Those Eyes! That Gun!

Sometimes I wish these guys would just fuck and be done with it. When you blow away the cloud of steam generated by the generic cops, robbers, and one-last-heist-that-goes-bad plot line, Michael Mann's new film Heat boils down to a love story between two men. But because this is a major Hollywood release, writer-director Mann couches the gay subtext in the usual admiration-for-a-resourceful-adversary cliches. Frustration mounts as the men's denial of their true sexuality compels them to attempt to maintain dysfunctional romantic relationships with women. The escalating sexual tension culminates in fatal gunplay -- and we all know what those guns really symbolize, even if Michael isn't Mann enough to admit it. But lest you think I'm just a confused critic reading my own skewed agenda into a manly man's shoot-'em-up, consider this: Heat ends -- and I'm not making this up -- with Al Pacino's veteran homicide lieutenant Vincent Hanna and his elusive quarry, Robert De Niro's coolly professional thief Neil McCauley, holding hands.

Don't get me wrong; the movie is great fun. (The title just sort of cries out for hyperbolic blurbs, doesn't it? Heat scorches! Heat explodes! Heat blows the lid off! Heat blazes! Heat catches fire! Heat [your catch phrase here]!) Several of the action sequences pack such a visceral wallop that, despite being totally ludicrous, they literally brought me to the edge of my seat. Say what you want about writer-director Mann, the man has a distinctive visual flair and he knows how to stage an inspired shootout.

And he has the clout to assemble a hell of a cast. I mean, not just anyone could bring together actors of this caliber for a routine bullet ballet. How do you tell Robert De Niro he rates second billing? The last time De Niro and Pacino appeared in the same movie was The Godfather, Part II, but they never performed on-screen together. In Heat they come face to face only two times, but their first meeting alone is worth the price of admission. Not because the acting is so great -- the mannerisms and the quirks have become a bit too familiar -- but because it forces you to realize what charismatic, enigmatic stars these guys are. And because their real-life competition to be the better actor mirrors their on-screen rivalry. De Niro and Pacino belong on any short list of the greatest American actors of the last three decades, and while Heat will not make fans forget Raging Bull or Serpico, the film benefits and somely from its leads' star power.

Mann didn't exactly cast slouches in the supporting roles, either. Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, and Tom Sizemore all tear off healthy chunks of meaty roles as members of McCauley's gang. Ashley Judd makes the best of a thankless role as Kilmer's fed-up, philandering spouse. Even Tone-Loc charms in a too-brief spot; the gravel-voiced rapper outshines angst-thrash rocker and exalted spoken-word artist Henry Rollins in the battle of cameos by famous contemporary musicians.

Like Martin Scorsese's epic Vegas- wiseguy morality play Casino -- the season's other hotly anticipated crime film starring De Niro -- Heat approaches three hours in length. But where Scorsese's movie is all muscle and no fat, Mann could have trimmed quite a few minutes without significantly altering his narrative. Subplots about a former McCauley gang member who moonlights as a hooker-slashing serial killer and Hanna's daughter's emotional problems get cursory treatment; Mann should have excised the former and tightened the latter. Still, the director keeps things moving at a rapid enough clip that the movie never lags for long.

Despite Mann's unwillingness to bring it out into the open, however, the focus of this movie is really Hanna and McCauley's pas de deux. Michael Mann is not the only filmmaker (Walter Hill springs immediately to mind) whose macho action flicks frequently imply a latent homosexual attraction between two male leads. Just about every buddy-cop movie (Tango and Cash, for one) skirts (no double-entendre intended) the subject, as do many Westerns (don't forget the Robert Redford-Paul Newman-Katharine Ross threesome in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and war movies (how do you think all those testosterone-crazed killers entertained themselves during their training period in The Dirty Dozen?). It's almost a time-honored tradition for the stoic action-film hero and villain (or, if it's a buddy movie, the wisecracking partners) to prefer each other's company to that of the women in their lives. Mann's seminal Eighties TV series Miami Vice thrived on the conceit; the only person Crockett really loved more than himself (okay, and possibly designer Giorgio Armani) was his partner Tubbs. They went through women like unstructured jackets, but you always knew that in the end it was just the two of them. It all dates back to ancient Greece, when Spartan soldiers covered each other's backsides both literally and figuratively.

It comes as no surprise, then, that both Hanna and McCauley experience girl trouble. Hanna's marriage A his third A slides away from him for the same reason the preceding two did: He prefers nabbing bad guys to nailing his wife. (There's a hysterical scene late in the film in which Mrs. Hanna gives her husband permission to leave the hospital -- where their daughter is recovering from self-inflicted wounds -- in order to get back on McCauley's case. The relieved lieutenant skitters down the hospital steps like a kid racing away from school after the last day of classes.) Meanwhile McCauley lives by the credo "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you cannot run out on in 30 seconds flat." Needless to say, he's one lonely super-robber. They're a match waiting to happen.

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.

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