Picture it… Chicago, 1963.
A career criminal has been taking down scores for nearly all of his adult life, hitting up any and all businesses where he and his crew can walk away with large amounts of money and/or valuable merchandise. This criminal is incredibly good at what he does, and ever since his release from McNeil Island Corrections Center, he has no intention whatsoever of stopping or allowing himself to be taken back to jail. That criminal’s name? Neil McCauley.
Chuck Adamson was the detective investigating these robberies and while doing so, there came a moment when both he and McCauley came face to face and spoke to one another. And despite how much Adamson respected his professionalism, they both clearly knew that there were only two ways this could end.
Adamson: Why don’t you go somewhere else and cause trouble?
McCauley: I like Chicago.
Adamson: You realize that one day you’re going to be taking down a score, and I’m going to be there.
McCauley: Well, look at the other side of the coin. I might have to eliminate you.
Adamson: I’m sure we’ll meet again.
About a year later, Adamson and McCauley actually did meet again (largely thanks to months-long surveillance of McCauley and his crew by Adamson and several other detectives), this time during the robbery of a grocery store that had just received a cash delivery from an armored truck, when McCauley and his partners were ambushed by the police during their exit from the building. And this encounter ended with the robbers attempting to escape via getaway car, only for McCauley and two of his associates to be shot dead by Adamson and the accompanying detectives who were in pursuit.
When writer/producer/director Michael Mann was conducting research on cops and criminals and the relationship between the two, Mann’s friend and colleague, the late character actor Dennis Farina, introduced him to Adamson, as the two of them knew each other from their days of working as detectives in Chicago. And when Adamson told Mann about his experience with Neil McCauley, Mann couldn’t help but find it completely fascinating and chose it to make this story into a movie.
And that movie was… L.A. Takedown.
A made-for-TV movie that aired on NBC in 1989 after an original failed attempt to make it into a pilot for a television series, L.A. Takedown was Mann’s first adaptation of the Chuck Adamson/Neil McCauley story. It wasn’t until 1994 that Mann decided to take another shot at making a film about Neil McCauley and about how he was taken down by police. And that film was Heat, which Mann wrote and directed, and which opened in theaters on December 15, 1995.
Neil McCauley (De Niro) is a highly skilled and disciplined thief who leads a crew of other thieves (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo) in Los Angeles. For their newest score (an armored truck carrying both cash and bearer bonds), Neil recruits a new member, a short-tempered and trigger-happy cowboy (and serial killer of Black female sex workers) named Waingro (Kevin Gage). Everything about the robbery goes smoothly, except for Waingro losing his temper and killing one of the security guards, resulting in Neil and company needing to kill the other two to avoid leaving behind any living witnesses. This grabs the attention of Vincent Hanna (Pacino), a brilliant and relentless lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division, and his fellow detectives (Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson, Jerry Trimble), who quickly recognize that the crew behind this robbery is a very proficient one, and that catching them before they perform their next heist will not be an easy task.
Meanwhile, both Vincent and Neil find their personal lives being deeply affected as a result of this case. Vincent’s wife, Justine (Diane Venora), is feeling increasingly neglected by him due to his obsession with work, and his stepdaughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), who is constantly ignored by her biological father, and is troubled by this in ways that neither Vincent nor Justine are truly aware of. Neil, who prides himself on following the personal rule of not letting himself become attached to anyone or anything that he isn’t willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if he feels the heat around the corner, meets and falls hard for Eady (Amy Brenneman), a shy bookstore worker who, like Neil, is also in need of someone to emotionally connect with. As for Chris Shiherlis, Neil’s closest friend on the crew, he’s dealing with his own crumbling marriage to Charlene (Ashley Judd), due to his gambling addiction and his infidelity, while Charlene herself is sleeping with another man without Chris’ knowledge and is this close to taking their son and leaving him for good.
