but he is recognizably human.
I don’t know what went wrong with Pacino. Maybe Michael Mann was too awed by his stars and lacked the nerve to tell him to dial it back. Maybe Pacino was doing exactly what Mann told him to do, against his own instincts, but his performance resembles other Pacino roles of this vintage more than anything else in this movie, so I’m afraid it’s more likely to be the former.
Fortunately, one misstepped performance, even by one of its leads, isn’t enough to keep Heat from being the crime movie of the decade. If only the real Al Pacino had shown up, it would have been damn near perfect.