Wednesday, June 7, 2017

HEAT: Blu-ray (Warner Bros./Regency 1995) Fox Home Video

Heat (1995) can safely be referenced as director, Michael Mann’s magnum opus; a blood n’ gusty contemporary crime caper/manhunt thriller that, at least in this brief interim, has not aged all that much; chiefly because Mann has had the clairvoyance to predict how ugly, dark and apocalyptic America’s entertainment would become, circa 2017. Heat is grotesquely overdone…in a good way; from Al Pacino’s bellicose bellowing as Lt. Vincent Hanna, the telescopically focused pit bull of a law enforcement officer, to Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley – a weathered and introspective career criminal with a pulse, and, even better, Val Kilmer’s glacially cool safe cracker, Chris Shiherlis, sporting an undercurrent of kinetic rage, the archetypes that populate this cops n’ robbers milieu are a fascinating cacophony of disparate and desperate reprobates straddling both sides of the law. Heat is unrelenting and powerful, and, so slick and stylish you might never guess it is superficially based on a true story; albeit, one blown all out of proportion from the actual events, though nevertheless, squirreling away its nuggets of wisdom in all the right places to add a distinct layer of verisimilitude to its brutal display of rank butchery.
Predictably, the good guy wins…well, sort of. With unapologetic aplomb, Mann endeavors to illustrate the congruencies rather than the disparities between this axe-grinding cop and bull-headed career criminal. Both would rather attain their life’s satisfaction through cold-blooded revenge than risk it all on unaffected happiness with a good – even a modestly decent – woman at their side; the criminal, because ‘the score’ represents the only adrenaline rush worth savoring in his otherwise dead-end existence, the cop, for basically the same reason – nailing the bad guys just feels sooooo good. Despite their costar billing, Pacino and De Niro only share one verbally juicy mano a mano inside a diner over a cup of coffee, but it remains Heat’s pièce de résistance: a moment of incomparable dramatic gravitas, expertly scripted by Mann and supremely milked by Pacino and De Niro to illustrate the parallel construction in their rival passions. The scene also serves as a brief respite; Mann astutely preparing us for the rather perfunctory motives and thought-numbing last act action sequence to follow: volatile vignettes on the home front to illustrate Hanna’s unsatisfactory ‘relationship’ with third wife, Justine (Diane Venora) whose daughter from a previous marriage, Lauren (Natalie Portman) is on the verge of suicide; Chris’ tempestuous, but genuine amour for the mother of his child, Charlene (Ashley Judd) – despite her philandering with the ineffectual and classless stoolie, Alan Marciano (Hank Azaria), and finally, Neil’s fatalist stab at a love affair with the doe-eyed true innocent of this piece – bookseller/graphic artist, Eady (Amy Brenneman). Neil should stick to crime. He’s a fighter – not a lover.
Depending on one’s perspective, Heat is either the granddaddy of all ‘epics’ in crime or merely an overblown, overwrought and overly long tome to these fallen angels working both sides of the ‘crime doesn’t pay’ equation until little, except for their angst, pity, self-doubt and crushing regret, survives. The carnage, particularly in the latter half, is monumentally anesthetizing. There is a point where ‘violence simply for violence sake’ is just too much, and Heat decidedly crosses this threshold to the point of abject tedium. The downer of a finale, with Pacino holding onto De Niro’s hand until he expires, is not without its bittersweet catharsis or lingering pathos. Yet, what precedes it remains, at times, hardly an edifying experience, only occasionally to go beyond its Ginsu-styled assault on the senses; however expertly edited and masterfully staged (and it is). The absolute firestorm descending on LA’s downtown plaza, with Pacino’s pugnacious policeman and these bad boys of summer going head to head - Uzis blazing, miraculous even, since never a single projectile grazes any of the cowering extras – devolves from horrific spectacle to prolonged silliness. There’s even a sequence where Tom Sizemore’s gun-toting bank robber is shot precisely through the forehead by Pacino’s Hanna, with a pint-sized hostage tucked tightly under his arm.
