(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I distinctly recall seeing Heat on video in the late nineties, but couldn’t find any review of it anywhere in my archives. Oh well—it’s a good excuse to revisit one of the best crime movies of its decade. As it turns out, I had forgotten a lot about the film and had the pleasure of rediscovering it again. Sure, I remembered the dinner conversation between de Niro and Pacino. Of course, I remembered the downtown LA shootout. But it turns out I didn’t remember half of it, and nearly nothing of the rest of the movie. Long but impressively dense, Heat compares well to the best of Hong Kong crime cinema in showing policemen and criminals as two sides of a similar coin, and finding humanity in stock characters. It’s a sprawling story with roughly a dozen subplots, and I have a feeling that it would best be presented today as a Netflix miniseries rather than a movie. Still, what we see on-screen in slightly less than three hours is mesmerizing enough: A convincing take on mid-nineties Los Angeles, featuring a variety of characters with rich lives. The script has moments of street poetry, and the action sequences hit hard. It surely helps that the casting of the film is amazing. Beyond having Robert de Niro and Al Pacino as co-leads, the cast is rich down to small roles played by then-obscure Danny Trejo and Natalie Portman. Take a look at the cast list and see Val Kilmer, Jon Voigt, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichner, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven … it just doesn’t stop. Still, Pacino and de Niro get most of the glory here, with roles seemingly tailor-made for them—their dinner face-off is crackling good, and still exceeds the entirety of their movie-long reunion in Righteous Kill. Pacino is particularly in his element here, and his verbal excesses match the script. (Fans of TMZ will recognize that the “GREAT ASS!!!” meme/clip comes from here.) Otherwise, it’s Michael Mann’s show. While I’ve found many of his more recent movies to be pretentious, overlong and underwhelming, Heat is where nearly everything he’s got is used at its best advantage. Los Angeles looks brilliant, the direction is weighty in a way that matches the film and the actors all do their utmost best. I can quibble about a few lengths (especially late in the film, with a drawn-out final face-off), but I find that my first-viewing appreciation of the film has been replaced by a much more positive assessment after this re-watch.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Blackhat is not a great film, but it’s interesting largely in how it tries to assimilate contemporary innovations in a standard thriller template. Sure, here we have a tainted protagonist trying to catch a bad guy before he wreaks more damage. But we also have sequences trying to portray computer hacking, delving deep into machines, whizzing along the bit-flow and trying to portray how bytes of information sent with evil intent can cause physical damage and human misery. It takes an audacious director like Michael Mann to even try that kind of stuff, and it’s also why, despite the film’s generally hum-drum impact, it’s worthy of a look. Fans of conventional thrillers should at least get basic satisfaction from the way the film moves around the world, pits a dangerous hero against an unknown opponent and delves a bit into information security minutia in-between the more conventional chases and gun battles. The I.T.-Security lingo sounds OK, but it matters more that Blackhat can benefit from Chris Hemsworth’s charisma, as well as good supporting performances by Viola Davis, Leehom Wang and Tang Wei. Never mind the leaps of logic in seeing the cyber-criminal protagonist suddenly become an action hero –the film is more realistic in its details than in its overall plotting. The end result is muddled, but there’s enough good in here to sustain interest.
(In theatres, July 2009): Depression-era Chicago, gangster Dillinger, early days of the FBI, Marion Cotillard as a moll, Michael Mann directing: What can possibly go wrong? Plenty of things, actually, starting with Mann’s increasingly ugly fixation for digital filmmaking: Public Enemies often looks cheap and out of control: a night-time shootout looks as if it’s been filmed on video by amateurs, the handheld camera is constantly used without reason, while several other scenes are insufficiently lit. Meanwhile, though, there isn’t much going on in the tangential and confused script: scenes come and go, but there’s little attachment to the characters, what they’re doing or where they’re going. Among other things, the story touches lightly upon Dillinger’s extraordinary popularity at the time, and messes up the chronology for several members of the Dillinger gang. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale star, but neither of them show the skills they’re best known for. The result is an overlong mess, and an uninvolving one… especially given the elements the film could draw upon. This is the third substantially-digital film by Mann, and after Collateral and Miami Vice, it’s clear that he’s getting less and less successful with each of them. What’s going on?