Film Length: 170 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; English, French, Spanish (Castillian), German, Portugese DD 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; French; German SDH; Spanish (Castillian); Dutch; Spanish; Portugese; Danish; Norwegian; Swedish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 15, 1995
Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 10, 2009
Nothing will ever match my initial experience of seeing Heat on the giant screen at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater in December 1995. It’s a film in which Michael Mann and his long-time collaborator Dante Spinotti achieved an intensity of visual poetry that has seldom been equaled, and certainly never exceeded, in the cinema of cops and robbers. For all the effort invested in previous versions on laserdisc and DVD, they were no more than faint sketches of that original encounter. Warner’s new Blu-ray is a huge improvement: a first-rate reproduction of a film masterpiece, but a reproduction nonetheless. Heat may be the rare work that reveals the limits of Blu-ray. Some films are just too big for home video.
In many respects, Heat is epic in its simplicity. A master thief, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), and a master cop, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), stalk and evade each other across the freeways, waterfronts and back alleys of Los Angeles. As different as their objectives may appear to be, they are united by a common understanding of the world and a relentless focus on each other. In a city of millions, they are each other’s true soul mates.
At the same time, though, Heat is complex and detailed in presenting the characters who inhabit its world. Indeed, it’s hard to name any other crime film that has so successfully blended epic sweep with intimate drama. (The lukewarm reception given Mann’s recent Public Enemies can be attributed, in part, to how high he himself had set the bar with Heat.)
Take Pacino’s Lt. Hanna, whose devotion to his job has wrecked two marriages and is destroying the current one to Justine (Diane Venora). She compensates by popping pills, which makes her even less alert to the growing anxieties of her daughter from a prior marriage, Lauren (a still-teenage Natalie Portman). In an early sequence of the film, we see Hanna called away from an evening out with Justine and other cops and their wives, because a vicious serial killer has struck again. At the crime scene, Hanna pours out emotion consoling the victim’s family, but when he returns to Justine, now sitting alone in an empty restaurant, he can offer her nothing.
(People routinely accuse Pacino of giving a “bellowing” performance, but anyone who says that about Heat just shows that they didn’t pay attention to the film. As in the above-described scene with Justine, Pacino speaks much of Hanna’s dialogue in a low tone, often barely above a whisper. The only time he yells is when Hanna is trying to intimidate information out of some disreputable informant – and then he really yells. Some of the most amusing moments in Heat result from Hanna’s no-holds-barred investigative style.)
Neil McCauley’s private life is no more settled. He lives in a house he’s never bothered to furnish, and he scrupulously avoids attachments so that he’s free to flee in “thirty seconds flat” if he has to. His principal connections are for business. There’s his fixer, Nate (Jon Voight), who arranges his jobs and handles logistics, and there are the regular members of his crew: Trejo (Danny Trejo), Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) and Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), who is the closest thing McCauley has to family. When McCauley discovers that Chris is distracted by both gambling and marital problems, he does what a good boss should and tries to remove the distractions. The scene where De Niro, as McCauley, confronts Chris’s wife, Charlene (an edgy Ashley Judd), insisting that she give Chris a last chance isn’t one of Heat’s most famous moments, but it’s always been a personal favorite. As De Niro portrays him, McCauley is a guy with no illusions about human nature. Nothing surprises him.
Well, almost nothing. McCauley gets surprised when a chance encounter introduces him to Eady (Amy Brenneman), and against every rule in his book he finds himself falling in love. Indeed, a question that hangs in the air until almost the very end of Heat is which way McCauley’s feelings for Eady will ultimately push him. As Mann notes in one of the supplements, McCauley is a man whose life has been lived by a rigorous code. When he deviates from that code with Eady, he loses his way.
