Michael Mann’s sprawling Los Angeles crime saga “Heat” premiered in December of 1995 to respectful reviews and decent, if unspectacular, box office numbers. (It opened in third place, behind “Jumanji” and “Toy Story.”) The film received no Oscar nominations nor any year-end critics’ awards, and yet for a generation of young men the movie — which featured the first onscreen face-off between Method acting titans Al Pacino and Robert De Niro — was an event bordering on the sacramental. Indeed, one of my fondest filmgoing memories is going to see a late show on opening night in New York City with some college buddies. Afterwards we retired to the bar next door and talked about the movie until the lights came on at 4 a.m. and we were asked to leave. Then we talked about it all the way home.
Dudes love to talk about “Heat.” I often joke that the film — which screens Monday night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of their Big Screen Classics series — has been watched on more black leather couches in man caves than any other movie except maybe “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas.” Starring Pacino as a high-strung detective obsessed with bringing down De Niro’s methodical master thief, it’s an intricately plotted, 170-minute cat-and-mouse game with over 70 speaking roles and at least two of the decade’s defining action set-pieces.
“Heat” represented the culmination of more than two decades of crime stories by writer-director Mann. In features such as “Thief” and “Manhunter,” and through television shows like “Miami Vice,” the filmmaker obsessively reworked and refined tales of obsessed cops tracking smooth criminals. Former police sergeant Chuck Adamson served as a technical advisor on Mann’s first film, and together the two created the regrettably short-lived TV serial “Crime Story,” based on Adamson’s exploits as head of Chicago’s Major Crimes Unit in the 1960s. (A retired cop from Adamson's burglary division named Dennis Farina wound up playing his old boss on the show.)
According to legend, back in 1963, Adamson was tailing a prolific bank robber named Neil McCauley, and when spotted, he invited the felon out for a cup of coffee. The two had a brief chat, sized one another up, and a year later Adamson shot McCauley dead following a supermarket robbery and foot chase. The story stayed with Mann, eventually becoming the basis of a shockingly terrible 1989 TV movie called “L.A. Takedown.” He took a second shot at it with “Heat,” rounding out the tale with an expansive ensemble cast while incorporating themes, motifs and sometimes entire scenes from “Crime Story.”
“Heat” is the most meticulously designed of Mann’s features, with careful compositions positioning the characters against bustling cityscapes and empty expanses that externalize their interior lives. It’s awfully talky for an action movie, providing meaty monologues for a massive supporting cast that includes Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Jon Voight. The film delves so deeply into the characters’ dysfunctional home lives that it’s more like a melodrama with machine guns. Its most memorable fireworks are provided not by the justifiably legendary mid-movie shootout in downtown LA’s business district, but rather the preceding coffee shop scene in which Pacino and De Niro finally share the screen.
It was a meeting audiences had been waiting more than 20 years for, and Mann teased expectations by keeping the two icons apart until nearly the movie’s halfway mark. Their roles are skillfully shaped around each performer’s distinctive style, with Pacino’s edgy detective intimidating informants via noisy, nonsensical showboating with the actor’s trademark theatricality. (“Ferocious, aren’t I?” he asks during one of his most playful interrogations.) De Niro is all coiled menace and minimalist movements. He’s one of the greatest actors ever to work in close-ups, and some of the movie’s most powerful moments take place in silence with his face filling the screen.
It’s fitting that for all the movie’s extraordinary action and suspense sequences, the part everybody remembers is when Pacino and De Niro sit down and talk. They talk about the women in their lives, and they talk about their dreams. I can recite most of the scene from memory, but then talking about “Heat” is a way of life for some folks, like Australian film critic Blake Howard, whose wonderful podcast “One Heat Minute” just wrapped last month.
The two-year project had Howard and guests from all over the globe taking a given 60 seconds from Mann’s movie and examining it in granular detail. Not a lot of pictures could stand that kind of scrutiny, but the visual intricacy of “Heat” and its grand thematic ambitions provide a rich text from which to riff. Guests over the 167 episodes included Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, New York Magazine’s Bilge Ebiri, Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com and author Niles Schwartz, whose "Off The Map: Freedom, Control and the Future in Michael Mann's Public Enemies" is essential reading for Mann maniacs. (Oh, and yours truly appeared twice on the program.) Howard also scored spots from the film’s cinematographer Dante Spinotti, editor Pasquale Buba (who passed away shortly after recording his installment) and, in his grandest coup, got the director himself to sit down for the show’s final episode.
“I compliment your obsessions,” Mann kidded Howard, describing the endeavor as “insane in a wonderful way.” I must confess that I feel a little lonely now that “One Heat Minute” has come to a close. What a treat it was to tune in a couple times a week and hear some of cinema’s sharpest minds poring over one of my favorite movies in such thoughtful, fanatical detail. The podcast had a marvelous way of making the whole world feel like my old college apartment back in the '90s, when all we did was talk about “Heat.”
“Heat” screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Monday, Aug. 5.