What works about Heat and what has made it a classic in the crime fiction genre are not just the terrific performances, the exemplary writing and directing, the incredible cinematography by Dante Spinotti, or the painstaking research by Mann that is evident in everything that is seen and heard onscreen, but the character moments interspersed throughout the film that help make Heat so memorable. Vincent looking around the empty, desolate lot with his colleagues and quickly realizing right then and there (and with a huge smile on his face because he’s actually impressed) how good Neil and his crew really are. The look that Michael gives to another customer in the diner who looks up to see Waingro being attacked by Neil, before he comes to his senses and goes back to reading his newspaper. Van Zant (William Fichtner), the white-collar money launderer, talking to Neil on the phone and realizing that his failed attempt to betray him and have him killed is the biggest mistake of his life. Chris explaining to Neil in one line why he can’t and won’t walk away from Charlene to live a no-attachments life like Neil does: “For me, the sun rises and sets with her, man.” Justine explaining to Vincent how alone she is in their marriage due to him being more committed to hunting criminals in the streets than he is to loving and being with her. (For further proof of this, look at how Vincent exits the hospital waiting room when Justine gives her approval for him to leave and resume going after Neil, as he runs down the stairs like a child who has just been told that he can stop doing his chores so he can go outside and play) Lillian looking up at the television set in a bar and realizing that not only did Breedan participate in a bank robbery, but that he is now dead because of it. Chris and Charlene reuniting with each other, as their faces quickly go from smiles of love and happiness to looks of fear and despair as she signals him that the heat is right around the corner, and that he needs to go, with the strong possibility that they will never see each other again.
Of course, whenever Heat is brought up in conversation, there are two classic scenes that are usually discussed: The first is when Vincent and Neil, both of whom are now aware that they’re hunting and keeping tabs on each other, agree to sit down and have a cup of coffee together. Their conversation starts off as tense and adversarial, but quickly becomes more open and friendly as they realize how much they have in common when it comes to who they are and how committed they are to their work, right up until they remind each other what’s at stake and what they’re willing to do to end their next confrontation. (And of course, what made this scene even more memorable was the fact that this was the first time that Pacino and De Niro ever appeared onscreen together in a film. Which, for obvious reasons, wasn’t at all possible when they both starred in The Godfather Part II.)
The second moment being the gunfight that occurs with Neil and his crew vs. Vincent, his colleagues, and a couple dozen uniformed officers in the streets outside Far East National Bank. It is loud (thanks to Mann and his film crew positioning microphones around the set and using sounds of actual gunfire instead of Foley sound effects), brutal, and terrifying, as most gunfights in real life would be. Instead of the balletic destruction that we would see in the classic action films of John Woo or in any of the John Wick films, we just see one side hell-bent on killing anyone who gets in their way of escaping to freedom, and the other side trying their hardest to stop them while keeping the death and carnage to a minimum. And fourteen months after Heat opened in theaters, a real-life shootout that was similar to the one shown here, and one that lasted for nearly forty-four minutes, occurred in North Hollywood between the LAPD and two heavily-armed individuals clad in body armor who don’t deserve to be identified in this post.
This scene from Heat is held in such high regard by the U.S. Marine Corps that it is usually shown to recruits on what to do when engaged in armed combat against the enemy and how to do it. (Particularly the part at the 3:52 mark when Chris fires his weapon at the cops in both directions before quickly taking cover, removing the empty magazine, reloading with a fresh one, tapping the ejection port with the palm of his hand, and then resuming fire.)
The epic scale of the story being told in Heat required a large cast of characters, and not since True Romance has a film been this stacked with so much talent and with so many familiar faces, many of whom would go on to achieve greater fame long after the film’s release. Along with Pacino, De Niro, and Kilmer, we also have… (takes deep breath)
Tom Sizemore, Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson, Ted Levine, Danny Trejo, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Kevin Gage, Dennis Haysbert (Donald Breedan, an ex-con trying hard to do the right thing, but finds it difficult to avoid temptation after he has finally had enough of his boss constantly treating him like sh-t), Hank Azaria (Alan Marciano, who receives an unforgettable response from Vincent when asking himself why he ever got involved with Charlene in the first place), the late Ricky Harris (Albert Torena, Vincent’s informant who is constantly testing Vincent’s patience), Tone Loc (Richie Torena, Albert’s brother, who points Vincent in the right direction for identifying Neil and his crew), Tom Noonan (Kelso, the information broker/electronics expert who provides Neil with all of the necessary schematics for robbing the Far East National Bank), Henry Rollins (Hugh Benny, Van Zant’s enforcer, and undoubtedly the funniest and most unbelievable moment in the entire film is seeing Rollins getting his ass easily handed to him by Pacino when they physically confront one another), Xander Berkeley (who also starred in L.A. Takedown and who plays Ralph, Justine’s one-night stand who not only makes the mistake of sleeping with Justine when Vincent isn’t home, but also makes the mistake of being caught watching Vincent’s television when he returns home in the morning), Bud Cort (Solenko, the corrupt and ruthless diner owner who takes advantage of Breedan being on parole and does everything possible to make his life on the outside a living hell), Hazelle Goodman (a grief-stricken woman who is briefly comforted by Hanna at the crime scene where her daughter’s body is found), Jeremy Piven (Dr. Bob, who patches Chris up after he takes a bullet during the gunfight with the cops, and clearly this role was before he blew up with Entourage and before he got hair transplants and experienced mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi), and Jon Voight (Nate, Neil’s fence and close friend, whose performance was inspired by the late actor/author Edward Bunker, who not only played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, but also wrote the novel No Beast So Fierce, which was adapted into the film Straight Time, starring Dustin Hoffman as a paroled ex-con whose struggle to remain on the straight and narrow is very reminiscent of Breedan’s own struggles in Heat).