McCauley has other problems. His crew has robbed an armored truck containing bonds that belong to a mob money launderer, Van Zant (William Fichtner). Despite assurances by McCauley’s fixer, Nate, that Van Zant will behave like a businessman and collect the insurance, Van Zant declares war. This puts yet another obstacle on an already tricky course. And both McCauley and Hanna have to contend with a different element of the criminal world represented by one Waingro (Kevin Gage), an extra hand who joined McCauley’s crew on the armored car robbery and with whom McCauley quickly severs his connection thereafter (with extreme prejudice). McCauley’s motives are strictly financial, but Waingro is in it for the violence, and he represents a powerful force that corrodes its way through both Hanna’s and McCauley’s worlds. When you reach the end of Heat and look backward, you realize that most of the damage can be traced to the Waingros of this world. Hanna and McCauley may be opponents, but they have principles. The Waingros do not.
This, then, is the huge and intricate canvas across which Hanna tirelessly pursues the crew that robbed the armored car, which he quickly identifies as McCauley’s. The extended game of cat-and-mouse culminates in a gun battle on the streets of downtown L.A. that is famous not only for its volume but for its intensity and realism. If desperate men with automatic weapons ever fought for their lives on a crowded city street, this is how it would look and feel. The sickened expression on Hanna’s face as he pushes citizens out of the way, knowing that it’s too late and that he’s lost control of the situation, says more than any lines of dialogue ever could.
The film’s second climax occurs at LAX, in a sequence that could not be shot today because of restrictions on airport access. In the end, it could only come down to McCauley and Hanna, and so it does.
(Note: I am omitting any discussion of the diner conversation between Hanna and McCauley midway through the film. The scene and the manner in which it was shot have already been discussed at length on HTF and elsewhere. At this point, everyone who’s seen the film has already formed an opinion. The scene is the subject of an informative featurette made for the 2005 special edition DVD and included on this Blu-ray, which I highly recommend.)
Finally, there is the question of whether Heat has been changed for Blu-ray. The pre-release PR has been conflicting, and the Blu-ray case contains the cryptic notation under “Special Features”: “New Content Changes Supervised by Director Michael Mann”. Having see the film many times and having studied this Blu-ray with some care, I am convinced of two things. First, this is the same cut of the film we’ve always known. Second, there have indeed been changes to the film, but they are so subtle that most viewers will never notice them.
I confirmed two changed scenes, and I will identify them here without giving the specifics, because I don’t think it does viewers any favor to put undue emphasis on what’s different. The scenes are listed here for those who insist on proof, but for complete confirmation, they’ll have to do what I did: play the Blu-ray and the DVD side-by-side or one right after the other. The changes are that small. And let me add a word of caution: Just because you think you’re seeing a change, don’t assume your memory is accurate. I checked a lot of other scenes that turned out to be unchanged. It was just that the Blu-ray’s clarity gave me the illusion I was seeing for the first time something that had always been there.
The first of the two re-edited scenes I found occurs at app. 1:04, when Hanna returns from a crime scene to the restaurant where Justine is waiting for him alone. Justine’s speech that begins “You don’t live with me” has been re-edited, using what appears to be different takes, different cuts and a slight modification to the dialogue. What clued me in was simple: The scene had always stuck out as somewhat awkward in an otherwise polished and assured film. On this viewing, it seemed to flow much better than I remembered. A comparison with the DVD revealed why.
The second example occurs at app. 1:18:35, when Hanna is giving the full intimidation treatment to the sleazy Vegas liquor salesman played by Hank Azaria. Hanna’s dialogue has been slightly shortened, without actually shortening the scene. The net effect is to provide an additional moment to display the reaction on Azaria’s face. It’s priceless. (“Who the hell is this lunatic?” he seems to be thinking.)
There are undoubtedly other examples that flew right by me, because the work has been done so skillfully and the changes are so intelligently tailored to the film in its current form. The film was rushed during editing to meet a release date, which is why it has four credited editors. Based on these examples, it appears that what’s been done is not so much revisionism as clean-up.
