Heat

Heat ★★★★★

In the films of Michael Mann, everyone is dead. They walk through the world defying death just long enough to chase what they're after. They're professionals who do what they do well, so well that any other life, no matter how tempting, simply can't suffice. Perhaps they're people like us, maybe only more principled, with more at stake. But in the cinema of Mann the thing that unites everyone is death, the light in the distance that reminds us we need to make the most of our time, that every second we have is only due to luck.

With that in mind, Mann's 1995 opus Heat is just as much a state of mind as it is a movie. Professional bank robbers vs. professional detectives, both led by the best around who would do anything to achieve their goal, two men united in their mutually assured destruction. By doing their jobs as perfectly as they do, they're both going to get burned sooner or later. It's a story told before but never on this level. Mann writes the same character over and over again, placing them in his version of Los Angeles and then following as their lives all play out in tandem, leading to the epic clash where these men essentially face off against themselves, against their own actions, against their choices.

And on one level, sure, it translates to the badass posturing that keeps the film cinematic but Mann's film is graver than that, more interested in men trapped in circumstances of their own construction. They were born a certain way, came into a certain career, established a certain life. These robbers do what they do because it's what they do. These cops do what they do because it's what they do. These tautologies are all over the cinema of Mann and instead of doing it in a tongue and cheek way, he writes a crime tragedy of people who just can't imagine another life even while constantly yearning for escape. People like De Niro's ace crew leader Neil who looks out into that dark, fluorescent strewn cityscape of Los Angeles when he gets a break from planning heists and wishes he was in Fiji with those incandescent jellyfish lining the beach, perhaps holding someone's hand.

Mann's characters in Heat (and elsewhere) often yearn for something vague like this, some alternative to their lives where they're happier and at peace but above all free. These characters live lives where they're ostensibly free: Neil famously says he can walk out on everything in his life in 30 seconds and Pacino self-destructs his marriage because he'd rather be free to work. But mostly it's just that the characters have convinced themselves that they're free, that they can do anything they need to do when it has only created an empty life for them--they value freedom without really having it.

And these facts are what make Heat relatable. Are we not all just like this? We're all just chasing something, we always will be. Even if we achieve something, we'll be right back to the chase. It's how we live. We all value freedom too but few of us have the courage to act on it: to hop a plane somewhere and start over, to be truly alone in the world.

Now I don't know if any of that will make sense to someone who was not recently bowled over by this film but these ideas are unavoidable when watching a Mann film--recently Miami Vice has become unshakable from my head for these reasons--how do we live our lives? did we leave enough time to achieve what we set out for? will our loved ones get in our way? Mann offers no answers but in the sprawl of Heat he offers examples of ways it could all turn out. Perhaps the only lasting connection in your life will be made to the man who gunned you down, the man who listens to your last sounds with you while holding your hand and looking into the distance as he yearns for the same escape you did. Or perhaps you'll marry, have a kid, settle into normalcy, create a routine that you'll eventually yearn to destroy.

It's impossible to know what form your yearning will take but in Heat it's certain to take the form of something: a feeling, a location, a person. It'll show up in your brain when you stare at the ocean too long, when you hear an airplane traveling somewhere carrying passengers to unknown locations, when you feel warm light on your face, and especially when you take silent night time car rides with lovers. And whether you act on these impulses or not, you'll always have to live with your choices because we're not dead yet and we all have an expiration date. How are you going to spend your time? Because the heat's around the corner and you need to decide.

"I'm not going back."

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