Of course, the real sacrificial lambs in Heat are its trophy wives, enterprising gal pals or otherwise misguided – and frankly – desperate ladies who wheedle themselves into this frenetic fray without ever understanding what makes their men click, but cling to them just the same and equally in the failed hopes for an absolution never to come. At one point, Lillian (Kim Staunton) tells her man, Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert) she is proud of him, to which he almost painfully inquiries, “What are you proud of?” It’s an honest inquiry, one that never gets an as honest answer, particularly as pride among the criminal sect is indivisibly linked to that profound, crippling shame for ‘going straight’; Donald’s brief rehabilitation – scrubbing toilets and serving up orders at a roadside greasy spoon – turned under by his ambitions to ‘be somebody’. On the other end of the criminal spectrum is Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner); a real bottom feeder, openly operating as a legitimate businessman. He deals from the bottom of a loaded deck but pays dearly for his miscalculation in believing he is merely dealing with just another common thief.   
Heat opens with a daring armored car heist in broad daylight; career criminals, Neil McCauley and his crew, Chris Shiherlis, Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore), and Trejo (Danny Trejo) hiring a real sick puppy, Waingro (Kevin Gage) to help them steal $1.6 million in bearer bonds. Waingro’s involvement will eventually be the team’s undoing. For Waingro is a psychotic. The original plan was simply to steal the loot. But Waingro delights in murdering the armored car guards (Rick Avery, Bill McIntosh, and, Thomas Rosales Jr.) execution style, infuriating Neil. After all, there is honor – even among thieves. Too late to this party, LAPD Lt. Vincent Hanna is determined to bring these as yet unknown assailants to justice – whatever the cost. Hanna can smell a clue better than any of his men, even the keen-eyed Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson) whom he considers his right hand. Hanna’s entourage also includes Detectives Sammy Casals (Wes Studi), Mike Bosko (Ted Levine), and Danny Schwartz (Jerry Trimble). Meanwhile, as night falls, Neil and his crew reconvene at a roadside greasy spoon to lay the groundwork for phase two of their plan. Neil cannot resist rapping Waingro’s head against the table top, drawing undue attention from the other patrons. As the men exit to the parking lot Waingro, sensing he is about to be fatally dealt with for his disobedience, instead launches into an escape; vanishing between the parked semis.
Neil's fence, Nate (Jon Voight), suggests he sell the stolen bonds back to their original owner, money launderer, Roger Van Zant who will undoubtedly pay whatever the ransom, merely to keep his own illegal activities covert. Van Zant nervously agrees to the sale, but then instructs his henchman, Hugh Benny (Henry Rollins) to send two of his crew to ambush and kill Neil during the planned exchange.  It is a gross miscalculation, as Neil’s arrival at an abandoned drive-in is being watched by his own men, who immediately detect the sniper’s plot to have him killed and radio the information back to him. Neil puts his car in reverse and crushes the would-be assassin between the two vehicles; Van Zant’s other hitman shot in the head by Chris as he tries to escape in his pickup truck. We pause, briefly, from this bloody espionage to settle in on some unsettling private lives. Chris’ marriage to Charlene is on the rocks. She suspects him of being a gambling junkie and is concerned for the welfare of their young son. In tandem, Charlene has also taken a lover – Alan Marciano. Hanna’s third marriage to Justine is crumbling. Hanna is incensed by Justine’s inference that his work is more important to him, even as he cannot deny his level of investment in solving this latest crime supersedes anything going on at home. Lauren, Justine’s young teenage daughter from a previous marriage, is a sensitive girl, emotionally scarred by the divorce and thoroughly neglected by her real father (who we never meet); a void Hanna would sincerely like to fill.  
