Lawrence Russell

Heat (1995) writ. and dir. Michael Mann cine. Dante Spinotti music Elliot Goldenthal star. Robert de Niro (Neil McCauley), Al Pacino (Lt. Vincent Hanna), Val Kilmer (Chris Shiherlis), Tom Sizemore (Michael Cheritto), Jon Voight (Nate), Kevin Gage (Waingro), Diane Venora (Justine), Ashley Judd (Charlene), Amy Brenneman (Eady), Natalie Portman, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, et. al.

Warner Bros

the final waltz of the cyborgs: guns, cars and planes

A generic armoured Brinks truck is intercepted at dawn somewhere in urban Los Angeles by a gang wearing hockey goalie masks and packing M-16s. The Brinks truck is rammed by a huge industrial tow-truck and knocked into an auto lot, rolling onto its side before being blasted open with strip-wire explosives. It's a rapid action heist in the shadow of a freeway interchange, which sees the ruthless shooting of the Guards and the gang's departure in a stolen ambulance which is later jettisoned and bombed.

Heat Heat

The only witness is a hobo called "TV Man" who lives in the concrete palisades of the freeway ramp with a huge television set. Is this some black humor by the writer/director, Michael Mann? Almost certainly, as prior to the heist you see Chris (Val Kilmer) buying the explosives. How will he be paying? "Cash," he says. "Made out to Tax Demolition, Tucson."

As usual with Michael Mann, crime is a game which expresses the attitude of a generation that doesn't see drug dealing as a crime at all, and that most institutions are just criminals who rob from the people. "We're not here to take your money," shouts Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro) as he rotates his M-16 over the cowering customers in the bank. "We're here for the bank's money, not your money -- your money is insured by the Federal Government, you're not gonna lose a dime...." The assumption is that beneath it all the money is dirty and that peeling off a few decimal points in the compound rip-off is merely a means of redressing a societal wrong while taking the fast lane to the good life.

Here's how it works: after ramming and robbing a Brink's truck, McCauley takes the booty -- a package of Bearer Bonds -- to Nate the Fence (Jon Voight)...

Nate: 1.6 mil... 40 cents on the dollar, that's 640 thousand to you... 50 thou front money, get you the rest in three days.

McCauley: (reads) Malibu Equity Investments...

Nate: Roger van Zant's banks, off-shore drug money... 100% insured. He's a player, so he buys back the Bearer Bonds for 60% of their value, makes 40% on top of the 100%.

So with that taken care of, we're all quite comfortable with what has happened, except for the unfortunate executions of the three Brinks guards, precipitated by the cold-blooded killing of one by the outsider, Waingro (Kevin Gage). Waingro is a thrill-killer, a sociopath who kills as part of his sexual expression. Later, when he murders the sixteen year old black prostitute you suspect he's acting as an apostle of white power as he has a swastika tattooed on his stomach. When McCauley catches up with him in the final stanza, shoots him between the eyes, it's natural justice for the Brinks Guards and the prostitute as much as it's a revenge for his betrayal.

Similar to the taciturn Dix Hanley in The Asphalt Jungle, McCauley is another loner who isn't afraid to take time out to act against those who break the code of cool or help those soldiers in his unit of desperadoes who are having problems. In some ways, the code of cop and criminal as played by Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley is exactly the same sort of gentleman's esprit de corps game as represented by the officers in Renoir's famous The Grand Illusion. Perhaps Mann is just pushing another sentimental fantasy about those men who are too lazy to get rich by doing real work, although God knows, McCauley and his gang certainly work hard at what they do. Like all clowns and actors, they know how to be someone else if being someone else will get them the attention they need... for, behind every spectacular crime runs the psychology of self-love.

Heat is a very long film due to the psychology of character and the sociology of landscape. Everyone is in a dysfunctional relationship -- or in no relationship at all. Waingro's relationships last maybe 30 seconds past orgasm or first eye-contact. In a way, he's the perfect expression of McCauley's survivalist philosophy -- form no attachments you can't walk away from in thirty seconds. While McCauley practices what he preaches -- he walks away from his new commitment to Eady -- he understands the inability of his demo expert Chris (Val Kilmer) to do this, and in fact intervenes in Chris' behalf with his dissatisfied wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd).

