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HomeHollywoodHeat: The Scope of Michael Mann's Crime Drama Is Unmatched

Heat: The Scope of Michael Mann's Crime Drama Is Unmatched

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Heat had a long journey to the big screen. Director Michael Mann wrote the first draft as far back as 1979, after which it languished in development hell for much of the next decade while Mann worked his way through the competitive world of film and television. By the late 1980s he had served as producer on two of the decade’s most successful shows, Miami Vice and Crime Story, and NBC was eager to repeat that magic once again. Mann felt Heat would make a good first episode for his new show, and after removing 110 pages of his 180-page screenplay, he cobbled together a pilot under the title L. A. Takedown. However, the studio was unhappy with Scott Plank in the lead role of Detective Vincent Hanna, and after Mann refused to recast the part, the episode was reworked as a television film. While this could have condemned its brilliant potential to an early grave, thankfully there was a light at the end of this crime-riddled tunnel. In 1995 Mann reworked his script (now back to its original length and title) for the glorious vistas of the big screen that had always been its rightful home. Heat released to both critical and commercial success, and is now considered not just one of the most influential films in the crime genre, but Mann’s greatest work as a filmmaker.

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It’s interesting to view Heat with the knowledge that it almost became part one of a larger show, as it would be easy to mistake the final film as a ten-hour miniseries that has been cut down to a feature-length runtime. The core plot remains the same – a crime drama epic depicting the conflict between Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and career thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), exploring the interwoven relationship between those on the opposite sides of the law, revealing that (despite their differences) they’re ultimately more alike than even they realize – but the additional runtime allows Mann to develop the film’s litany of supporting characters well beyond what was previously allowed. Characters who once served as mere decorations now receive subplots that could sustain a whole film, creating the image of a large and expansive world that borders on overwhelming for a single film. That Mann is able to balance these without ever losing sight of the film’s main plot is nothing short of astonishing. Other films may have longer running times, but nothing feels quite as epic as Heat.

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RELATED: ‘Heat’: Michael Mann’s 1995 Film Gets 4K UHD Blu-ray Release

The perfect example of this comes with Don Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), McCauley’s getaway driver who is killed during the film’s iconic shootout against the LAPD. In any other film his character would start and end there, perhaps with a few cursory lines during his introductory scene in a token effort to make his death have a modicum of impact as opposed to none, but this is not any other film. Instead Mann gives Breedan multiple scenes to develop his character, turning a relative nobody into one of the film’s standout characters. We learn that he’s recently been released from Folsom State Prison, and as part of his parole agreement he’s been forced into taking a job at a diner whose owner sees him only as the man he used to be rather than the person he is now. The film’s most tragic scene sees Breedan drinking away his sorrows in a bar, cursing himself for what a mess he’s made of his life. His partner Lillian (Kim Staunton) attempts to console him, telling him that she’s proud of him. “What the hell you proud of me for?”, Breedan replies, tears welling in his eyes.

None of this is earth-shattering stuff, and isn’t about to beat the intrinsic characterization of a Robert Towne script, but it succeeds in transforming a largely disposable player into a fully realized character with a unique set of goals and obstacles. When Breedan is approached by McCauley to be his getaway driver, we understand why he’s so quick to throw away his shot at a normal life in favor of returning to his criminal roots. From his perspective he never left them, and faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life in minimum wage jobs at the behest of an abusive system that claims to look after him, Breedan is more than willing to risk it all for a chance at finally achieving something with his life (in turn embracing rather than denying the person he truly is). His subsequent death hits so much harder as a result, with the casualness that everyone else treats it with only solidifying the tragedy. Everyone else may be oblivious to the struggles in his personal life, but the audience isn’t, and by providing us with this insight Mann turns what could have been a throwaway moment into a poignant and meaningful piece of filmmaking.