In another part of town, the solitary Neil is about to have his world turned upside down by an impromptu meeting with book seller/graphic artist, Eady. She finds him ‘interesting’ at a glance, and unaware of his ‘profession’ strikes up a conversation over lunch. Quickly, this chance encounter turns into a passionate affair; Neil, almost fatherly towards Eady, and yet stirred by her uncanny instant attraction. The two become lovers and Neil begins to weigh the virtues and vices of possibly settling down after one more ‘big’ heist. Meanwhile, Hanna’s surveillance manages to uncover Neil’s plans; a hit on a precious metals depository. Hanna sets up a seemingly foolproof observation post inside a metal construction container across the street from the depository and waits for Neil and his men to arrive. The break-in goes flawless. However, as Chris begins to drill into the depository vaults, Neil hears the subtle rumblings of one of Hanna’s men moving inside the metal container. Sensing an ambush, Neil orders Chris and the rest of his crew to stand down. They walk away from the depository and Hanna, incensed by the blunder orders his men to also stand down. After all, no crime – as yet – has been committed.
Angered at having to abandon their grand plan, Neil plots one last daring robbery; a $12 million dollar bank job in the heart of LA’s financial district, committed during peak business hours. The plan is meticulously orchestrated. But Neil has underestimated Hanna, who pulls him over for an invitation to join him for coffee. Staring each other down across a table, these aged and world-weary professionals bond over their keenly similar personal problems. Each has genuine empathy, if a total unwillingness to surrender their desire to see the other brought down by use of lethal force – if necessary. Meanwhile, the maniacal Waingro, who has been murdering prostitutes in the vicinity, now approaches Van Zant with a tipoff about his adversary. Hanna tightens his surveillance of Neil’s crew, forcing Trejo to withdraw from the planned robbery. Neil is quick to approach Donald Breedan as an alternative. Donald, an ex-con newly paroled, has been having a rough time of it on the outside; what, with a curmudgeonly boss and a dead end job at a greasy spoon. Despite the love of a good woman, Donald almost immediately jumps at the offer to join Neil’s crew for the big heist.
Hanna’s tactical unit receives a confidential tip from Van Zant by Waingro, now in their witness protection.  The S.W.A.T. team moves in to intercept the heist in full progress. Bosko is gunned down, as are Donald and Michael. Chris is badly wounded, but escapes with Neil’s assistance, whisked to a surgeon to treat his gunshots discretely before sending Chris on his way to a full recovery. Suspecting Trejo as the informant, Neil breaks into his home only to discover Trejo’s wife murdered in the bedroom and Trejo, beaten to a pulp and barely breathing in a pool of his own blood on the living room floor. With his dying breath, Trejo explains how Waingro informed on them to Van Zant who subsequently alerted police about the bank heist. Knowing death is imminent, Trejo begs Neil to finish him off swiftly. Bitterly, Neil shoots his old friend through the head; then, storms Van Zant’s fashionable beach house, startling Van Zant and demanding to know of Waingro’s whereabouts. When Van Zant admits he has no clue what the police have done with Waingro, Neil cold-bloodedly assassinates Van Zant anyway. Neil hurries to Eady’s apartment, confessing his sins and admitting he is a career criminal. Though wounded, scared and angry – at first – Eady nevertheless accepts Neil for himself. She is, after all, desperately in love with him. The two hurriedly pack and make plans to flee to New Zealand.
Hanna moves in for the kill, ordering around the clock surveillance on Waingro, but also deliberately leaking his location through criminal channels in the hopes to snuff out Neil from hiding. Learning of Waingro’s location, Nate passes the info onto Neil. At first, Neil elects to fly out of LAX with Eady. He is, for all intent and purposes, home free. Alas, itching for revenge, Neil delays their perfect escape, making for the fashionable airport hotel instead where Waingro is being held under tight security. In the meantime, Hanna has Drucker put the screws to Charlene, threatening her with incarceration as an accomplice after the fact. Charlene is used to bring Chris out of hiding. The plan works beautifully; Chris arriving in the hopes to collect Charlene and his son and flee the country. Ordered by Drucker to make an appearance on the balcony, Charlene takes this opportunity to sign to Chris of the looming danger afoot. Interpreting her signal, Chris casually drives off; momentarily detained by a police barricade, only to be allowed to leave when his fake license checks out with their computers.