The most peculiar relationship is Lt. Vincent Hanna's. During a mutual admiration meeting between cop and criminal, Hanna tells McCauley he's on the downslope of his third marriage. Some marriage -- Justine (Diane Verona) is a Prozac and pot cadet who requires more attention than the good cop can provide. Essentially he's a bigamist, as he's married to his job, the Freudian depth of this condition made graphically obvious by Justine's resemblance to a L.A.P.D. patrolman. Short black hair, black slacks, and black blouse, she's been gendered into a doll, a totem for Hanna's career -- "Justine". When he comes home one morning to find another man sitting in his chair, he doesn't pistol whip him, but has his finest speech:

Hanna: I'm very angry, Ralph. You know, you can ball my wife if she wants you to... you can lounge around here on her sofa... in her ex-husband's dead-tech, post-modernistic bullshit house if you want to... but you do not get to watch my fuckin' television set....

He brutally rips the cord from the socket and takes the black portable with him as he exits. At a nearby intersection he boots the set out of his prowl car onto the pavement. Talk about disengagement... although of course he's not done with Justine yet. When her teenage daughter slashes her wrists in the bathtub in Hanna's hotel room, they reach their emotional nadir. But in the movies, good things happen to good guys -- the daughter survives and Hanna goes on to take down McCauley.

Typical of the easy money mentality, McCauley's initial plan is to head for the surf and sun in Fiji, but this gets modified to New Zealand. The choice of destination fits with the unspoken sense of McCauley being a revolutionary, someone who knows the American system is corrupt. He's too hip to be a mere thief, too principled to be a murderer. He's an equalizer, that form of the vigilante who acts as a retainer in our dreams. Tailored by Armani, armed by Colt, he's a New Age criminal. Sensitive? You bet. Mercy killings? No problem. Executions? No problem. In fact, if it wasn't for a detour to eradicate that scumbag Nazi killer Waingro, he and his pretty book lover chick would've been home free....

Mann always works within the TV paradigm, that is, a prologue followed by three acts. He dresses the cliches by hiding them in a hip landscape of cool culture -- the latest music, clothing and architecture. No wonder so much of contemporary film is poison to the conventional moralist -- sex and violence and homicide are montaged into chic gallery hangings of stolen art and stolen souls. Mann is very seductive with his blue landscapes and human isolation. Nice guns, too.

Heat: Mann or Colville? Heat: Mann or Colville?

In Heat, the sensational action is in counterpoint to moments of stasis -- for example, the scene where McCauley leans against the picture window of his beachfront house, gazing at the infinity presented by the ocean horizon. Meanwhile his pistol lies on a table in the foreground, a solution to a problem that perhaps he is yet to see. While the scene is rendered in a deep dream blue, the actual composition is a direct rip-off of Alex Colville's painting Pacific 1967. Does that matter? Not at all -- Colville himself was influenced by Hopper and other artists -- but it serves to remind you that Mann's vision is largely borrowed, even if he masquerades as an auteur.

While he follows the Hollywood convention of sex, killings, and the happy ending, there's always enough nihilism within the action to make his drama subversive. Miami Vice -- his highly successful TV series of the mid-eighties -- was laced with nihilism. The objective was always death -- the preferred exit of the existential criminal. As executioners, his cops were voyeurs, always around for the next episode. He established a new level of television violence, a dramatic modus operandi that rivalled the News, maybe even prefigured it, as the criminals were watching and responding accordingly. "It was like something in Miami Vice," became the standard simile for a street shootout.

"Get clean shots, watch your backgrounds"

Heat: Drive-In shootoutMann is second to none when it comes to dramatizing a gun battle. When McCauley meets the van Zant contact for the payout for the Brinks job, the rendezvous takes place in the gravel ramp of a deserted Drive-In movie theatre. The point-of-view is shown in the long view, as if seen by the projectionist... although in reality it's McCauley's backup shooter, Chris. The scene is well done, complete with its attempted double-cross, demolition derby and gunfight. It's post-modern, the action a daylight realization of the nighttime fantasy so often shown on the big outdoor screen in the background.

