Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Los Angeles Crime Saga

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.


TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Ross said...

First time I saw the preview for it, my TV was on mute, and even then I knew I didn't want to see it. Neither guy looks like they care. It's also hard to even look at Pacino at this point, he could pass for 20 years older than he is.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Adam. Many wits in the media been skewering DeNiro and Pacino for the past year, but nothing that you wrote is untrue.

It's hard to decide who has made more awful films since Heat. DeNiro has appeared in more bad movies, while Pacino looks far more lost even while showing up in interesting stuff from time to time, like People I Know.

If you can't do better than Heat, a man should just quit.


"Cause she's got a...(makes his lips look like he's going to say "Big" but ends up saying...)...great ass! And you got your head all the way up it!"

I don't think any movie could top that.

Adam Ross said...

Joe -- I agree about Pacino looking lost, it's like he's trying to get away from his stereotype, but doesn't really know how.

Joseph -- I love that scene, what's great is it looks like Pacino is ad-libbing a lot of it. "Ferocious, aren't I?"

Unknown said...

Oh, I love this film as well. It also beautifully shot. Dante Spinotti's camerawork is fantastic. I love the shot of De Niro entering his home for the first time in the film and everything is bathed in this cool blue color. Fantastic.

And does it get any better than the bank heist partway through the film? I recall that Mann used the sounds of real gunfire for this scene and you can tell. It doesn't have the usual Hollywood sound. I remember seeing this in the theater and the gunshot sounds were almost deafening.

Nice article!

MayorMcCheese said...

From now on, when I get pulled over by a helicopter and asked to get a cup of coffee, I say "Yeah, that's a good idea."

Adam Ross said...

J.D. -- I remember having that same reaction in the theater, it was really sounded like no other movie, and it's probably still that way.

Rob -- If only all of us could react in such a civil manner.

Burbanked said...

Great article on a terrific movie, Adam. I love how the breathless marketing for RIGHTEOUS KILL isn't able to say that it's the "first" pairing of the two actors, so instead it's something like "the first time they've shared the screen...for the whole movie!" or "the first time they're in more than two scenes together!" It's so awkward and stupid because HEAT obviously did this better, more powerfully, more creatively and, naturally, first.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I saw the preview, good thing I'm deaf. I went with one of my criminal lawyers in Los Angeles, he thought it was decent, he's blind and deaf.


I think that this movie had no chance of failure due to the Hollywood Shootout "and" the DeNiro/Pacino colaboration. The event in Hollywood was so outrageous that it couldn't be true. When the movie came out you couldn't even rent it. I am actually going to dedicate a page on my website to discuss the Hollywood Shootout and will definitely be referencing this movie.

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