This commitment to creating a living, breathing world is sustained throughout the film, with Mann ensuring that even the most inconsequential of characters receive their moment in the spotlight: the marriageable troubles of McCauley’s righthand man Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) as both he and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) struggle to cope with his gambling addiction, the LAPD’s investigation into the murder of a prostitute they suspect is the work of a serial killer, the mental health struggles of Hanna’s stepdaughter Lauren (Natalie Portman) as she grows increasingly detached from her real father. These are only a taste of the litany of storylines Mann populates his film with, creating a labyrinthine snapshot of Los Angeles during this pivotal moment of its history whose scope is only matched by the egos of those who inhabit it. But while some of these plotlines do loop back into the film’s central narrative (most notably the subplot about Charlene having an affair which becomes a major component of the final act), others remain separate from the larger world, creating a narrative structure at odds with a conventional film. Inevitably this raises the question about why this material is even there if so much of it is perfunctory to the overarching narrative, a concern that’s only aggravated by the film walking perilously close to a three-hour runtime. But it’s the addition of these ‘pointless’ subplots that elevates Heat beyond its competitors to create something wholly unique and wholly remarkable.

Take the plotline about Lauren, for example. From a narrative point of view it has nothing to do with Hanna’s investigation into McCauley, making it easy to see why Mann removed it the first time around, but thematically it proves to be an essential ingredient in deconstructing Hanna’s character. A recurring theme across Heat is the impact that being in this line of work has on someone’s private life, with both Hanna and McCauley being unable to form real connections with anyone who doesn’t have to deal with the criminal underworld on a daily basis. Hanna already has two failed marriages behind him by the time the film starts, and his current wife looks set to join her predecessors due to his inability to communicate about what he really does. When he learns that Lauren’s real father is neglecting his responsibilities he is understandably annoyed, but the nature of his job means he’s unable to provide more than a passing interest in her wellbeing before he’s off investigating the next horrific crime. After her introduction Lauren is barely seen again, and as McCauley’s scores continue to ramp up with the body count chugging along just behind, Hanna (and, by extension, the audience) seems to forget all about her.

That is until he finds her in his hotel room bathroom following a suicide attempt, after which this previously superfluous character suddenly becomes the single most important person in the entire narrative. It’s the film’s most heart-stopping moment, and not just because it features such a horrendous act being committed by someone who’s still just a child. It’s also the moment when both Hanna and the audience realize just how much she was suffering, casting a new light on her earlier scenes that were casually dismissed as just usual teenager behavior. Hanna finds her right in the middle of the film’s high-octane finale, a time when any other film would be removing any distractions to focus entirely on Hanna as he frantically tries to locate McCauley before he escapes Los Angeles. Mann’s decision to zero in on someone who appeared in a grand total of two scenes previously would raise eyebrows from even his most passionate of fans, but in doing so he reveals the secret to the film’s success.

Heat does not operate like a normal film, with everything working in service of a single plotline that’s told via a clean and efficient narrative structure. Instead Heat embraces the idea that it’s taking place in one of the most populated cities in the country, creating that illusion of millions of overlapping lives occurring every which way from the ones we’re currently seeing. When these stories do intersect it often occurs at the most inopportune of moments, such as what happens when Hanna discovers Lauren. Not only does it underscore just how impossible his situation is, with the necessities of his job preventing him from being the father figure he must and should be, but it also creates a feeling of realism few films can match. Real-life does not wait until one problem is dealt with before clubbing you around the head with the next, so why should Heat (a film that goes to great lengths to appear authentic, from the factual basis of its story to the deafening noise of its gunfire) be any different? It compounds the feeling that Los Angeles really is a city with a population of 3.5 million people, every single one of whom has their own story to tell. The sheer magnitude of material also means there is always an exciting event occurring, allowing the film to keep a brisk pace despite its lengthy runtime. That Mann is able to jump between such a large number of storylines while always keeping the focus on Hanna and McCauley displays a mastery of the craft few can rival, no doubt helped by the sixteen years he had to finetune the script that results in some of the most finely crafted sequences ever to grace the silver screen.

On August 9th the Heat universe will expand beyond the confines of a single film with Heat 2, a novel written by Mann in conjunction with Meg Gardiner. The story, a The Godfather Part II-esc plot that serves as both a sequel and prequel to the original film, looks set to turn the already impressive world of Heat into a mere footnote. Mann has stated multiple times he intends to adapt Heat 2 for the big screen, and while it remains to be seen if this will happen (the issue of having to digital de-age the original actors or recasting some of the most iconic characters in cinema being an immediate obstacle), one can’t help but feel Mann is tempting fate by returning to a film he already mastered the first time around. But twenty-seven years have passed since then, and if Mann could achieve the level of masterpiece in half that time previously, who knows what he’ll be able to accomplish this time around. Regardless, Heat remains a contender for the greatest film in the crime genre, and the majesty of its scope continues to astonish to this today.

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