Friday, March 25, 2011

Heat -- hunters, hunted and hindered relationships

Director: Michael Mann, 1995. (R)

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Two of America's greatest living actors. They have been in over 130 films between them, with 14 Oscar nominations combined (three wins: one for Pacino, two for De Niro). But Heat was the first film in which they shared screen time. Of course, both starred in The Godfather Part 2, but De Niro was the Don as a young man before Pacino's character was even a twinkle in his eye, so never appeared together. Here, they play nemeses, having two key scenes together, one in the middle and the other at the climax. Despite its marketing as the first film that pitted them together, their shared screen time is a small portion of this three-hour film. Yet, this classic purrs because of them primarily, as well as because of the other stars in the cast. And the script gives these actors terrific dialog and the latitude to ad lib.

De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a mastermind robber who is as cool as a cucumber and whose love-life is as cold. Pacino is Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a detective in LA's Robbery-Homicide division. He is loud and passionate, married with a stepdaughter. But in reality, these two are more alike than they appear and they are destined to cross paths. Heat moves inexorably forward to a final confrontation between the two great actors.

Mann (Public Enemies) certainly knows to grab the attention and direct action. Shot entirely on location in LA without a single sound stage, he builds an almost symmetrical film, with a slam-bang opening, an armored car robbery, mirrored by the closing chase and showdown. In the middle is the other major set-piece, a bank robbery that degenerates into a full-on gun-battle in the streets of Los Angeles. In between, Mann takes time to develop the key characters as well as several supporting foils, both on the police team and on Neil's criminal crew. And it is because of this that the film has depth. Through these characters we understand the issues Mann is exploring, issues of how relationships are impacted by work and career, and how an obsession with a vocation can be all-consuming. Along the way, we gain a glimpse into the underlying psyches, a glimpse that may reveal something about ourselves.

The sizzling opening sequence of the armored car robbery highlights Neil's meticulous and methodical nature. He has planned the operation well, and knows exactly what to steal and what to leave. He has his timing down pat. But the robbery is botched when new team member Waingro (Kevin Gage), a vicious criminal, ruthlessly shoots one of the three guards in cold blood. This leaves Neil, Chris (Val Kilmer) and Michael (Tom Sizemore) facing murder charges, not just armed robbery. The pace, once started, never lets up.

With murder and robbery, Hanna shows up on the scene with his police team, Bosko (Ted Levine, from TV's Monk) and Drucker (Mykelti Williamson). Evidence is minimal but it is clear that the crooks are pros.

As the film develops, we see Vincent at home with his third wife Justine (Diane Venora) and her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman, her second role after The Professional). Vincent enjoys the marital sex but not the marital sharing. His family lives in a "dead-tech, post-modernistic" house that says more about their relationship than about their taste in art. This is a postmodern family that has no real warmth and whose soul is shriveled and dying.

A pivotal scene occurs in the middle of the film. After blowing a trace on all four key criminals, Vincent is following Neil's car from a helicopter above the twinkling lights of the LA night. When he orders the helicopter to set him down and he takes over a detective's car, he is able to pull Neil over on the freeway. As the tension mounts, the hunter and hunted come face-to-face. We expect violence but we get urbanity instead. Vincent invites Neil to coffee in a diner. It is here, sitting opposite one another and on-screen for their first extended dialog together, that we learn about these two loners.

This scene was shot with no rehearsals. The actors faced each other as the two characters would, with a little anxiety and wonder. Mann allowed two cameras to shoot continuously and let the two greats verbally spar with each other.

Neil tells Vincent his life philosophy: "A guy told me one time, 'Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.' " (Here is the meaning of the film's title.) This is his loose-grip philosophy. He has no relationships because he is not prepared to invest anything of himself in them.  As he says later, "I'm alone but I am not lonely," but he is merely fooling himself.

We can see even more clearly his approach to women in a conversation with Chris in Neil's beautiful but spartan condo overlooking the expansive Pacific Ocean. "When are you gonna get some furniture," Chris asks. "When I get around to it," Neil replies. Chris asks a second question: "When are you gonna get a lady?" Neil responds, "When I get around to it." Women mean as little to him as the furniture in his apartment. Something to buy, use, enjoy and walk away from.

Human beings were not made to live like this. We were meant to live in community, in relationships. Even from the beginning God's creation was sad and lonely without a companion (Gen. 2:18). God chose to make Eve for Adam (Gen. 2:22). And he desires that we enjoy the relationships we find ourselves in. This requires commitment, a willingness to stay put, even when the heat is on, rather than splitting thirty seconds after the heat is felt.

Vincent is not much better than Neil. He tells Neil, "My life's a disaster zone . . . . I got a wife, we're passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage -- my third -- because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block."  Neil comments, "Now, if you're on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?" Vincent's real problem, though, is summed up later by his wife, in one-short sentence, "You never told me I'd be excluded."

In trying to protect her from the ugliness of his job, Vincent is pushing her away. He is not letting her in, not allowing her to share his inner person. A marriage cannot be built on great sex, though it might be fun for a short while. It requires commitment and conversation. It demands openness and sharing. It cannot survive when one person shuts out the other. Such marriages, like Vincent's, suffocate and die.

More than this, though, Vincent's commitment to his work drives a wedges between him and his family leaving a terrible toll on his wife and stepdaughter. Justine has become a doped-out woman, feeling nothing, and Lauren feels too much, overly anxious about everything, strung out with suicidal tendencies. How sad for a man to be so successful in his career yet such a failure at home. As Jesus commented, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matt. 16:26) Where are his priorities? Where are ours?

At the end of a lonely night out with police friends, during which Vincent runs out to attend a 911 call about a prostitute's murder, Justine cuts through Vincent's persona to nail his identity when he returns: "You don't live with me, you live among the remains of the dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through."

She's right. He is a hunter, aroused by the scent of his prey. He lives for the chase, to catch criminals like Neil. His vocation is his obsession, not his family. One wins, the other loses.

But Neil and Vincent are more alike than they seem, even if they are on opposite sides of the law. Neither is prepared to hold down a relationship. Both are consummate professionals. Vincent tells Neil, "I don't know how to do anything else," to which Neil replies, "Neither do I." Vincent says, "I don't much want to either." Neil: "Neither do I." Vincent realizes that "All I am is what I'm going after." In a sense, he is Neil, but the positive flip-side of the coin. Though he is the loud, brash, passionate one of the two, he is still just like Neil.

As the movie steadily drives towards its ending and Vincent's marriage is drifting apart, Neil finds a woman. Eady (Amy Brenneman) is a lonely heart like him. She thinks he is a salesman but they are drawn to one another. Once she finds out who he really is, he gives her a challenge, to make a snap decision to leave with him or leave him: "I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck. You want to walk? You walk right now. Or on your own . . .  on your own you choose to come with me. And all I know is . . . all I know is there's no point in me going anywhere anymore if it's going to be alone . . . without you." But when the chips are down at the end, Neil follows his life philosophy not his heart. He is not so different from Vincent. He cannot hold down a relationship; he is too caught up in his loose-grip lifestyle.

Action and great characters aside, Mann's Heat certainly reminds us that relationships take work. And when work takes priority over these relationships we risk hurting the very ones we say we love. Are we hunters, like Vincent, leaving a pretty woman at home abused and afflicted, pining for us not our pay or our promotions? Are we like Neil, cold and aloof, not letting anyone in close enough to care? If we have even an iota of these tendencies, now is the time to turn the heat up and burn them away, rekindling the flames of passion and partnership that may have dwindled and almost died. It is not too late.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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