"Heat," from the Michael Mann who created "Miami Vice" and "Police Story," as well as "Thief," "Manhunter" and "Last of the Mohicans," is exactly what you might expect, only a lot better: A big, fat, full-tilt boogie, rockin', rollin' heavy metal concert for outlaws, outlaw wannabes, macho sentimentalists and gun cranks -- everyone who's ever felt a dribble of testosterone in his or her endocrine system.
This is glandular, not intellectual, movie-making but it's at the highest end of technical expressiveness. Mann is a great stylist with cheap but potent ideas. He can make a city -- even the scruffy environs of bleak L.A. -- look like a $4 million sculpture by Picasso after a weekend of first-class absinthe drinking. His colors blaze out like tracer bullets and he can knit images into percussive action sequences that stomp you to pulp.
At the same time, the guy's an idiot: He loves (and over-inflates) the sense of camaraderie that he imagines is felt between the best cops and the best robbers, and bases his long and violent heist film on the conceit of mutual respect and even affection between them, sentimentalizing it into a kind of caramelized apple of macho romance. It's a good idea to build a movie on, but, despite all the shattered glass and ejected cartridge casings, about as convincing as a cancer cure from Oreo cookies.
The two studboys at the top of twin pyramids of the robbery-homicide detail and the armed robbery crews are Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and pro bad boy Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). One of Mann's little jokes is that each appears to be in the wrong profession: Pacino's Vincent is flamboyant, incoherent, just barely in control, his emotional life a mess. He dresses like a gangster, too, favoring black silk shirts, a flashy handgun with ivory grips, Italian suits, new age sunglasses. He shouts, his eyes bulge, he can't keep his hands off people.
De Niro's Neil, on the other hand, is a control freak who lives by the Zen of "The Discipline." He can walk out on any job if something goes wrong, no matter how close he is to the score. He has taken the true criminal's existential vow: to have nothing in his life that he cannot walk away from in 10 seconds. He wears blazers and blue button-downs like any IBM mid-management executive; he never yells.
The two great actors only share a single scene (other than a shootout at the end where they speak with their guns) and that's anti-climactic, but their sense of gravitas and commitment gives the movie immense weight and power. We feel as if we're watching mythic figures, not movie stars, stalking each other on the plains outside Thebes.
But Mann doesn't stop there. From these two kingpins of their respective worlds, he reaches out to create two vast but parallel (and occasionally intersecting) universes. For each man is a member of a culture, has a network of relationships, responsibilities and expectations, a place in society. Far from lone gunmen, they are men of community who carry their burdens heavily and live by a code they may detest but must obey.
The film opens with a smashing but bloody takedown of an
armored car by McCauley's crew (which includes Val Kilmer as a No. 2 guy with a wife and kid and Tom Sizemore as another family man criminal). Hanna's team, including the great Cherokee actor Wes Studi and the demented Ted Levine, try to solve it by cutting into networks of informants, knowing somewhere someone will talk.
Soon they've identified the crew, which is planning one more bank job. But so professional is the crew and so big is the last score -- $14 mil cash -- they decide to go ahead with the job, because even as the cops have id'd them, they've id'd the cops, giving them a tactical advantage.
Through this central situation Mann threads a dozen other tales: Kilmer's addiction to gambling and his tough but duplicitous wife (Ashley Judd); a counterplot by a scuzz named Waingro (Kevin Gage) to take down De Niro at the behest of one of De Niro's larceny victims; Pacino's shredded home life with Diane Venora and step-daughter Natalie Portman; De Niro's love affair with Amy Brenneman, and on and on and on. It's crime story as told by Jane Austen on steroids: A panoramic but intimate view of the social tapestry that ensnares a whole world in a bitter net of cause and effect.
All this leads to the bank heist itself, which is a creation of the universe gone psychopathic. It's a machine gun-o-rama in downtown L.A. that lasts for about 20 minutes and is, without doubt, the most gripping action sequence in an American movie this year. The world is not merely turned upside down and inside out but shot so full of holes it's turned into a giant cheese grater. This is horrible and naturally I loved it.
One oddity. Nowhere in the press notes and in no other reviews have I seen it mentioned, but "Heat" is a remake of a late '80s made-for-TV movie that Mann did called "L.A. Takedown," with Scott Plank and Alex MacArthur in the Pacino-De Niro roles. If it has the feel of deja vue to some viewers, that's why. It's not another version of the same idea, but from the same script, complete to names, incidents, camera angles and the whole nine yards. The problem with the TV movie (which I have on tape) is its callowness: All the actors are too young and unformed to be believable.
But with Pacino and De Niro, you know you're getting the real thing. It's as if Mann has been haunted by the failure of "L.A. Takedown" all these years, and this time, he's got it right.
Starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Directed by Micheal Mann
Rated R (extreme violence and profanity)
Released by Warner Bros.
Sun score: *** 1/2