The urban gun battle following the bank robbery is now the seminal scene of that sort. Filmed at the Bonaventure plaza in downtown Los Angeles, the robbery and subsequent shootout is 12 minutes of documentary realism performed within the expressionist architecture of pressed concrete columns, marble cladding, terraces, fountains, cone sculptures and mirror glass -- the reinvention of one reality by another. What is Nature? Or, more specifically, what is Nature at the close of the twentieth century? An elegant theatre of self-annihilation. We are actors in our own sepulchres.

Heat: Bonaventure shootout Heat: Val Kilmer

The cops arrive just as the McCauley gang are exiting the bank:

Lt. Hanna: O.K. we're gonna have to get 'em in the car. Get clean shots, watch your background.

"Watch your background" -- indeed. This could be a filmmaker giving instructions to his cameraman. The statement is its own indictment -- engagement will happen regardless.

The complete recklessness of American law-enforcement is demonstrated by its willingness to turn a city street filled with ordinary citizens into a battlefield as if no other option exists. Justice is not the issue if below your Hugo Boss suit you're wearing Second Chance body armor and packing a light machine gun. No doubt about it, the combat is thrilling. The vandalism of property and flesh is outrageous, an ecstatic protest against authority -- five patrolmen, two detectives, maybe a couple of civilians killed versus two robbers killed and one wounded. As any student of War knows, you're only as successful as your weapons: McCauley's gang have the good old M-16 assault rifle (Colt Commando) with its thirty round magazine etc. Meanwhile Lt. Hanna is armed with the very chic Belgian FNC 5.56 mm assault rifle -- no doubt this is why he has the confidence to shoot Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) even though he has a young girl clasped to his chest as a hostage.

If Hanna had missed, shot the kid through the head... well, who knows how long this movie would've been. But it's the sort of symbolism that isn't allowed, even if it fits within the psychology of the character. As part of the doppelganger with McCauley, Hanna can never injure the innocent. It's part of the systemic lie that allows the culture of violence to increase its free market potential when it's bloody obvious to anyone with eyes that the easy access to sophisticated guns has destabilized society. The fascism of direct action victimizes everyone because it corrupts both sides of the law.

in the reductive universe, an action is an imitation of a drama

But this is only a movie, you say... a street gunfight very similar to this one became part of a live television broadcast on February 28, 1997. The two criminals wore full kevlar body armor and when they emerged from the Bank of America on Laurel Canyon in North Hollywood, they immediately engaged members of the L.A.P.D. in what's been described as the biggest gun battle in American police history. The two robbers roamed at will firing their automatics (an AK 47 and an M 16 with 100 round mags and armor piercing bullets). Eight cruisers were shredded, nine cops wounded and others injured along with seven civilians and one dog. Close to two thousand rounds were fired. The police used a nearby furniture store as their command centre, where they were able to watch live television coverage of the firefight on a bank of new monitors. Sound familiar?

"Drama is an imitation of an action," says Aristotle. But in the reductive universe, an action is an imitation of a drama.

the final waltz of the cyborgs

The ending is really a duel between protagonists, not a set piece of good versus evil where the antagonists fulfill their predictable theatre of propaganda. Oh, there's an appearance of convention because the cop wins the shootout... but when Hanna takes the hand of the dying McCauley, you're left with no doubt as to the unity of purpose. They are merely players in a secular universe, committed to the same objective: death by gunfight. It is, of course, death by orgasm -- the preferred exit of the humanist sociopath.

Visually, the finale is very impressive... although it should be noted that it's a reworking of a similar scene in Peter Yates' 1968 Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt. Filmed in the flight-path lighting grid as the big jet liners land and take-off, the action exists in stasis. The actors are seen in silhouette against the checkered light boxes and transformers, rendered as de facto paintings in this night gallery of contemporary civilization. While neither the hunter nor the hunted are wearing body armor, it is in fact the final waltz of the cyborgs. As humans, Hanna and McCauley are mere simulacra, victims of the architecture that encloses them. They are lost within the machinery -- guns, cars and planes. Just as McCauley is finally betrayed by his own shadow thrown by the lights of a passing jet, Hanna looks towards the lights of an on-coming jet -- perhaps the one which his alias was supposed to catch.

© LR 31/7/99


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