Loose ends

Unfocused but compelling, Heat is an ambitious modern detective story

You know you're in with some heavy hitters when Batman gets cast in a supporting part and doesn't even get his name in the title, and there probably aren't any more expansive actors than De Niro and Pacino. (Incredibly, this is their first on-screen pairing; though both appeared in The Godfather Part II, they shared no scenes).

Pacino's recent movies are far less likely to be good just because he's in them than in his heyday during the 1970s; he has lately replaced acting with a kind of unbridled shouting. (Scent of a Woman, which won him his first Oscar, was an embarrassingly hammy role that begged the Academy to make up for past snubs.) He tones down that superabundance of energy here, and he only raises his voice when it's called for, rather than when he can't think of anything else to do (Carlito's Way displayed his turbulent boisterousness at its most vexing).

In his youth, Pacino always played troubled, moody kids; as he has aged, his gaunt, haggard looks now convey a hard-won wisdom that lends an air of doleful inevitability to his performances. He may never equal the polished dazzle of his roles in Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather Part II, but he's still in fine form.

Pacino's sunken appearance contrasts nicely with De Niro's solid, compact features. De Niro has long specialized in a dangerous twitching suggesting deep-seated instability behind a decisive facade, but he's remarkably cool and precise. The threat of violence lingers, but his authority seems earned, not imposed; De Niro makes Neil scary not because you don't know what he'll do next, but because you do.

With dominating actors like these two, the script can't find much room to give anyone else as much depth or screen time, but Kilmer and Jon Voight make the most of their roles. The female characters tend to drop out until their presence is required, which is not often, but at least they are well-drawn individuals. Venora, an under-utilized actress, is strained in one of the film's many nonessential subplots, but she's convincing and sympathetic, and Ashley Judd stands out as Kilmer's beset wife.

It's hardly a wonder that Mann falters slightly; he stacks the deck against himself, and leaves no reasonable chance of keeping every plot line and every character active and dynamic. Heat's sprawl is both its raison d'etre and its albatross. Luckily, Mann's deft touch leaves you plenty of room to wallow in atmosphere when the story gets out of hand. Heat gets your heart pumping and mind thinking the way masterful detective fiction should.

Heat. Warner Bros. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer. Written and directed by Michael Mann. Opens December 15.

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