In 1995, a great deal was made about how Heat would be the first pairing of actors Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in a movie. Thirteen years later, we have Righteous Kill again showcasing the two actors, and I've heard exactly zero buzz about the movie. You could say this disinterest is due to the falling popularity of the two actors -- owing some to the passage of time, and most to their own doing -- but it probably has more to do with how generic Righteous Kill looks from the previews (or maybe the fact that they play characters named "Turk" and "Rooster"). With Heat it was Pacino-DeNiro, but also director Michael Mann diving into a canvas as large as Los Angeles itself, creating a giant world we spend nearly three hours in, yet still feel to have only seen a few nooks and crannies of it.
Pacino and DeNiro have had their moments since Heat (Cop Land, Insomnia), but it looks doubtful that either actor will top the roles of Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. The latter is my favorite DeNiro character, completely inhabiting the idea of a man who is always someone else -- essentially playing an actor. Right from the start we see exactly who McCauley is, just from the way he's walking and his gaze constantly darting, confidently strolling through a hospital in a paramedic uniform and making off with an ambulance. We get a few peeks at McCauley's personality through the film, but most of all we see a lifetime criminal who knows his success depends on himself not existing -- never getting close to anyone, or drawing any attention to himself beyond that of an anonymous bystander. The role suits DeNiro's acting style perfectly, as he's at his best when communicating without words. It's also worth noting that DeNiro has perhaps never looked as good outside of Heat, physically he looks much slimmer than his usual self, and he simply appears as the last person you want to disappoint or double cross.
Pacino's character of Lt. Hanna resembles many of the actor's stereotypical roles of hot-headed, fly-off-the-handle eccentrics, but Mann puts him in a setting that makes it work. In the DVD documentary, Pacino said an underlying theme with the development of Hanna was to play him as if he was a cocaine addict, although it would never be touched on in the film. Watching the movie with this in mind, it's easy to see how Hanna has something else in his system pushing him, but it's also plausible that his redline behavior is a side effect of law enforcement success. Hanna gets results, but he also exhibits some of the qualities of McCauley, notably how he must hide his emotions even in situations where there is only one human way to react: like when he meets the mother of a murdered prostitute at the scene of the crime.
Mann's main theme in Heat seems to be how similar the two sides are. McCauley and Hanna are both surrounded by a team of professionals who take orders from their leader, but still seem like an indestructable group of friends who will only let death get in the way of their goals. The cameraderie and drive of Hanna's group makes for one of my favorite moments in Heat: at the precinct when Det. Casals (the always great Wes Studi) gets the bank heist tip and just shouts out the bank name and time. Everyone in the room knows exactly what he's talking about and immediately springs into action. The group's spontaneous reaction feels real, and ratchets up the tension leading into the raucus heist scene.
The equivalent of this moment for McCauley's crew still brings chills to me. Sitting in a greasy spoon diner before embarking on their daring daylight bank heist, McCauley gets word that Trejo (Danny Trejo, of course) can't shake the police on his tail and is out as driver for the job. Amazingly, McCauley spies a man behind the restaurant's grill from his past: Donald (Dennis Haysbert), an old crony he met in prison. Before this point we had been following Donald's journey to make an honest living after being released from prison, but what he found was near-slave labor in the diner, working below minimum wage. McCauley approaches Donald and asks him point blank if he can be the driver ... today ... "yes or no." Donald steps back to think, knowing the decision will forever alter his life, good or bad. "Yeah." Donald throws his hairnet to the ground and shoves his asshole boss to the floor (Bud Cort!). The character and story of Donald is the most heart-wrenching in Heat, he's not the caliber of criminal as McCauley and Co., but he's also trying to get out of that life and obviously has someone who loves him and wants to see him succeed. Post-prison, Donald sees nothing in front of him but a hot grill and tiny paychecks, and in McCauley he sees an opportunity. When his girlfriend/wife (is she ever named?) sees Donald's face in the news report after the heist, I can barely watch it.
The most infamous scene in Heat remains the much-talked about coffee sit-down between Hanna and McCauley. I have to say, this scene never really did much for me, the best part is simply Hanna's decision to confront his adversary, and the way Mann films their highway meet-up. In a movie filled with great musical cues, this Freeway Oddysey is the biggest highlight for me. Showcasing Moby's adrenaline-pumping New Dawn Fades, we fly through a glowing Los Angeles freeway through Hanna's mile-a-minute eyes. Like few can, Mann completely fuses his imagery to Moby's song, and gives us one of Heat's trademark scenes. I still put it on occasionally just for that 1-minute trip.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Filed Under Classic reviews