Heat (1995): The Realistic Film that Ruined the Crime Genre

by Lance Heard

Heat (1995), a realistic story and the famous first pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, was so well made, with such high quality on both sides of the camera, that it was too good.

What exactly do I mean?  Writer, producer, director Michael Mann made such an impression on the industry via flawless production that he mesmerized imitators into believing they could easily duplicate Heat’s success.  Because everything’s so seamless you don’t notice the effort.  The writing, the plot, the casting, the pacing, the editing, the choreography… wait, choreography?  Yes, even the choreography. Action scenes synchronized to perfection and filmed from precise camera angles allow you to be everywhere and see every aspect of what’s taking place.  Heat became the standard by which many future films would be judged.

Heat reminds us of that age-old industry dilemma.  Given: making a movie for market consumption is a business.  However, since film is an art form, a tension exists in the balance between the pursuit of artistic vision and making money.  When that balance is handled adroitly, a master like Michael Mann can produce a realistic gem such as Heat.

In a rush to cash in, others make costly shortcuts.  Here are three things that set Heat apart all too often.  First of all, the imitators lack a vision for their film beyond making money.  Secondly, they often settle, not demanding realistic scripts. Finally, they rarely do their homework.  Mann had a specific vision for what he wanted to create in this story.  He also put in the time, did the research, and educated himself and his colleagues on the subject matter.  And most importantly, he respected what suspension of disbelief means to a movie fan.  He prioritized realism at the risk of losing his audience.  Imagine you’re sitting beside your date, trying to enjoy the film, and whispered in your ear is the question, “Why did they do that?”  You realize that your only honest response is, “because it was in the script?”  No need for that exchange when you watch Heat.

Heat vs. The Town

For the sake of explanation, I will offer a comparison between the realistic accuracy of Heat, with one of its better imitators, The Town (2010).  The downside for us is that the success from Heat spawned so many more crime genre films that sought to duplicate the revenue without doing the homework.  If only those filmmakers had spent that time figuring out what they really wanted to make besides lots of money, we’d have been spared a mess of mediocre movies.  Of course, it wasn’t all bad, but that isn’t saying much.

Just some of the titles that sought to capture the humorless tone of Heat, if not its raison d’être, were No Country for Old Men (2007), Armored (2009), Takers (2010), A Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Pain & Gain (2013), The Counselor (2013), Live by Night (2017), and Den of Thieves (2018).  While some doggedly worked at their craft, many were little more than cash grabs.

Michael Mann had similar success in subsequent crime films. I think if you consider each one, you’ll agree he had some distinct ideas to explore in such diverse offerings as Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006), Public Enemies (2009), and Blackhat (2015)You might beg to differ, but I assert that while it had the same Mann style, Collateral had a much different focus.  Miami Vice explored the challenges of undercover police-work, Public Enemies gave a historic face to the crime genre motif, and Blackhat wove international crime with the commensurate global collaboration, along with an updated cyber take on To Catch a Thief (1955).

A Well-Defined Vision for the Movie

Mann has an attraction to realistic stories he has adapted into quality films.  The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), and The Aviator (2004) for example.  With Heat, part of his vision was to examine the character of a violent professional thief.  He based Heat on the true story of police detective Chuck Adamson’s pursuit of Neil McCauley and his crew in the Midwest.  By basing Heat on real criminal behavior, Mann avoided both the bizarre and the improbable.  We might watch a Mann protagonist and still ask, “why did he do that?”  However, it’d be mostly because we wouldn’t behave that way ourselves, even if a real criminal might

The Town was based on the novel Prince of Thieves, written by Chuck Hogan.  While this vision was clear enough, because it was a fictional story it ran the risk of not being believable.  A key to the plot is that Ben Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, starts a personal relationship with a bank robbery kidnap victim (Rebecca Hall).  He does this to learn if she could incriminate him and his gang, although they wore masks during the crime.  Seem a little far-fetched to you?

Contrast that with Neil McCauley’s realistic behavior in which he’s minding his own business at a bar counter when a woman sitting next to him starts asking questions.  He responds to her small talk with suspicion.  He has a book he bought from the bookstore she works at and is using it to research a crime they plan to commit.  She asks him what kind of work he does, reading a book about metals.  Then he replies, “lady, why are you so interested in what I read or what I do?” He is wary of anyone, including this woman, who might get incriminating information about him.  De Niro’s fact-based character is far more believable than Affleck’s fictional one.