Let’s start with the traditional reviewer’s assessment: Heat comes to Blu-ray in a new transfer supervised by Michael Mann (according to the Warner PR release). To revive a term from an earlier era, all previous versions should be considered “inoperative”. This is the first version to have black levels adequate to represent Heat’s varied color palette, from the green-bluish night tones to the more varied (but still cool) daytime scenes. Every previous version relied on excessive contrast to boost detail, but this transfer establishes an appropriate white level that prevents indoor scenes from being overly brightened. Detail is as good as it can possibly be, given the enormous variety of locations and environments that make up the world of Heat.
It has been reported that posters on other websites have complained about sudden shifts in brightness. The example provided to me, which is apparently the most serious, is between 54:32 and 54:33, at the end of a telephone conversation between Eady and McCauley and immediately before an edit. There is indeed a change in brightness there, but it’s in the source material. It can clearly be seen at the same point on the original DVD, but it’s more obvious on the Blu-ray due to the increased resolution and corrected contrast. One can only speculate regarding the cause, but the fact that it occurs near an edit point suggests the possibility of some sort of artifact from a rushed post-production during the days before digital editing. In any case, this is the sort of “flaw” that should serve as reminder that the promise of Blu-ray is not perfection, just accurate reproduction.
Finally, let me to return to a theme from the introduction. For me, Heat is one of the visual masterpieces of cinema in its epic evocation of a specific landscape. Performances as powerful as Pacino’s and De Niro’s needed a huge backdrop, and Mann and cinematographer Spinotti provided it. Whether it’s the enormous banks of landing lights switching on and off at LAX in the closing sequence, or a sweeping aerial view narrowing down to the vehicle carrying McCauley’s crew to their next job, or the wide shots of industrial structures as Hanna and his cops try to figure out why McCauley’s crew was so intently scoping out a particular location, the camera in Heat is constantly showing us the expansive urban panorama over which McCauley and Hanna play out their game of evade-and-capture. As exceptional as this Blu-ray is (and I can’t imagine it better), I have my doubts whether any home video medium will ever truly capture the sheer magnitude of the experience.
I’ll give one example, and it’s a relatively brief shot. When McCauley and Nate first go to set up the bank robbery that leads to the downtown shootout, they visit Kelso (Tom Noonan), an electronics wizard who is tapped into the bank’s satellite communications and alarm systems. As they walk back to their cars, they pause to talk, and behind them in the distance stretches a vast multi-lane freeway, rolling over hills toward the back of the frame, with countless vehicles coursing in both directions. Nothing could more effectively convey the scale of the world they inhabit, the ease with which they can hide in it from Hanna and the law, or the possibilities it offers of alternate paths they might take. It’s all there in one brief image.
On a giant movie screen, it took my breath away. On laserdisc and DVD, it barely makes an impression. The Blu-ray is somewhere in between.
I have nothing but praise for the TrueHD track. It’s solid, clear and extremely well-balanced. Previous mixes of Heat have tended toward loud peaks, so that a comfortable listening level for most of the movie would make you jump out of your seat at certain moments. (The armored car robbery was an example.) The peaks are less exaggerated here, which doesn’t mean that the big moments lack impact. They still register forcefully. Directional effects are somewhat more sparing than might be the case in a contemporary action mix, but they’re still plentiful and believable, especially with vehicles and gunfire. The distinctive score by Elliot Goldenthal (with songs by Moby at key points) sounds terrific.
All of the special features have been ported from the 2005 two-disc special edition DVD and are in standard definition. All of them (except for the trailers) exhibit a kind of video “stutter”, but since I do not have the 2005 special edition DVD for comparison, I can’t determine whether this results from overcompression for the Blu-ray or is inherent in the source material. It’s a relatively minor issue.
Commentary by Writer/Producer/Director Michael Mann. This is the same commentary featured on the previous DVD edition. Mann is a much more interesting speaker when you can see his expressions, but this is an informative commentary, even if Mann tends to stick rather closely to the action on screen. His comments on characters and their motivations are well worth hearing, and he drops interesting technical points along the way. Among other things, he confirms that the memorable scenes of Eady and McCauley on the balcony outside Eady’s home overlooking L.A. had to be achieved as an effects sequence, even though the house was real and the end result was to accurately reproduce the nighttime view. Film has its limitations as a medium, and this sequence precisely illustrates one of the limitations that Mann sought to overcome when he switched to digital photography for Collateral (a film set almost entirely at night).
