Sure, it's high concept. Sure the dialogue can get a bit stilted, particularly between the sexes. And as with most Michael Mann films, the finale has zero emotional punch because it was set in stone in the first act, and heralded with trumpets throughout the rest. But Michael Mann directing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro is a match made in testosterone heaven, and I can watch this movie again and again because despite it all, Mann proves himself capable of genuine emotional depth.
Mann, never one to settle for a ten when he can take it to eleven, frames these two raging bulls with several football teams worth of nostril-flaring masculinity -- as if Pacino and De Niro weren't enough, we get secondary and character actors like Tom Sizemore, John Voight, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Trejo, Wes Studi and even tattooed motor-mouth Henry Rollins filling up the screen with their own brand of violent innuendo. And yes, Val Kilmer is in there, too, supplying a little adolescent surliness. Happily, he gets beat up pretty badly by film's end.
One of the film's pleasures is that just about everyone who comes on-screen gets theirs by film's end. It's a suburban morality play that's writ larger than Gidget: when Pacino finally connects with De Niro (and let's face it: their characters' names don't matter. This is the WWE, here: we paid admission to watch these two guys face off against each other) Pacino's cop asks De Niro's criminal, "So you never wanted a regular type life?" De Niro fires back, "What the fuck is that? Barbecues and ballgames?"
Yes, exactly. And when things finally explode, the first casualty to get blown to bits by machine-gun fire is a line of barbecues on display outside a grocery store. Boys, boys, boys -- you wanna play, you gonna pay. In fact, these men all do claim to want something akin to barbecues and ballgames. But their scenes with women play falsely: the couples laugh at shallow jokes, or they hug and sway together on the dance floor, or they even make love and whisper "Do you love me"-type lines, but it feels too deliberate. It's stagey, people are acting. It's only when the men hold up a bank that this feeling of artifice disappears. These boys enjoy the heat too much to give it up, so they get burned.
The strangest element in this morality play is Natalie Portman's character, an adolescent step-daughter to Pacino's cop. I think Portman's presence brings more emotional power than Mann quite knows how to handle. The other women in these guys' lives are all old enough to know better, so the viewer (and Mann) can keep them at emotional arms' length. But Portman's suicidal character sits on the other side of this morality play as the only true victim among all these firing guns. Her presence threatens to turn the morality play into a tragedy, and the way I see it, the film's emotional climax occurs when Pacino leaves the hospital vigil to finish his pursuit of De Niro.
I certainly enjoyed that. But Heat is the more compelling and rewarding movie, thanks to its emotional core: a messed-up adolescent girl who flits in and out of all this flexing and posturing and shooting, serving as a spectral reminder of what's really being sacrificed in the spectacle, the noise and the heat.
Film Fave #5