Generally, there are two kinds of action movies. The first is what I usually refer to as the “meat and potatoes” action film, a movie that is geared toward blowing stuff up or getting an audience’s adrenaline pumping in a variety of spectacular ways. Examples of this type include Commando, Cobra, Lethal Weapon, Universal Soldier, and any movie made by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, or Seagal. The second kind of action movie is typically referred to as the “cerebral” action movie, a film that engages with the mind and aims to be somewhat realistic. These movies include Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and virtually all of Michael Mann’s films.
It’s one of Mann’s films that, in this author’s mind, hold the title of “best action movie ever made.” His 1995 masterpiece, Heat, is lots of things: an action movie, yes, but also an epic crime drama, a Los Angeles mood piece, a story about the utter failure of modern relationships, an intense bank heist thriller, an indictment about the United States criminal reform system, etc. That it’s about all of these things and is still a cohesive movie is what makes it so great. For the last two weeks, Heat has been one of the most popular movies on Netflix. If you haven’t already streamed it, or haven’t watched it recently, here are some good reasons why you should.
Heat has a great story that is both simple and sprawling
Heat‘s plot can be boiled down to this: it’s a cops and robbers movie, but told in detail, with attention paid to character development, tension, and realism. Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro in one of his last truly great roles as a leading man, is a career thief based in Los Angeles. After a botched robbery that leaves multiple bank guards dead, McCauley and his crew decide to pull off one last score: robbing $12.2 million from a bank in downtown L.A. Hot on their tail is Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino, in peak Pacino form), a former Marine and LAPD cop who methodically pieces together McCauley’s plan and tries to stop him.
That’s Heat’s story in a nutshell, but the genius of the movie is how it also contains a multitude of side stories that are delicately interwoven within the movie’s overall robbery plotline. There’s Neil’s tender flirtation with Eady, a lonely graphic designer he meets at a bookstore; Vincent’s crumbling marriage to Justine, who is angry for being passed over for Vincent’s obsession with his job; Vincent’s stepdaughter Lauren, who is quietly sinking under a wave of teenage depression; and Chris, Neil’s closest partner who has a tempestuous marriage to Charlene.
There’s a lot going on; for instance, I didn’t even mention the serial killer subplot! But Heat never feels overstuffed, nor do any of its stories feel underdeveloped. Everyone in the large cast is given a chance to shine, yet Mann always keeps the focus on the driving force of the narrative: the final heist, and the key players who are involved in pulling it off or stopping it from happening.
Heat’s cast includes some of Hollywood’s finest actors
It’s not too much of a stretch to claim that everyone in Hollywood was cast in Heat, but it sure seems like it. In addition to Pacino and De Niro, Heat also starred Val Kilmer as bank robber Chris Shiherlis. Kilmer was at the height of his fame in 1995, having just starred as the Dark Knight in Batman Forever and was just cast in the 1997 action pic The Saint. As Kilmer’s wife, Ashley Judd was beginning her ascent into Hollywood stardom, having earned critical raves in Smoke the same year and lining up her next movie, A Time to Kill. As Vincent’s stepdaughter Lauren, Natalie Portman had already made an impression with 1993’s The Professional, and would later go on to make Beautiful Girls and Mars Attacks! in 1996 and, of course, The Phantom Menace in 1999.
The rest of the cast includes (deep breath) Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Wes Studi, Hank Azaria, Tom Noonan, Mykelti Williamson, Diane Venora, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Trejo, William Fichtner, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven, Bud Cort, and many, many more. Heat employed a who’s who of established stars from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, newcomers who would dominate the rest of the ’90s and 2000s, and character actors who are still working to this day (Fichtner was just in Hypnotic with Ben Affleck), and the result was one of the most talented movie casts of the 1990s.
Heat’s director is one of the greatest directors working today
If you’re a film fan, you know who Michael Mann is. But if you’re not, you’ve probably seen some of his work on the big screen or on TV. His feature film debut was 1981’s Thief, a little-known thriller starring James Caan that shares some plot and stylistic similarities with Heat. Later, he made Manhunter, which was the first movie to put Hannibal Lecter on the big screen. His biggest claim to fame in the 1980s, however, was writing and producing Miami Vice, a massively popular TV show starring Don Johnson that Mann later adapted into a 2006 feature film with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx.
Other notable works from Mann include the Daniel Day-Lewis outdoors action epic The Last of The Mohicans, the gripping real-life drama The Insider with Pacino and Russell Crowe, the biopic Ali with Will Smith, the assassin thriller Collateral with Tom Cruise, the gangster picture Public Enemies with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, and Blackhat with Chris Hemsworth. Not all of these movies are winners, but they are all clearly from the same director, one who is clearly drawn to stories of complicated men involved with the system of law and order.
Heat is Mann at his peak and purest form. It showcases Mann’s flair for saturated visuals (he loves a deep blue color to punctuate a shot) and for characters who don’t fit into one mold. Even though he’s one of the good guys, Pacino’s Hanna isn’t particularly likable. He ignores his wife, is loud, and flirts with breaking the law himself.
On the other hand, the audience understands De Niro’s McCauley more and can sympathize with his actions. He may be on the wrong side of the law (and yes, he does kill people who are just doing their jobs), but up until the finale, McCauley is more of an audience favorite than Hanna is. It’s this ambiguity of right and wrong, and the moral greys in which his characters occupy, that make Mann one of the best directors working today and what makes Heat stand out from other movies.
Why Heat has stood the test of time
What, the excellent cast, plot, and director aren’t enough? What about how Heat marks the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene together? Yes, it’s the famous “diner scene” that you may have heard about, when the two enemies essentially pause their conflict and have a heart-to-heart about how they both have more in common than they care to admit. Or the excellent female supporting cast, all of whom form the heart of the movie?
Last but not least, you should watch Heat because it’s an action movie that does action right. It makes us care about the characters involved and doesn’t sensationalize gunplay or violence. The climactic bank heist is a case study in how the director utilizes sound to build tension and how that tension accentuates the action showcased in the scene. The result is one of the most thrilling and unnerving action sequences ever, and one that Heat is rightly remembered for to this day.