Michael Mann was at his peak in the 1990s, beginning the decade with Daniel Day-Lewis’ heroic turn in The Last of The Mohicans, and ending it with the nimble one-two of Ali and The Insider. In between came his masterpiece, Heat, which saw the director returning to the crime and punishment themes of his two fine 1980s thrillers, Thief and Manhunter.
Like them, Heat takes a painstaking approach to observing obsessive behaviour in a clearly delineated set up: dedicated cop Al Pacino leads a Major Crimes Unit against Robert De Niro’s hand-picked team of professional criminals. The game plan is patience, the rules are made up as they go along by two perfectionists who leave a trail of chaos in their wake. The cop and the thief are two sides of the same coin and Pacino and De Niro tacitly acknowledge this in the first of two terrific scenes they share.
What’s most suprising about Heat is that it’s a radical reworking of Mann’s violent TV movie LA Takedown (released on video in the UK as LA Crimewave). Fully fleshed out from Takedown’s brisk 90-minute outline, Heat took the cops-and-robbers genre to a new plane. Its fluid camerawork, canny colour schemes and spellbinding sense of composition in an unfamiliar looking Los Angeles marked the cinematic high point of Mann’s architectural attention to detail. Heat is the Space Odyssey of crime thrillers.
In the mid-90s, Michael Mann was the most accomplished film-maker at work in America. He combined the dour, cruel detachment of Stanley Kubrick with the arrogant stylistic opulence of Oliver Stone and the visual rigour of the great European directors. Urban crime thrillers wouldn’t look this good again until Mann’s Collateral in 2004.
Alas, like David Lynch, he was seduced by the easy accessibility of digital video, forsaking the use of film on his indifferent post-Collateral pictures, Miami Vice, Public Enemies and the poorly received Blackhat. All of them look like warmed-over scraps in a dog’s bowl compared to Heat.