Hanna's admiration for McCauley and his crew (who have their own women problems -- Val Kilmer's wife throws him out and cheats on him because he blows all his loot on sports bets) mounts as he observes the gang's handiwork. By film's end you'll wish you had a nickel for every time Pacino or one of his peers utters some variation on the line "These guys are good." As an added tease, Mann sets it up so Hanna and McCauley catch glimpses of each other from afar before they actually meet. Hanna looks into McCauley's eyes over an infrared video transmission; McCauley checks out Hanna through binoculars. Overcome by curiosity and admiration (and maybe just a twinge of something, um, a little more urgent?), Hanna tails McCauley on the freeway, pulls him over, and invites him out for coffee and chitchat. (Ask any cop; that old make-a-date-during-a-routine-traffic-stop ploy works every time.)
Over coffee the two men lay their cards on the table. Hanna warns McCauley that he's on to the robber; McCauley says catch me if you can. They play cat and mouse for a while longer, until the time comes for the big heist. This leads to the critical turning point when De Niro's character must choose between settling an old score or getting away clean and starting a new life. He may be overqualified for many of his duties in this movie, but here it's hard to imagine anyone but De Niro milking the moment so marvelously as he screws his face into a series of tortured masks. So convincing is the actor's performance that the audience at the screening I attended groaned loudly and collectively at his choice, even though it was a foregone conclusion.
But while most of what happens after the big caper -- and a lot does -- avoids melodramatic pitfalls, the ending does not. Mann's talent for wringing tension out of familiar situations (consider for a moment just how many films and TV shows have covered the dogged lawman/clever bank robber terrain) deserts him when he needs it most. Rather than thrilling to the conclusion, you're sitting there thinking, "Oh no -- it can't end like this!" Even the redoubtable De Niro-Pacino tandem cannot salvage the proceedings. What started out so compellingly and entertainingly dissolves into mawkish anticlimax. All you're left with is a scene that wastes the talents of the two leads. They could be just any two guys in Heat.