Heat is crime thriller about a small band of bank thieves planning a big heist and the tenacious cop who is determined to stop them. A critically acclaimed film, it has become of the most influential police dramas ever made, both in terms of cinema and for a slew of violent robberies that followed the movie’s release, all modeled after events in the film.
In the back of a parked delivery truck in a fenced lot next to a precious metals repository, a police officer leans down to rest his legs and the butt of his rifle, strapped over his shoulder bumps the interior wall and sends a slight thump out into the night air. Across the road, hidden in shadow, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) hears it and freezes, his narrow, suspicious eyes looking out toward the bay of trucks. He then makes a choice, stepping inside the back door of the repository and telling his partner, who is inches away from drilling into the gem vault, they are walking away. They drop everything and out they go.
Back inside the truck, Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who has been watching McCauley with infrared monitors, is not a happy detective. The stakeout blown, they are now back to square one in their efforts to finally catch one of the city’s most notorious criminals. That means, back to constant surveillance and tailing the highly successful bank robber and his crew wherever they go. Meanwhile, McCauley lets his team know, even though he can’t be sure, that they must believe the cops know everything. It’s the only way to move forward with their plans to take down a National Bank for their biggest haul yet, a job they admit will be far more risky, but worth doing. Now they just have to deal with the heat.
We next see McCauley and his crew at a shipyard where they appear to be making plans for another heist. Pointing and making note of the exits and alternate routes, they confer and agree before jumping back in their cars and driving off, apparently ready for the next stage of the job. All the while, Hanna and his men have been watching from elevated, distant positions. After McCauley and his men drive off, Hanna and his boys come in, trying to piece together what McCauley is up to. They retrace the criminal’s steps and go over what they heard in the distant conversation but none of them can come up with a solid reason why the thief and his men would seem so interested in this location since there are no real valuable targets in the vicinity. But then Hanna understands. They had all been wondering what McCauley was looking at, and now that Hanna and his men are exposed, Vincent realizes his adversary is now looking at him. Sure enough, high atop a crane overlooking the spot where he was just standing and now filled with detectives, McCauley uses a high-powered camera lens and snaps a series of pictures, later providing him with the names of all of the police on his tail. Now the odds are even and the real game begins.
Directed by Michael Mann, this moment in Heat is a crucial turing point, establishing that McCauley is not just an intelligent bank robber, but a resourceful man and an equal to Hanna. What really makes this so effective is how it doesn’t just play the cops, but also the audience. Just before this moment, McCauley had a meeting with his three trusted partners, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Trejo (Danny Trejo), who all agreed to go in on one last big score. When we see McCauley, Shiherlis, and Cheritto at the shipyard, we believe what they are doing and saying are legitimate plans, just like Hanna and his team do. When we realize it wasn’t and were lulled in by the scheme as well, it makes for a brilliant moment. That’s the thing about Heat though. It constantly puts you at odds over which man you want to see come out alive, since we know for sure one won’t make it.
But let’s briefly consider Mann’s direction and plotting. I love how he uses distance and space in compliment with close-ups and tight shots. With McCauley and his men, we see them from atop an enormous water tank as two cops listen in and watch. McCauley suddenly seems small, not just physically due to the distance, but because the cops seems to have him wholly ensnared.
That this is flipped a moment later when McCauley is seen looking down on the cops, shifts our perceptions again. With one image, Mann puts McCauley back in a position of power, an important distinction as the story heads for the third act. This little game of cat and mouse, where one has brief control over the other is the heart of the film, and here it puts the men on equal ground. You’ll notice that when realizing he’s been made, Hanna isn’t angry. In fact, he laughs and even allows for McCauley to get a few good looks. That is the predator in Hanna, the good cop in need of a good criminal, a man craving challenge. With the shipyard moment, Hanna realizes not only is McCauley clever, he’s as forward thinking as he, and has finally met his match. This will be the driving force for the detective for the remainder of the film, his failure in anticipating his setup at the docks and his need to be the better of the two, pushing him to a place he’s not been before.
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Michael Mann
Stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore