Michael Mann’s Heat is one of the greatest crime movies ever made. Let’s talk about why.
Neil Macauley is a professional thief who runs a crew that has been taking down major scores all over Los Angeles, from armored car robberies to highly technical burglaries. He’s done time like any career criminal, but he’s learned how not to get caught again, and lives by a rigid discipline: do not allow anything into your life that you are not willing to walk away from immediately if the police are closing in. Thus, he lives in a beautiful home by the ocean that has no furniture in it, he dresses in such an anonymous fashion, he uses no technology that can be traced to him, and he has no romantic attachments. He has run his operation so well that his fellow thieves can all afford to settle down and have families and investments, but he allows himself no such luxury. That is, until he meets Eady, the woman who wakes him up to the fact that maybe there is more to life than organizing robberies, surviving at all costs, and taking pride in how uncatchable you are. Suddenly made aware that his work is supposed to be a means to an end and not an end unto itself, he plans one last heist so he can go and live some other kind of life.
Lieutenant Vincent Hanna is the hero of the LAPD’s robbery-homicide division. A decorated Marine and supercop who has seen combat in both lines of work, he is a relentless hunter of men who habitually allows the trappings of hearth and home into his life, but has neither the time nor the energy to give them the attention they deserve. A naturally intense individual who keeps his edge sharp at all times (which is why he is later confirmed to be a casual cocaine user), he transfers that energy to his own team of detectives, who are almost as sharp, skilled and dedicated as he is. But, like McCauley’s crew, they know enough to split their time between their work and whatever else life is supposed to be about. That’s why all Hanna has to show for his efforts is a string of failed marriages, no idea what to do with himself when he isn’t prowling around the city all night, and nightmares about all the dead people from all of the cases he’s ever worked.
After an armored car heist turns unexpectedly violent, McCauley pings on Hanna’s radar, touching off a complicated game of cat and mouse as Hanna tracks McCauley while McCauley sets up a brazen bank robbery that will secure his retirement from crime. As the two become aware that each is keeping tabs on the other, Hanna decides to reach out to McCauley and talk to the guy directly. In an iconic scene that is Heat’s moment of truth, Hanna organizes an aerial dragnet to find McCauley, catches up to him on the highway, pulls him over and brings him to a diner for a cup of coffee.
The diner scene with Hanna and McCauley often gets overshadowed by the fact that it was the first time Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino had acted together directly on screen. You just don’t assemble that kind of dramatic firepower very often. But the result is sublime; a conversation between two incredibly self-aware apex predators—one whose life is just beginning, the other whose life is falling apart. As they talk, they feel comfortable enough to open up about hopes and dreams and fears that they would never share with anybody else. They discuss how empty their lives have made them, but how neither one can possibly contemplate life any other way. And they note that even though they understand each other better than anybody else in the whole world, the next time they meet, one of them won’t survive it.
McCauley’s bank robbery happens soon afterward, but Hanna’s crew arrives on the scene, touching off one of the most intense gunfight scenes in motion picture history. Both sides suffer casualties, and Hanna and McCauley emerge from it more determined than ever to prevail over the other once and for all. In any other movie, this would have been the climax. But in Heat, it merely sets up the third act.
Neil has a few loose ends to tie up before he can grab Eady and split. Hanna can no longer devote his entire energy to the case because the last vestiges of his family life implode with spectacular and tragic results. Both men are compromised at a time when neither can afford to be. Given a final chance to nab McCauley before he can escape, Hanna abandons his family one last time. As McCauley sees Hanna close in, he decides if he’s really going to live up to his own code of shedding all attachments just to stay a step ahead of the cops. When it is all over, indeed, only one of these guys is left standing, but the other one is holding his hand out of respect for the friendship they never could have had. And the victor takes it. After all this, after lives lived in such self-imposed solitude, both know that nobody really deserves to die alone.
Heat is all about an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For both McCauley and Hanna, their work isn’t something they do, it’s something they are. They know they can’t continue like this forever, and yet do so anyway. That is what doom really is: to walk a path that clearly leads to oblivion, and follow it to the end. People do that for all kinds of reasons. Usually they choose not to see what those reasons are. In this movie, however, McCauley’s and Hanna’s eyes are wide open, even until the end. They want no one’s pity. They wouldn’t know what to do with it.