Movies We Love: 'Heat' – The Action Is the Juice

There are certain things that make you a man. It’s not a matter of mere plumbing or chromosomes. A man is more than that. A true man defeats his enemies. A true man can make it happen with the ladies. A true man can repeat, verbatim, all of the classic dialogue from Heat.

Heat (1995) is more than just a heist film – it’s an epic, a shambling three-hour monster of a movie that soars and frustrates, leaves your jaw hanging in awe and you scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on. The star power it unleashes is literally unparalleled, the direction by Michal Mann is superb, the music is incredible (go buy the soundtrack now), and the cinematography creates a vision of Los Angeles that is more real than the reality.

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I will not insult your manhood by recapping the plot. Actually, it’s so dense and convoluted it would take forever anyway. Plus, there are the tangents that I still don’t fully get – what the hell is that whole Natalie Portman subplot doing in there anyway? And some parts you just have to see for yourself – think Waingro's plot line. Bottom line: if you have never seen Heat, go buy it immediately. Until you do, if you are biologically male, you are not entitled to stand while urinating.

For many of us, Heat has a personal connection that comes from both its time and place. I saw Heat in Houston the day it came out (December 15, 1995), having been waiting for it for months thanks to the remarkable trailer. I was there for a buddy’s wedding the next day; at that wedding, I would meet my hot wife for the first time. About a month after, the giant law firm I was then slaving away for moved into the 444 South Flower building. You probably know it best as the bank De Niro’s crew robs. Before I quit (I had more business than many of the partners but they offered me the same crappy $500 bonus they gave to the guy caught sleeping under his desk, so I counter-offered that I’d keep everything), I must have walked past the spot where Val Kilmer first opens up with his CAR-15 a hundred times thinking, “Dude, I know where you’re coming from.”

But even if the movie might not be wrapped around your life as it is mine, it’s likely to have hit you at some deeper level. Heat is a man’s film in a very true way – it’s about loyalty, honor, and commitment. It brooks no compromise – the men in it must do what they must do regardless of the cost and regardless of their personal feelings. Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna gives up his potential for a normal life because Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley must be stopped. And De Niro’s McCauley gives up his chance too because he owes it to his dead buddies to see that Waingro pays for his betrayal.

These are men who live this code. They don’t whine. They don’t talk about their feelings. They don’t make excuses. They are everything our liberal culture despises – real men, even if not necessarily good men. And they sure as hell don’t buy into that “COEXIST”/“Violence Never Solves Anything” crap.

These men walk to their fates heads held high, knowing their ends are the results of their choices and accepting the responsibility for the consequences. I’d take a Neil McCauley over a Harry Reid and his liberal ilk in a heartbeat – they both pillage money from decent folks, but at least McCauley doesn’t wrap it in sanctimony and pretend he’s something else.

The film’s classic set piece – one of many classic set pieces – is the high intensity bank heist and shoot-out scene on downtown Los Angeles’s Fifth Street. Let me throw this out there: it’s the best gunfight in the history of the cinema.

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Watch Val Kilmer in particular. Now, director Michael Mann had former SAS operators train the cast on weapons and tactics, and Kilmer really took to it. Check him out as he pivots, fires a short(ish), controlled burst, then pivots again and engages a new target. When he runs out of ammo, watch him drop the empty mag, slap in a new one, and re-engage in about a second. That’s some nice suppressive fire there, Tex.

And listen to the sound effects – Mann understood the effect of the shock of the noise from the gunfire (especially in an enclosed space surrounded by skyscrapers) and cranked up the volume. You feel every burst of fire.

Interestingly, Heat is a remake of Mann’s 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown, a nearly forgotten flick made on about a thousandth of the budget. Most of the key elements are there, including much less awesome versions of the bank shootout and the famous Pacino/De Niro coffee scene (the Heat scene was filmed at Kate Mantalini in Hollywood – you can sit at the same table).

The cast is remarkable not just because of the big stars but the ones filling in the supporting roles. William Fichter is great as a scumbag businessman. Henry Rollins, taking a break from bad slam poetry and punk rock, is a terrific petty criminal. Danny Trejo is in the house too – he has a great death scene.

One guy who stands out is Big Hollywood’s own Jon Voight as Nate, the crew’s sickly fixer and voice of reason. I saw him and, frankly, thought Voight was about to die. I mean, he looks like he’s at death’s door – which is a tribute to Voight’s power as an actor. You see him in Heat and come out thinking he needs either an Oscar or an IV or maybe both.

Hell, Jeremy Piven is in it for about a minute as a squirrely doctor and even he’s great. Yeah, that Piven!

And the dialogue is alternately funny, harsh, and (again) true. Michael Mann’s words take the cast's work to the next level, elevating it into the iconosphere. You could go an entire day speaking in nothing but cool lines from the movie.

Finally, there is the music. Much of it is electronic, giving the film a kind of tech noir vibe that works perfectly. Of special note is the Moby(!) cover of Joy Division’s ominous New Dawn Fades that plays while Hanna roars down the I-105 freeway after Cauley. And a Moby original, the soaring God Moving Over the Face of the Waters, plays over the climax and the credits. Who would have thunk it – a pinko, vegan twerp like Moby making some of the most amazing music ever on screen in a flick like Heat?

Now, if you've read this far and have not gone to get your Heat DVD, or went out to buy a DVD, or borrowed a DVD from someone much cooler than you, I’m not sure I can help you. Heat is one of the rare movies that is truly essential – a movie that tells basic truths that many people don’t want to acknowledge and that strikes a common chord in its fans so that it has become a part of the American male canon.

To paraphrase De Niro’s Neil, you must have nothing in your life that will prevent you from seeing Heat in 30 seconds flat.

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