At nearly three hours Heat is long enough to properly handle more than just a bank heist. The film begins with a crew getting into position for an armored car robbery. They are as efficient as the cast is good - Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, Val Kilmer as Chris Shiherlis, Tom Sizemore as Michael Cheritto, Danny Trejo as Trejo. They come prepared with stolen vehicles, hockey masks, high powered guns, bullet-proof vests, and explosives. A timer tells them when the police should arrive. Traffic spikes are laid down to impede the law’s progress. Their effects are burned. A professional job, it goes wrong when a new recruit, Waingro (Kevin Gage), unnecessarily shoots a guard. The rest of the crew doesn’t blink - though it wasn’t the plan they eliminate the other two so there aren’t any witnesses to the murder.
There’s this “we’re pros” theme running through the film. After the three guards are killed at the beginning McCauley is enraged at Waingro. The implication is that they’re professionals, not violent thugs. When desperate though they’ll kill without much thought. They have no problem violently subduing security guards in a bank heist. When they almost pull of their final heist Shiherlis notices Hanna’s crew closing in on them and fires his high powered rifle into a busy street. McCauley, Cheritto, and Shiherlis fight for their lives in a busy downtown street, spilling into a crowded supermarket parking lot. Cheritto takes a young girl hostage. There story is good, their parts are acted well, we might even be rooting for them, but there is no doubt they are the bad guys.
Back at start, Waingro escapes when the group tries to off him for his misstep and later causes trouble by alerting the victim of the crime, a money laundered named Zant (William Fichtner), of the identity of the crew. Now they have two problems. Zant and his henchmen (Henry Rollins) are after them, but so is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). Hanna versus McCauley is one of the best cat and mouse games I’ve ever seen. Hanna is committed and intense, McCauley is professional and precise. Both know their craft. Hanna has a pretty good cast as well - Mykelti Williamson, whom I really like, get the most time as Sergeant Drucker, Wes Studi, another actor I like, as Detective Casals, Ted Levine and his mustache as Detective Bosko, and Jerry Trimble as the younger Detective Schwartz - but the story is Hanna versus McCauley, or if you want to step outside the story, Pacino versus DeNiro.
It’s all very macho, the two alpha males going at each other, Hanna knowing who the criminal is, McCauley knowing he’s being chased. Most action films fail at this because they lay it on thick and don’t have the actors to back it up. Heat, with Pacino’s bursting intensity and DeNiro’s severe demeanor, pulls it off. When Hanna decides to confront McCauley and invite him to get a cup of coffee the dialog between Pacino and DeNiro is a movie classic.
I mentioned at the start that Heat is nearly 3 hours long. What that does is allow the film to succeed where most action films fail - the family subplot. For most action films this is garnish next to a steak. In Heat it’s at least the potatoes. The running theme in all of these throughout is that the business of cops and robbers takes a toll on relationships. The families of Trejo, Shiherlis, and Breedan (Trejo’s replacement as driver, played by Dennis Haysbert) are each shown experiencing hardship as a result of their profession. But like the main storyline, the real focus is on DeNiro and Pacino.
Neither McCauley nor Hanna can maintain a healthy relationship because they are both invested in the same game. McCauley is a professional criminal and so he’ll never be able to settle down. He’ll always have to watch his back. He’ll never be able to cultivate a relationship because he can never be sure when he’ll have to pick up and leave.
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."
This is what he lives by. When he has to run after his last job goes bad, he almost breaks with this advice, taking Eady (Amy Brenneman), a woman he’s grown close with, along. For a minute, even before the job, he let himself believe he could have companionship. While he was quite cognizant of the dangers of growing attached, it’s clear he yearned for the intimacy. When push comes to shove though he abandons her and runs for his life.
Hanna is the opposite side of the same coin. Whereas McCauley is always being chased, Hanna is always chasing. He’s not as open about his inability to commit, but he comes around to admitting it. To McCauley he divulges he is on his third failed marriage, and later to his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), he admits that it can’t work, that his work is his life. Neither will ever be able to take the time to build a lasting relationship with family.
Heat has great action and great acting, but what sets it apart from generic action movies is the effort put into the personal aspect of the story.
Other appearances include Jon Voight as the guy who sets McCauley’s crew up with jobs, Hank Azaria, Tone Loc, Natalie Portman as Justine’s daughter, Jeremy Piven as the criminal surgeon, and Ashley Judd as Shiherlis’ wife Charlene.