HEAT: Empathies of Badasses

In Michael Mann’s HEAT, crimes and personal relationship/friendships are one and the same. The title and word “heat” is defined by a connection or nearness to someone else, whether it is a detective or a lover; the two are almost identical. There are as numerous crime sequences as there are romantic ones; they fight wives as they fight cops/criminals in the streets, but they can’t escape from either of them. Indeed, HEAT is part macho man western and part romantic melodrama, both an attractive piece of manliness entertainment and a touching, even if overdramatic, film. But how well does this action film deals with with the non-action, the romance and the melodrama of it, is what elevates it as much as it sometimes decreases it.

The film opens up on two railroads. One is empty, the other has a train passing. The film’s sense of solitude is thus established in this for McCauley (Robert De Niro), appearing in the screen alone as he is about to “take down a score,” and each member of his gang is at a different point of the city. Mann’s film contains a large scale thanks to this aim on characters that are distant but who then connect together under different circumstances, each of them helping each other fulfill their necessities. When the gang reunites, they make a hit on a bank car in memorable, fuck-yeah fashion, and they’ve gain supplements for their families with the steal. But they’ve also killed fathers who maintained other families as well. Mann locates a fundamental element in the survival between people, the connections and disconnections made in order to endure, depicted in a series of subplots about characters who are plugged to people or unplugged from others, the warmness (or heat-ness) of the former and coldness of the latter.

It is a poignant idea to be presented in a genre of wide scopes, made of a large series of people from all class levels: cops, criminals, executives, wives and restaurant workers. The film sometimes feels like an interesting demystification of characters that would be in glorified, badass action films, as Mann’s film brings a true human dimension to them outside their criminal circles. But it isn’t always for the better. In the worst cases, it deals with this subject in numerous wife-and-husband subplots that over time feel redundant and too much as lazy storytelling tropes. The irresponsible husband angle is repeated over two main characters and one minor character, and that is developed into the cliché that is the revelation that the wives are cheating over their husbands, with then the conclusion that neither of them want to fully separate themselves from their men – the typical and expected acknowledgement that the crime world is in their blood is made, of course. And in a film that is constructed with certain generic action film qualities, some of the conventionalities from the romantic side disallows it for me to consider it a “great film.”

Nevertheless, the film finds other avenues to strike a chord, and it does so with a lot more grace. The arc of McCauley and his relationship with Eady (Amy Brennan), Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), and the rest of his gang, is the main one that translates the film’s intended themes to flow more efficiently. By staying true to the character’s introspectiveness, Mann’s creation of his character’s connections with other people never seems scripted, much less cliché. He leaves De Niro to delicately portray the need for people with Eady, his badass harshness and human softness fighting between a moment’s line with “Lady, why are you so interested in what I read and what I do?” and then a “My name’s Neil” line to present himself afterwards in an apologetic and interested demeanor. Mann never manipulates or makes the character’s need for her apparent in another way other than the viewer’s own knowledge that people need people. They like to fuck and have sex, but also be with someone and feel important. Mann’s character is human, and an interesting one.

When there’s a gang meeting in a classy restaurant, one in which each member of the group brings their own respective families, McCauley makes the realization that he’s alone with himself, amid images of people connecting with other people in different frames – he’s irrelevant. The film undresses the archetype, film-criminal character by searching beyond his crimes and into his interaction with the outside, average world – a sense of foreign territory as Mann brings the criminal city into a distance when McCauley is in a romantic scene – images of normalcy that find a poignancy for the motivations between cops and criminals, their needs to be what they are. Then there’s the scene between McCauley and Hanna, De Niro’s introversion feeding from Pacino’s extroversion (a performance that at times flies too overenthusiastic for his own good), emblematic of the title’s dual definition and highlights the film’s thesis: men who need an interaction with danger as much as with love, as they both result into keeping themselves into a self-importance in every second of their lives. They live for the existence of others, but only to bring their own a meaning.

It is the vanity of men. A classical depiction of mannish desires that revolve around guns and women, but further entering into their sense of pride and relevancy when in a big job or with loved ones, and the state of depressiveness when robbed from either of them. The film’s conclusion, in which McCauley makes the decision that revenge and crime is in his blood and thus chooses to do another crime over the chance to escape from the LAPD, with a beautiful woman and without a trail, is an unimaginative closing for his arc and utterly illogical. But the last scene between Hanna and McCauley is still quite elegant: HEAT is an interesting meditation, albeit a loud one, about the sensation of being with someone, even if it is like Hanna and McCauley at the end. They feel each other’s presence and then see each other’s shadows. They dread that sensation, one thinks. But when Hanna kills McCauley, a tear is visible in his eyes. They motivated each other into work, and to serve each other a value and significance. That moment, and HEAT as a whole, could have been a big, fat sentamentalist mess. Thankfully, it isn’t. It finds an impulse for the choices to be who they are, and the pulse in which they live.

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3 Responses

  1. This is a very intriguing take on HEAT. I have always found that the relationship between McCauley and Eady to be the weakest. I just don’t believe that they develop a connection and that he loves her enough to ignore his code of dropping everything in 30 seconds if he sees the heat coming ’round the corner.

    I actually would’ve liked to have seen the one between Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd develop more. There seems to be more going on than Mann shows us and the way they end things (or do they?) is quite interesting.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JD.

    The thing is, McCauley does drop Eady when he has the heat coming. And to look at the characters as people who are simply in love wouln’t be fair.

    Their first meeting is rashed, and so are their decisions to leave together, but I don’t believe the film is trying to make us believe that they are a perfect couple of love-in-first-sight, but instead that they are two people who desperately need to feel accompanied. They want to be together, but just to be someone.

    He is a man who wants to settle down when he’s outside his crime world, and while they may talk about love, love actually has nothing to do with it. It is about self-satisfaction, an escape from the loneliness out of desperation. Their dialogue before their kiss is a good example of it, as two people who need to feel a warmness when they’re outside their jobs. That’s, after all, why McCauley, and everyone else in the film, leave their women when they don’t need them. Their connections to other people is more about themselves than about others.

    Re: Kilmer and Judd. It may have been interesting. I just wish that one of the husband-and-wives subplots would’ve been compressed. I didn’t feel that those arcs really had anything interesting going, and ultimately felt redundant.

    • “The thing is, McCauley does drop Eady when he has the heat coming. And to look at the characters as people who are simply in love wouln’t be fair.”

      D’oh! That’s true. I guess I was thinking more of McCauley’s decision to go back and kill Waingro as opposed to leaving when he had the chance.

      “Their first meeting is rashed, and so are their decisions to leave together, but I don’t believe the film is trying to make us believe that they are a perfect couple of love-in-first-sight, but instead that they are two people who desperately need to feel accompanied. They want to be together, but just to be someone.”

      Yeah, I guess I just don’t quite swallow how McCauley goes from not needing to be with anyone to suddenly getting pretty serious about Eady. I guess the transition wasn’t quite credible for me, but they do have that great scene together where he tells her about the algae that glow in the dark. Very cool image.

      “Their dialogue before their kiss is a good example of it, as two people who need to feel a warmness when they’re outside their jobs. That’s, after all, why McCauley, and everyone else in the film, leave their women when they don’t need them. Their connections to other people is more about themselves than about others.”

      True. You raise a good point, there. I think the point is that these guys are self-contained units. They would rather be out there pulling scores or taking down crooks then staying at home.

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