Realistic Story Lines

Actors know acting.  For Heat Mann had actors spend time visiting prisons to interview inmates.  Consequently, we see the respect actors have for their craft when they do this amount of research and preparation.  Imagine that Ashley Judd spent time with prostitutes turned housewives as part of the research for her role.

As background, I had been working a beat for years when Heat came out.  I was struck by how realistic the character of Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) was.  He reminded me of so many ex-convicts I had come across in the field.  I now know the reason for this uncanny resemblance.  For me, no performance, outside of Christopher Walken in At Close Range (1986), and Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking (1995) appeared as authentic as Kilmer’s.  Moreover, Mann didn’t stop with research when he cast Danny Trejo, a realistic choice being a former inmate, to play one of the criminals in the film.

Whatever research he did, Jeremy Renner gave a believable performance in The Town.  Ben Affleck, not so much.  Maybe it’s me, but when I look at the screen, what do I see?  Ben Affleck, movie star.

The Filmmakers Did Their Homework

Part of Mann’s effort to have a real feel to the film was to shoot entirely on location.  One relatively minor scene involved an interview between the police detective played by Al Pacino and the owner of a stolen car chop shop.  Where was it? When I recognized it I smiled, because it impressed me.  Actually, the location for that scene was in an area of one of my former patrol beats, on the border between Los Angeles and Long Beach, as far out on the edge of town as you can get.  Officers had a nickname for this area: no man’s land.

A place inhabited by the homeless, drug addicts, and fugitives from the law in a tent-less city.  At night they lit the area by fires from burning 50-gallon drums, used for heat to ward off cold winter ocean breezes.  An industrial area bordered by rail yards, we’d often check the location for abandoned stolen cars.  What we usually found was a hollowed-out chassis on old broken down tires. I think it’s the type of realism that goes unnoticed.  I doubt Mann or his location scout, Janice Polley, actually understood the history of that stretch of land.  Gladly, The Town did it’s homework too.  Affleck and his team conducted similar extensive research in the Boston community of Charlestown and various locations where filming took place.  It clearly shows.  This is more proof that putting in the work makes a difference in the final product.

Clearly, many other films haven’t done the same preparation.

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Heat? Comment down below!

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Darkstalker90 July 27, 2018 - 5:20 pm

One of my all-time favourites that I can watch endlessly. I don’t think we will ever have such a realistic street gun battle scene ever again that isn’t accompanied by OTT special effects, unrealistic explosions or some sort of ‘epic’ music. On the other, less action-packed end of the spectrum, even the conversations between the characters are so enjoyable to watch.

Lance Heard July 27, 2018 - 5:23 pm

Couldn’t agree with you more.

philosophoenix July 25, 2018 - 10:53 am

Heat is one of my favorites of the genre, as much for its complex protagonist/antagonist characters as for any other aspect. And yes, it did ruin me for many other fairly worthy or otherwise entertaining films in that vein.

AlexTRyan27 July 25, 2018 - 1:53 am

Great write-up of some of what makes Heat work – I hadn’t heard about the research before. I’d dispute some of your points (fiction is inherently less believable, Heat is humourless, No Country for Old Men is an imitator, etc.), but I really came here to say I LOVED your description of the Los Angeles-Long Beach no man’s land area! I’m not surprised to see you write novels as well!

Lance Heard July 25, 2018 - 9:51 pm

That fiction verses reality debate would make for a fun discussion. I wondered who would object to No Country for Old Men…Nice catch!

frasersherman July 24, 2018 - 5:01 pm

It’s the same thing with Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in comics. Other creators imitated the dark, grim, gritty style but without any sense of what made it work.

Jonetta (Ejaygirl) July 24, 2018 - 5:00 pm

Heat is one of a kind. Many boast of an all-star cast but no one just showed up for this one. They all showed why they were considered to be A-List actors, not just stars. This was special.

raistlin0903 July 24, 2018 - 4:54 pm

Wonderful post about a movie that is in my personal top 3 of alltime favorite movies. I really enjoyed reading this, and you definitely managed to point a couple of very good points. As much as some of the films mentioned were still entertaining, I have never ever seen a crime film that I loved as much as this one. Everything just simply worked in this movie, especially the characters. I really loved how each of them, even some of the minor roles, had their own little back story. In that way you could really relate so much with them, and feel sympathy even for some of the criminals. (I remember when I saw the movie for the first time that I was absolutely horrified when Kilmers character got shot, which only proves how great an acting performance Val delivered). As I said, absolutely loved this post! 😊

Nick Kush July 24, 2018 - 4:38 pm

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