Saturday, June 28, 2008

Because she's got a GREAT ASS!


While volumes have been written about the look of Michael Mann's films, his dialogue is less frequently talked about: compact and economical, Mann's writing is perfectly matched to his images. When Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) tells his his estranged wife Justine (Diane Venora) that "You were right - all I am is what I'm after," the character's essence is captured in ten words. In Mann's world, identity and function are the same - the director defines his characters, as they define themselves, by what they do. This was never truer than with Heat, an epic cops-and-robbers story that has been permanently enshrined as a Maxim-endorsed all-time-classic Guy Movie, a label that doesn't begin to capture its narrative and aesthetic pleasures. Heat is slick, stylish and loaded with guns and fast cars, to be sure, but what's truly remarkable is its fusion of character and action - it's an "action movie" in a way that louder, dumber, less skillfully crafted movies only claim to be.

With its sprawling narrative revolving around Hanna's pursuit of master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew, Heat takes the well-worn notion of cops and criminals representing two sides of the same coin and makes it feel new. Stripped of the iconic (often fetishistic) trappings of the genre, permanently clad in charcoal suits chosen to avoid drawing attention to themselves, opposed in what they're after but the same in their single-minded pursuit of their goals, even as their work makes normal human relationships an impossibility. Together they reside in the shades of dark that make up Mann's palette - the director doesn't turn their relationship into a baroque showdown as Scorsese does in The Departed, his interests focused more on the details of their process. Mann's visual approach is a lesson in how to fuse style and substance, with each camera setup, no matter how bold, is dictated by the performances; there isn't a single false move or a moment that exists solely for the sake of being cool. The scenes following Hanna have a constant motion that mirror his (and Pacino's) restlessness, but De Niro's carefully composed scenes have the actor's focused stillness - rarely have medium shots carried such a kinetic charge. And in the famous diner scene between the two actors, Mann smartly gets out of the way - the coiled intensity that both actors bring to the table as they quietly discuss their mutually assured destruction gives the scene all the fireworks it needs.

The relationship between the leads, however, is just the focus of a story that widens its scope to their intersecting worlds. Mann's structural approach owes more to Robert Altman than John Woo, as characters that would typically exist solely as plot devices are given depth and shape. A supporting character like ex-con Donald Breenan (Dennis Haysbert) is given scenes that allow us to understand him before his role in the plot is defined; this approach used to frustrate me, but now I admire its formal audacity. It's the sort of film that, every time you watch it, you find yourself focusing on different characters; this time, I was mesmerized by Diane Venora as Justine, at once sympathetic and alienated from her husband, and Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd, excellent as a fucked-up, destructive and completely in love couple. Where most cops' wives in these films exist only to worry and complain that the protagonist is never home, Diane Venora is given the space to create a woman who both understands her husband and has needs beyond the restrictions of the plot. Eady, McCauley's girlfriend and the cause of his character's biggest mistake, is the only character in Heat that I don't believe, though this isn't due to the writing as much as it is to Amy Brenneman's bland performance - every time I watch it, I think of how much more interesting the role might have been were it played by Julianne Moore or Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance. But this is a quibble in a film full of great performances, where even peripheral characters like Bud Cort's racist restaurant manager, Tom Noonan's cryptic techie and Natalie Portman as Hanna's emotionally unstable stepdaughter (a role crucial to the film's meaning) are given room to breathe and become something fascinating. The incredible tension that Heat has been praised for goes beyond its louder scenes; it's as palpable in the film's quietest moments, in the distances between people who maintain such a distance because, as Hanna explains, "It keeps my edge."

When that tension does explode, Mann's gifts as an action director have never been more fully realized. The climactic shootout between cops and robbers has a stunning immediacy where other directors would have too many setups and too many cuts in the interest of seeming cool to 13-year-olds. Heat is awesome, but it's also remarkably mature and disciplined; the film's violence is in total service to the story, making us realize just how gratuitious most onscreen bloodletting can be. The centerpiece of the film is clearly its final confrontation, which I will not spell out at in case you haven't seen it, because it's the sort of moment that deserves to be discovered. In this scene, Mann demonstrates an understanding of spatial relations that reminds of Kurosawa - it is the realization of the preceding three hours, sharpened to a fine point and ending in a moment, set to Moby's stirring "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters," that is pure catharsis. When we go to an action movie, we expect to be blown out of our skull, and too often we settle for cheap shots. So it's refreshing to revisit a film committed to illuminating meaning in chaos; Mann's films challenge me to raise my expectations, and the older I get, the stronger and more rewarding they are.

5 comments:

Matthew H. said...

Fantastic review of Heat. One of my favorite films of all time. I've been hearing that Nolan's Dark Knight captures much of what made Mann's film great so look out for that one as well.

Jenny said...

And how about that Henry Rollins? Wasn't he in it. Also, if I may ask, have ya seen Wall-E yet?

Bemis said...

I heard Nolan cite Heat as an influence as well - talk about setting the bar high. And I'm seeing Wall-E tomorrow. I've actually been projecting it all weekend, but I've been waiting for the missus to be able to join me.

J.D. said...

I totally agree with you about Brenneman's performance. She is definitely the weakest link in the cast and I recall reading an interview where initially she didn't even want to do the film because she didn't like the characters in the film or its violent nature but Mann managed to convince her to do it. Oh well...

I also agree with you re: Diane Venora. She is so good in this film and is a strong argument against the criticism that Mann doesn't write strong female characters.

And yeah, the dialogue in this film and esp. THE INSIDER is so damn good. Great review!

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