Weekend Film Recommendation: Heat

This month’s reviews of great movie remakes draws to a close with the film that finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together, face to face. It’s Michael Mann’s remake of his own TV Movie LA Takedown, which six years later became Heat (1995).

A heist organized by a slick team of gangsters goes wrong. An impetuous last-minute recruit kills the three guards without authorization from the gang’s leader Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro) to cover up the gang’s tracks. The gang departs the crime scene, leaving the investigating cop Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) with little more than the certainty that he’s up against a team with as much dedication to their craft as he to his.

Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 01.54.08

At the most superficial level, this is a film about cops, robbers, and heists. Hanna is trying to catch McCauley, while McCauley tries to settle the score with the renegade gang-member who screwed up the heist in the opening scene. But just below the surface, there are multiple plotlines that make the movie’s three hours pass by surprisingly quickly. The dénouement of the film isn’t the big shoot-‘em-up that would usually book-end a high-budget film from the same genre; instead, the final scenes are intimate affairs, designed to show how both of the lead characters are shaped by one another.

Mann makes the symmetries and inversions between the two main characters abundantly clear. McCauley lives by a code of detachment, whereby he makes himself free to disappear as soon as he notices the eponymous ‘heat’ around the corner. Nonetheless, he finds himself inexorably drawn toward the charming ingénue Eady (played with admirable sophistication by Amy Brenneman). On the other hand, Hanna can’t seem to muster affection for the people around him even if he wanted to: his third marriage is looking to be about as successful as his previous two, and he barely notices that his stepdaughter is spiraling into a self-destructive pattern of fear and isolation. The parallel is present in their professional lives, too: McCauley commands an air of cool, calculated, precision in just about everything he does – he senses when he’s on the precipice of being made by the cops and correctly orders a strategic withdrawal. Hanna, however, is so bellicose that he alienates his colleagues with his irate and wanton pursuit of McCauley.

Whatever subtleties about the characters’ similarities and differences might have been obscured until the half-way point in the film are explicitly brought to the fore in one of the finest scenes in recent movie history. Hanna, upon realizing that McCauley is aware of his pursuit, invites the latter for a cup of coffee. The two frostily discuss their respective approaches to their work, and reach a common understanding about the obligations of their positions should they encounter one another in less propitious circumstances. Despite the spare choice of wording and the tense shifting in their seats, Hanna and McCauley share the expression that they’ve finally met someone who understands them in a way that others can’t. It’s magnificent.

Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 01.57.22

Years working on the aesthetic in shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story honed Mann’s stylistic flair. Heat is seriously slick. The clothes, the panache, and the tightly rehearsed action shots make this film cooler to look at than your first iPhone. Even the sounds of the assault rifles have an unusual percussive resonance that brings out your basest I-like-fast-cars-and-big-guns impulse. This is all the more impressive considering that although Heat is nominally a heist film, it’s the most character-driven heist film of which I’m aware. Each member of the long list of secondary characters, played by heavy hitters including Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert, and Natalie Portman, has a distinctive and identifiable backstory.

Trivia time! My choices for remake films definitely overlooked some worthwhile contenders. Name some of your favorite remake films that you think deserve an honorable mention! Who’s going to suggest Sex and the City, that superb remake of Tenko? Anyone? No, no-one?

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Heat”

  1. Good choice!

    At the end of the conversation over coffee, Hanna and McCauley actually voice that mutual understanding you allude to.
    Hanna: "I don't know how to do anything else."
    McCauley: "Neither do I."

    Roger Ebert had a short paragraph in his review that clarified just how good Pacino's and DeNiro's portrayals seem:
    De Niro and Pacino, veterans of so many great films in the crime genre, have by now spent more time playing cops and thieves than most cops and thieves have. There is always talk about how actors study people to base their characters on. At this point in their careers, if Pacino and De Niro go out to study a cop or a robber, it's likely their subject will have modeled himself on their performances in old movies.

  2. Excellent choice Johann — for similar themes and style see the fantastic Mann/James Caan collaboration "Thief"

    One of Hollywood's best remakes is John Huston's 1941 Maltese Falcon. Remarkable in that the 1931 version was a good film but the remake topped it in quality by a wide margin. It's even harder to choose between 1923 Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1939 Charles Laughton remake, but again I think remake actually improved on a fine film.

    1. As the 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon is one of a handful of greatest films ever made, yes, I'd say it was one of Hollywood's best remakes. The 1941 Maltese Falcon was actually the third screen adaptation of Hammett's novel, the second being the genuinely awful "Satan Met a Lady", the lady in question being played by Bette Davis.

      Another remake that I love is "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", a much altered rendering of "Sunset Boulevard" that I like much more than the original. In fact, I think Baby Jane is a great movie. Coincidentally, another much altered remake of "Sunset Boulevard" is a film also called "Heat", aka "Andy Warhol's Heat" starring the wonderful Sylvia Miles and the, shall I say, remarkable Joe Dallesandro.

      1. One other fine remake that occurred to me just now because I was watching Pygmalion: My Fair Lady. 'Twould be fun as well to have a thread on dramatic films that were remade as musicals.

        I didn't think Satan Met a Lady was *that* bad. But a better film than that one is a kind of sequel/prequel to Maltese Falcon: Hammett.

  3. Rather than remakes, I have a different movie category that interests me: movies that are better than the book they are adapted from. My favorite movie of all time, The English Patient falls into this category; Anthony Minghella specialized in doing this and it's one of the reasons I miss him.

    1. The film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, to me, a better film than the book was a book. But then, I saw the film before I read the book. I think that probably makes a big difference in your perception of relative excellence: which you encountered first. It’s an embarrassment of riches to have to choose between these two, though. They’re both wonderful.

      I have an extravagantly high opinion of Dr. Strangelove, which I consider not merely a great movie, but one of the monuments of civilization in the 20th century. I’ve never read Peter George’s novel Red Alert, on which the film was based, and probably never will, but I gather that it’s not satirical, has no laughs in it, and even without reading it I can say that it’s not as good as Dr. Strangelove.

      I never saw George Stevens’s film The Greatest Story Ever Told, but I doubt it’s quite as good as the Gospels. On the other hand, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate must alone be worth the price of admission. “I find in him no fault at all. Who loves ya baby? Crockah!”

  4. I liked the 1940 Howard Hawks film *His Girl Friday,* starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, more than the 1931 film "The Front Page*, although I'm not sure if that counts as a remake of the first film rather than a second adaptation of a stage play. The 1940 film changed one of the main characters, Hildy Johnson, from a man into a woman.

    As for movies that were better than the novel they were based on, let me nominate Sam Peckinpah's 1971 masterpiece *Straw Dogs*, which was based on the Gordon Williams 1969 novel *The Siege of Trencher's Farm*.

Comments are closed.