Loose ends

Unfocused but compelling, Heat is an ambitious modern detective story

Heat, writer-director Michael Mann's heavy-hitting crime drama, has some eye-catching images, a wonderfully ambiguous mood, and numerous detailed characters ably performed by a great cast. You have to admire the brazen magnitude it's reaching for, even though the film's impressive scope ultimately works against it.

The central narrative--about the symbiotic relationship between police detective (Al Pacino) and master criminal (Robert De Niro)--gets cluttered with too many extraneous subplots that detract from rather than complement the film. You see the direction Mann's running in, and somewhat remarkably, he does reach the finish line well ahead of the pack, though perhaps a bit more winded than necessary.

Mann made his reputation by creating the slick, empty TV show "Miami Vice," but he soon curried favor with critics for writing and directing some intensely individualized films, Manhunter and The Last of the Mohicans. Although his style has matured, Mann still seems temperamentally incapable of directing with restraint; he's the crack baby of stylistic excess, never weaned off the high he so obviously gets from cramming the screen with pulsing images or pithy, lazy static shots full of internal tension. (His is a world where cops live in angular, post-modern palaces, and although the detective's apparent wealth is eventually explained, even criticized, Mann just can't resist the opportunity to show it.) Mann's most casual shots have an aura of risk about them, and he showcases his characters even as they are occasionally dwarfed by the film's unruly scope.

These are not characters easily dwarfed. Neil McCauley (De Niro) is the Moriarty of modern mischief, conceiving elaborate heists and then executing them with razor-sharp precision. As the film opens, he and two friends, Chris (Val Kilmer) and Michael (Tom Sizemore), plus a new accomplice, Waingro (Kevin Gage), are robbing an armored car. When Waingro panics and kills the guard, Neil intends to kill Waingro, who escapes.

As smooth and exacting as Neil and his crew carry out their caper, Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and his team (including Mykelti Williamson, Ted Levine, and Wes Studi) are master detectives equipped to solve it. Both sets of men are professionals who have craftsman-like pride in their work, no matter the side of the law where they ply their trade. (In that way, Heat is something of a cross between The Fugitive and Reservoir Dogs.) If Neil lets any loose ends dangle, Vincent is prepared to exploit them.

Considering how much loose ends haunt Neil, it's ironic that Mann allows so many loose ends to haunt this movie. His slavish dedication to the ethic of episodically deconstructing all of the niggling details that go into both planning a crime and solving it mires the movie even while giving it a refreshing ambition. Mann just can't content himself with picking one narrative line and sticking to it; he permits every eddy, every tangent that might prove unique or fascinating to sweep the film off in random directions. Although the film always returns to its primary story thread, there's an excess of fat on Heat, making it lumpy and occasionally awkward.

If the devil really is in the details, then Mann sprinkles devils throughout his labyrinthine script. It has the uncensored density of a first novel written in the blood of its tortured author, one unable to excise a single word for fear of compromising the organic whole. All of the scenes work in and of themselves--the tone remains consistent, and the film is fluid and rich--but they slow the movie down.

One subplot about an ex-con (Dennis Haysbert), who gets pulled into a bank job by chance, ties in to the rest of the film only after extensively setting up his sense of frustration with trying to go straight. His story might be interesting in its own right--Haysbert is a welcome screen presence--but with an overall running time of nearly three hours, the movie certainly doesn't require such a lengthy series of scenes to feel complete.

A sparse plot might be out of place in a film as adventuresome as this, but Mann's hesitance to focus his attentions on a finite objective turns Heat into a marathon endurance test that begins to show the stress of its own weight.

Even in its more abrupt moments, Heat contains some fine sequences and expertly mounted photography. The central action scene (a daring bank robbery escape) overflows with marvelous, balletic flourishes of violence, but the quiet, subtle moments have their own beauty. Working with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann frames the actors during the film's many balcony scenes without reference to railings or immediate surroundings; they seem suspended in mid-air, floating on the lights of the city, giving them an abstract dreaminess. When Vincent and his wife Justine (Diane Venora) have a serious talk in an empty restaurant, the total blackness of everything except their faces--the clothes, the background, even their hair--gives weight to their words.

Heat's visual complexity subtly but effectively rounds out relationships among both the characters and the themes. Neil and Vincent are unique individuals, but they share the contemplative nature of two night crawlers who are only at home amid the trappings of their professions. Mann experimented with a similar theme before; Manhunter featured a detective who immersed himself in the mind of the criminal to anticipate his next crime (the movie was enjoyable but far-fetched). Here, Vincent's pathological need to live on the edge only hints at a sympathetic understanding of Neil. (Neil conducts himself far more conservatively than Vincent, and you sense that Neil feels less at home in the criminal mind than the cop chasing him.)

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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