Heat turns 25: Michael Mann brought complexities, humanity of both cop and criminal in his crime drama

It was Mann’s subsequent flourishes, all the details, and atmosphere and character touches, coupled with the game-raising skill of a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble cast, that made Heat the classic it has become.

The New York Times December 16, 2020 15:17:08 IST
Heat turns 25: Michael Mann brought complexities, humanity of both cop and criminal in his crime drama

A poster of Heat

Early in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama Heat, his protagonist destroys a television set. It makes sense in the context of the film (well, sort of), but it also can be read as a wink: Mann, a writer, director, and producer who made his name with the TV smash Miami Vice (not to mention Crime Story), taking a moment from his star-studded, big-screen epic to bite the hand that fed him.

But that moment also plays as a swipe at the obscure origins of the picture; even as Heat turned 25 on Tuesday, it has remained relatively unknown that it was, in fact, a remake. Mann had already told this story — using many of the same scenes, and even some of the same dialogue — in a 1989 NBC's TV movie called LA Takedown.

That project was a mere rest stop on the long, winding journey that Heat took to the big screen. Mann first penned the screenplay in the late 1970s, inspired by the real-life relationship between a Chicago cop, Chuck Adamson, and a master thief, Neil McCauley. The script was long, 180 pages, and so ambitious that Mann was not sure he could handle it; he offered it to the director Walter Hill (48 Hrs), who declined. Mann kept revising the script through the 1980s as he found success on television, and when NBC asked if he had any other series ideas when Miami Vice was winding down, he determined he would adapt his mammoth screenplay into a series pilot.

Heat turns 25 Michael Mann brought complexities humanity of both cop and criminal in his crime drama

Michael Mann, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on the sets of Heat

“I abridged it, severely,” Mann explained in a 1997 BBC featurette, slicing some 70 pages from the script. Takedown was shot in a mere 19 days; he would eventually enjoy a 107-day shooting schedule for Heat. “So to compare one to the other in experiences is kind of like comparing freeze-dried coffee with Jamaican Blue Mountain,” Mann explained. “It’s a completely different kind of undertaking.”

He is right, of course. Comparing a big-budget studio film and a quickie TV movie is a fool’s errand (and undeniably unfair to the latter). But in considering Heat, which is quite possibly Mann’s best film, and certainly his definitive one — the purest distillation of the themes and preoccupations that have consumed him throughout his career — it is helpful to look at the film in its embryonic form, and to see what Mann retained (an interest in crime, punishment, and the way fast cars stab through the Los Angeles night), what he changed, and what he added.

Heat turns 25 Michael Mann brought complexities humanity of both cop and criminal in his crime drama

A still from LA Takedown

The broad strokes are the same. LA Takedown begins with a thief — Patrick McLaren, played by Alex McArthur — leading his crew on a tightly timed armoured-car robbery that ends up leaving three guards dead. Heading the police investigation is Sgt Vincent Hanna (Scott Plank), who pursues the thief with a mixture of dogged determination and reluctant admiration: Asked for the MO (modus operandi) of the thieves, Hanna replies, “Their MO is that they’re good.” Hanna and his Robbery Homicide Division detectives surveil McLaren and his team as they try to put together one more big score, a broad-daylight bank robbery that results in a dangerous shootout in the streets.

What makes Heat so special is the attention Mann pays to the complexities and humanity of both cop and criminal.

Rather than the typical construction of antagonist and protagonist, he gives us, essentially, two protagonists — both skilled, flawed, sometimes sympathetic, often less so — and positions them in opposition, but with no clear “good guy” or “bad guy.” The film is constructed as a series of points and counterpoints: cop (Al Pacino) and criminal (Robert De Niro), good and bad, light and dark. Throughout Heat, Mann is telling these stories in parallel, underscoring their similarities with scenes, conflicts, and characters serving as direct complements to each other.

This careful character construction, and its balance of screen time and sympathy, is why the now-legendary scene in which cop and criminal sit down for coffee and conversation carries so much weight. Neither raises his voice and neither loses his cool. They speak from a place of mutual respect, even affection; it is like a first date, two people marvelling over all they have in common. “I do what I do best — I take down scores,” De Niro’s McCauley (as he is called in this version) notes. “You do what you do best — try to stop guys like me.”

Heat turns 25 Michael Mann brought complexities humanity of both cop and criminal in his crime drama

DeNiro and Pacino in Heat

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Pacino’s Hanna says, to which McCauley replies, “Neither do I.” “I don’t much want to,” Hanna adds, to which McCauley again replies, “Neither do I.” And that, in many ways, is the whole movie, in one exchange.

But that equal distribution of narrative weight and sympathy is not present in LA Takedown, which is much more about Hanna than his target — and that makes sense, since it was intended to be the first episode of a weekly cop show. That is not all that gets streamlined; themes are bluntly stated, complex relationships are sanded down, and the good guy-bad guy dynamic is vastly simplified. If Heat is like an opera, LA Takedown is like its libretto — the words, but not the music.

Heat turns 25 Michael Mann brought complexities humanity of both cop and criminal in his crime drama

A still from Heat

Viewed in retrospect, LA Takedown underscores the eventual genius of Heat: When you boil this narrative down to its basics, to plot and even some dialogue, it is a fairly plain (pedestrian, even) crime picture. It was all of Mann’s subsequent flourishes, all the details, and atmosphere and character touches, coupled with the game-raising skill of a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble cast, that made Heat the classic it has become.

Jason Bailey c.2020 The New York Times Company

(All images from Twitter)

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