Heat is an epic cops-and-robbers tale with no heroes. The good guys aren’t so good and the bad guys aren’t so good, either. But somehow we are compelled to root for both of them. Director Michael Mann is no stranger to stylish and complex cop thrillers. He was responsible for television’s Miami Vice and Crime Story and our first introduction to Hannibal Lecter in the underrated Manhunter. Mann outdoes himself with Heat, however. Even tired cop show cliches like the thrice-divorced homicide detective seem interesting in Heat.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is the mastermind of a gang of thieves, including explosives expert Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), and triggerman Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore). Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is the cop on the case.
McCauley aborts a major heist-in-progress when he sniffs the police are on to them. This sets off an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse climaxing in a boost-gone-bad that erupts into a deadly and protracted gun battle in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. On the lam, McCauley is pursued by Hannah until the inevitable showdown.
De Niro plays McCauley subdued and close to the chest. Pacino’s Hannah is big, even over-the-top at times. The balance between the two affects a fascinating dynamic. In fact, the best scene in the film squares the two men off at a diner in a complex verbal exchange in which both characters iterate that when push comes to shove, neither will hesitate to kill the other.
In spite of its episodic structure and nearly three-hour length, Heat is surprisingly tight. Michael Mann keeps the pace moving with tense action sequences and a terrific score from Elliot Goldenthal.