After the critical and commercial success of Heat, Michael Mann went on to direct other films. Starting with The Insider, starring Al Pacino as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, Russell Crowe as biochemist/tobacco industry whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, and Christopher Plummer as 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, and was about the true story of how 60 Minutes attempted to conduct and air an interview with Dr. Wigand about how dangerous and lethal cigarettes are, and how Dr. Wigand’s former employers at Brown & Williamson brought all nine circles to Hell to both Wigand and to CBS to keep that from happening.
Ali, starring Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Jeffrey Wright, Mario Van Peebles, and Jada Pinkett Smith, focuses on a decade of the life and career of the late, great Muhammad Ali as he converts to Islam, wins the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, loses his title and his boxing career after criticizing the Vietnam War, and him winning the title once again after defeating George Foreman at the Rumble In The Jungle in Zaire.
Collateral, starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, and Jada Pinkett-Smith, about a hitman who arrives in Los Angeles to kill five people connected to the upcoming trial of a drug kingpin, and forces a cab driver to escort him around town as he carries out his assignment.
Miami Vice, starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, in this feature-film adaptation of the classic NBC television series, though this version was darker and more intense than what most audiences were expecting. It didn’t get the most glowing of responses from critics and audiences, though time has been kinder to it since then, and more critics have found themselves liking the film even more upon further viewings.
Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, and Stephen Lang, in which bank robber John Dillinger is pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis, and finds himself falling in love with a woman named Billie Frechette while doing what he can to avoid capture.
Blackhat, starring Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Holt McCallany, and Tang Wei, about a computer hacker who is released from prison to help the FBI and the People’s Liberation Army from China find out who was responsible for hacking into a nuclear power plant in China and causing an explosion as a result.
Mann also served as executive producer for the critically acclaimed but short-lived CBS television series Robbery Homicide Division, which allowed him to experiment with the digital camera technology that he would later use when shooting Collateral and Miami Vice. It starred Tom Sizemore as Sam Cole, chief detective for the LAPD’s elite Robbery-Homicide unit which handled many of the worst high-profile crimes occurring in the city. If this sounds exactly like Heat: The Series, that’s because it pretty much was, as even Sizemore’s portrayal of Cole was similar to Vincent Hanna and how Pacino portrayed him onscreen.
The impact and influence that Heat has had since its release in theaters, followed by its increase in popularity thanks to home video and cable can be felt in numerous other films such as The Town, The Kingdom (which Mann also co-produced), and The Dark Knight (which was so greatly influenced by Heat that its director/co-writer, Christopher Nolan, not only showed the film to his cast and crew to let them know what tone the film would be going for, but Nolan would later go on to interview Mann and other cast members about the film in 2016, in television shows such as The Shield, Justified, Person Of Interest, and even Archer, and also in video games such as Kane and Lynch, Payday 2, and Grand Theft Auto V.
And much of that can be credited to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley, two characters who are the best they are at what they do, and who force each other to step their game up with every move that they make. Where Neil is quietly intense and barely raises his voice or does anything to draw attention to himself, Vincent is brusque and bombastic and always in motion, in order to keep himself on the edge and to keep others on their toes so that they know better than to say or do anything that will get in the way of him doing his job. But despite their similarities and despite how much they respect each other’s work ethic, Vincent is about protecting the lives of others and keeping people like Neil from, in his own words, killing some poor bastard whose wife he’ll end up turning into a widow, whereas Neil is willing and able to kill anyone, cop or civilian, if it means that he will never set foot in another jail cell. Which is exactly why gunfire and bloodshed near the runways of Los Angeles International Airport is the only way that their rivalry can end. Not with Neil escaping with Eady to New Zealand and living happily ever after, and not with Vincent quietly accepting defeat and moving on to another case. As they both admitted to each other over cups of coffee: They don’t know how to do anything else other than taking down scores and stopping people who take down scores, and they honestly don’t want to do anything else, either. It’s why Neil silently asks Vincent to take his hand as he bleeds to death from Vincent’s bullets, and why Vincent is more than willing to do so.
Because they understand each other like no one else on Earth, and because they know that all they are is what they’re going after.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.