Al Pacino is Vincent Hanna of the LAPD robbery/homicide division. Robert DeNiro is Neil McCauley, the leader of a successful bank robbing team that includes his protege Chris Shiherlis, played by Val Kilmer. After a fouled-up heist puts Hanna on McCauley’s trail, Heat becomes an elaborate cat and mouse chase between a driven police lieutenant and a seasoned criminal. Even though it’s grounded in reality, Heat is as epic and enthralling to me as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. I know that’s an odd comparison, but the film is so hyper-stylized, it almost looks like a sci-fi/fantasy flick — to me, anyway.
Writer/director Michael Mann (Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) is at the top of his game, armed with his signature visual flare. LA has never looked this good. Dante Spinotti’s photography is mesmerizing, aided by a hypnotic soundtrack by Elliot Goldenthal, Moby, and other artists. This powerful synthesis broadsides viewers from the very first shot, one of a railway station at night. Through smoke and fields of blinking city lights, washes of blue and the occasional piercing red, we are drawn into this world in a powerful visual and aural way. Whether it’s scenes at McCauley’s home on the ocean, in balcony scenes overlooking the vast city of lights, or in a great number of scenes shot at “magic hour”, that ten minutes at dawn or dusk when the skies are at their most beautiful, one lush frame blends into another, and the parade never ends until the movie is over. Heat is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.
It’s one of Hollywood’s biggest cliches, but Heat truly is about good and evil, right and wrong, and the propensity for all of us to swing either way — and maybe this also plays into my Star Wars/Lord of the Rings comparison. It’s archetypal. Mann imbues the age-old struggle with compassion and complexity. The storytelling and character development are powerfully engrossing, combined with a superb cast and stellar aesthetics, makes it one of the very best films of the 1990s.
Somehow, this film was completely overlooked by the Academy. Directing, cinematography, and writing aside, Heat features — and I stand by this bold claim — the finest performance in Al Pacino’s storied career. Diane Venora, as DeNiro’s long-suffering wife, is equally outstanding. She’s my favorite among the entire, rock-solid ensemble. Among her notable co-stars are Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Tom Noonan, Danny Trejo, Amy Brenneman, Xander Berkley, William Fichter, Hank Azaria, Bud Cort, Jeremy Piven, Henry Rollins, and Tone-Loc.