True Crime (14:45). Mann talks about his Chicago upbringing and his friendship with former Chicago police detective Chuck Adamson, some elements of whose life went into the character of Vince Hanna. Adamson tracked and ultimately killed the real Neil McCauley, after once having a conversation with him that contained the seeds of the one that Hanna and McCauley have in Heat. Other former members of the Chicago P.D. are also interviewed, including cop-turned-actor Dennis Farina, who got his start in show business when Mann hired him as a technical advisor on Thief.
Crime Stories (20:26). Mann discusses the history of the script, which he initially wrote and filmed as a TV pilot entitled L.A. Takedown. Later, Mann showed the completed film script to producer Art Linson, who immediately wanted to make the movie. Linson pursued De Niro, while Mann pursued Pacino, whom he wanted for Hanna, because (in Mann’s phrase) Hanna is a “baroque” character ideally suited to Pacino’s theatrical acting style.
As both writer and director, Mann is exceptionally articulate about the characters he created, and many of the actors interviewed (a large number are included) express their appreciation for having a director who knew exactly what he wanted and where he was headed. Perhaps the most interesting example is Amy Brenneman, who turned down the part of Eady because she didn’t like the script. Mann insisted on meeting with her anyway so that he could ask why. Her answer: The people were all awful, and they were doing terrible and violent things. From that answer, Mann knew Brenneman was perfect for Eady, and ultimately he persuaded her to do the role.
Into the Fire (24:01). Mann and the actors talk about preparing for and shooting the film. Those playing cops met with cops. Those playing crooks visited prisons. Ashley Judd met with wives of convicted felons. And everyone who had to fire guns received extensive weapons training with live ammo.
One of the most interesting facts to emerge from this section concerns post-production. When the sound designers went to work on the downtown shootout, they did what they always do: replaced the sound with prerecorded gun shot effects. Mann listened to the mix and immediately objected. Everyone who had been on location and listened to the sound of the gunfire (even with blanks) echoing back and forth off the buildings had been impressed with how frightening the sound was. Mann insisted that the scene use original production sound, and that is one of the reasons why the gun battle in Heat plays unlike any other in contemporary film.
Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation (12:02). Interviews with Mann, Pacino and De Niro about the famous (or, depending on your point of view, infamous) diner scene in which Hanna and McCauley make each other’s acquaintance. Essential viewing for those wondering whether the two actors did the scene together (they did) or played off of each other (they did). A further entertaining detail emerges in the "Scene of the Crime" featurette described below: An employee of the restaurant where the scene was filmed says the question most asked her is whether Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were really there together (they were).
The reality is that the two actors do share the frame constantly throughout the scene, and it’s likely that Michael Mann never dreamed that controversy would later dog the film simply because their faces aren’t visible simultaneously in the same shot. That happens all the time in movies, and no one thinks twice about it. Mann’s number one concern, as he clearly indicates here, was capturing the simultaneous performances of two actors whose reactions to each other were so alive and immediate that every nuance on every take was different. That’s why it was mostly a single take (take 11) that ended up in the film.
Return to the Scene of the Crime (12:02). A retrospective tour of many of the film’s locations, some of which no longer exist.
(9:31). There are eleven, all quite short. Most are forgettable, with the exception of a scene involving Trejo that was probably cut for pacing. Since the aftereffects of the scene are evident in the finished film, we can fill in the blanks. Including the scene would have meant cutting away from the principal players at a moment when tension was ratcheting way up.
Trailers. These are the same three trailers that have been featured on previous releases. They’re great trailers.
Heat is a masterpiece of modern cinema. It contains two of the greatest performances by two of film’s finest actors. (De Niro’s performance, in particular, has grown over the years and will, I suspect, be remembered as one of his best.) The presentation on Blu-ray is the first that does the film justice and the best it’s going to look, short of renting an old-time movie palace and projecting a 35mm print.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub