If opposites really do attract, maybe part of the reason is that under the surface, there's really more similarity than opposition. At least when it comes to human beings, and more specifically, the variety known as cops and robbers. That's the major theme of Michael Mann's Heat, one of the most underrated and overlooked films of the 1990's.

Heat's towering poles of opposition are Robert De Niro as master criminal Neil McCauley and Al Pacino as LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna. Set in a slick, noirish Los Angeles, Heat's narrative spins back and forth around these two men, first one, then the other, slowly and inexorably drawing them together like planets in collision. As we follow Hanna's single-minded pursuit of McCauley, and McCauley's wily evasions of Hanna, Mann brings us to the realization although one man is on the side of "good" and the other "evil," these two personalities are far more alike than they are different. We realize this just as Hanna and McCauley realize it themselves, moving from an initial unawareness of each other, then to a grudging professional respect, and finally to the knowledge that even though in a real sense neither would exist without the other, ultimately they also can't exist together in the same world. Like matter and antimatter, they cancel each other out--violently.

Surveying the aftermath of McCauley's armored car robbery that opens the film, Hanna instantly recognizes that he's not dealing with an ordinary criminal. "They knew our response time. It's a good spot," he says of the crime's location near two freeways. "Escape in under three minutes. Good escape routes." Hanna admires the sophistication of using a shaped charge to blow open the armored car at the same time he acknowledges the ruthless logic of the professional criminal: "Once it escalated into a murder one beef for all of 'em after they killed the first two guards, they didn't hesitate. Popped guard number three. Because what difference does it make? Why leave a living witness?" To catch a thief, one must think like a thief.

But McCauley remains a professional by choice, not necessity. He's already stolen more than enough money to retire to New Zealand, as he's always dreamed. He's a loner, without family or other attachments except for his "crew," a man whose credo is "never allow anything into your life that you can't walk out on in thirty seconds flat when you see the heat coming around the corner." But McCauley can't resist the "juice," the excitement of another tempting big score. It's what he does, it's all he knows--it's who he is. He can't resist it when a cop's mistake reveals that he's under surveillance, or even when, against his better judgment and his own personal credo, he finds himself becoming involved with a woman he meets in a cafe.

On a superficial level, the women in Heat play oddly traditional roles, relegated to functioning as the beleaguered spouse, supportive girlfriend, or pathetic victim, the only way they can fit into the dark, violent macho world of Hanna and McCauley. But they're stronger and more important than they seem. Both Hanna's (third) wife Justine and McCauley's reluctant girlfriend Eady provide a constant reminder to both men of the cost of their obsessiveness, and the possibility of a different, more affirmative life that each man chose to forsake long ago. Like a Greek chorus, they question the men's choices at the same time they offer their support, and they understand Hanna and McCauley better than the men understand themselves. "You don't live with me," Justine tells Hanna. "You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey--and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through."

McCauley craftily smokes out the identity of the cop dogging his tail. "He's a hot dog, a maniac," his mentor, Nate (Jon Voight), tells him. "One of those guys out there, prowling around all night, dedicated." McCauley nods. He knows the type very well, because he's the same kind of guy. But Nate has another bit of news: "Hanna likes you. Thinks you're some kind of star, really sharp." Neil accepts this revelation with the smile of one professional acknowledging the respect of another.

It's the same respect which leads Hanna to seek a face-to-face meeting with McCauley in a coffee shop. Some reviewers have criticized this scene as unrealistic: why would Hanna reveal himself to McCauley in this way? But they miss the point. Hanna already knows that McCauley's aware of him and his pursuit, so coming out into the open isn't an issue. This isn't an anonymous struggle between enemies without names or faces. Hanna simply wants the chance to look his adversary in the eye, talk to him, perhaps reach some sort of understanding--and to warn him. But it's an impasse. Neither will yield. McCauley observes, "I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best. Trying to stop guys like me." "I don't know how to do anything else," Hanna says, adding, "I don't much want to." "Neither do I," McCauley agrees. The lines are drawn for the final confrontation.

This is Heat's central irony and the tragedy of Neil's character, because unlike Hanna, Neil has a choice. Hanna is sworn to uphold the law and bring down McCauley (although his zeal in that calling is hardly part of the job description), but McCauley could, if he chose, simply walk away. Even after the bank robbery that goes violently wrong when McCauley's betrayed by a former partner brings him the greatest "heat" he's ever known, McCauley still has the resources and the chance to escape cleanly. For a while, even Hanna believes Neil's done just that, because it's just what a professional like Neil would and should do. But McCauley's loyalty to his crew drives him to seek out and kill those who betrayed him, putting Hanna back on his trail. And when McCauley literally spots Hanna "coming around the corner" for him, he obeys his credo: walking away from Eady, leaving the one person who gives him humanity, he cuts himself off for the last time and leaves himself totally alone to face Hanna in an encounter only one can survive.

Heat is much more than the sum total of its parts, more than the remarkably sharp and stylish direction of Michael Mann, more than the gorgeously textured cinematography of Dante Spinotti, even more than the intense performances of De Niro and Pacino. It's a multilayered fable about extraordinary men on both sides of the law--and the price each pays for the choices he's made, the life he leads, and the obsessions that drive him.

Heatimages (C) 1995 Warner Bros.

Article (C) Mark Wolverton


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