Heat (1995)

“A guy told me one time, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” Heat is close to the perfect crime film, in large part because it gets all the details right. Written and directed by Michael Mann (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) and starring crime film legends Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, this film spends just as much time developing the antagonist as the protagonist—an idea which influenced the crime genre for at least a decade afterward. But the film got a lot of things right, from police procedures during a bank robbery and mannerisms of actual career criminals to the minutiae of failing marriages and relationships torn apart by reckless spending and substance abuse, and it did it through careful research and attention to detail that you really don’t see in most other films. This isn’t quite the most brilliant crime movie out there, but it’s probably the most detailed and it still makes for a very entertaining watch.

The film opens showing us career criminal Neil McCauley and his gang pulling off a major heist with the police arriving just a little too late to stop them. Police lieutenant Vincent Hanna discovers that all did not go exactly as the criminals had planned—they left a clue, which sets the police hot on their trail. Vincent and the police department work to put these criminals away for good, but Neil and his crew are very good at their jobs too, and the stage is set for an intense game of cat and mouse with the smartest cat and mouse you’ve ever seen.

I do what I do best: I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.

There were a lot of great things about Heat, but the characters of Vincent and Neil stood out to me. Both are complex, smart, competent, and very likeable in their own ways, although both are struggling with a lot of the same personal issues. They’re unable to really maintain human connections outside of their work, and both seem weary and exhausted but unable to find any relief outside of pouring themselves back into their work. Vincent is a tragic hero, but Neil is a tragic hero of sorts too, and it’s really amazing how the film makes you feel for both of them. The only characters they’re really able to relate to are each other, and there’s this weird respect between them even as the chase ensues, culminating in the diner scene: one of the best scenes I can think of in any crime movie.

Neil and Vincent have a chat in a diner in Heat
The diner scene was pure gold—possibly the best in any crime film ever.

The characterization is great, but the plot does not suffer for it. The heists in the film are intense and action-packed, and there are some brilliant moves pulled by both Vincent and Neil that keep both of them on their toes. This film is anything but boring, and, while not shocking, it’s certainly not predictable either. You can tell watching both Vincent and Neil that they’ve been doing their jobs for a long time and have gotten quite good at them. Even when things go wrong—and they inevitably do—they know exactly how to react and change course accordingly. And the rest of the characters are no strangers to competence either. Even minor characters know what they’re doing and can change the course of a scene.

Heat is a film that redefined the crime genre when it came out in 1995, and you can see echoes of it in most of the crime films since then. The careful detail, complex characters, and realistic action sequences come together to create a film that may not be quite as amazing as The Godfather or Goodfellas, but comes awfully close and brings the cat-and-mouse dynamic to a new level. If you’re a fan of crime movies, this is an essential film.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:50
Director: Michael Mann
Year: 1995
Genres: crime, thriller
Rating: R

Movies Like Heat

  • The Departed – This one has a slightly larger cast of characters, but the core is very similar: an undercover cop who has infiltrated the mob works to take it down from the inside while a mole in the police force works to identify the undercover cop. Great crime drama that, like Heat, does a good job of showing both sides of the conflict.
  • The Dark Knight – This superhero film is surprisingly very similar to Heat in its structure and style. The interaction between Batman and the Joker mirrors the two main characters in Heat, and the Joker is one of the best written supervillains in cinema history. Even if you’re not a comic fan, I would give this one a try if you’re looking for something like Heat.

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