Hanna is disgusted that his clever all-points bulletin and city-wide dragnet have not managed to corral Neil and Chris; returning to his apartment to discover a despondent and unconscious Lauren in his bathtub with her wrists slit. Rushing the girl to hospital, Neil and Justine are briefly reunited. She is grateful to Neil for saving her daughter’s life. However, when asked if their relationship can outlast her infidelity, Neil asserts nothing has changed. He still prefers the thrill of the chase to a quiet life at home and proves it when a tipoff comes in, alerting him to the fact Waingro’s hotel has only just sounded an evacuation fire alarm. What no one except Hanna suspects is that Neil has set off this alarm after borrowing a security guard’s uniform from the hotel’s laundry. As nervous patrons hurriedly evacuate their rooms Neil dogmatically makes his way to Waingro’s suite, kicking in the door, confronting and then shooting Waingro dead. Outside the hotel, Eady nervously waits in the car for Neil’s return. And although she and Hanna have never met, their eyes seem to make a queer contact from this great distance, even with scores of hotel guests pouring out of the building to obstruct either’s clear view of the other. Amidst all the hullaballoo, Neil realizes Hanna has made him. Escape with Eady is impossible. Abandoning her, Neil scales a nearby fence and attempts to make his way to the adjacent airfield on foot, pursued by Hanna, past the landing strips to the bunkers on the other side where the airport’s utilities and generators are housed. In a daring last game of cat and mouse, Hanna stealthily pursues Neil around these moodily lit beacons; faster on the draw and finally, shooting Neil several times in the chest. As Neil prepares to take his last breathes, he reaches out for Hanna’s hand; a gesture to honor his prowess. Hanna takes Neil’s hand and reverently watches his sworn adversary expire.
Heat is a potent crime saga, chiefly because it never loses sight of Michael Mann’s conscientious aspiration for it to be more than just another mindless Tarantino-styled bloodbath or a transparent ‘good vs. evil’ cops n’ robbers actioner. Blurring the line of integrity between righteousness and ruthlessness, it is precisely this murky tonality of self-sacrifice on both sides we come to appreciate; a disturbing place where goodness is neither its own virtue nor reward, even as the time-honored cliché ‘crime doesn’t pay’ is religiously reaffirmed in the end. There are no winners in Heat. Only losers to varying degrees.  Despite its fanny-twitching almost 3 hr. run time, Heat manages to keep us invested in this very crooked path to ruin because, apart from Waingro, at least some of its partakers appear as though to have been placed between the proverbial rock and that very hard place besought by circumstance and fate from which only a life in crime offers any genuine sense of release – alas, short-lived and with devastating consequences to be exacted on the other end.
Brave and gusty, Michael Mann’s direction performs a delicate balancing act, plying us with a good many action set pieces that play mostly to that absurd level of screen violence, since dictated ad nauseam to anesthetize the male bloodlust for extreme carnage. However, between these more garish sequences lurks the real and far more satisfying underbelly of Heat; compelling, multivariate and engaging, as it delves into a critical analysis of crime as perceived from both sides of the law. Cop and crook may appear as temperamental opposites, but they are inextricably linked by an unimpeachable level of sheer professionalism. Neil and Hanna are their careers; obsessed with the subtlest nuances, and invested in the artistry of the crime and/or manhunt. Mann permeates Heat with virtuoso suspense; the action and the drama insidiously informing on each other, building to that ill-fated crescendo when revenge becomes more important than survival. Very loosely based on the real Neil McCauley’s 1964 manhunt conducted by Det. Chuck Adamson, as well as Michael Mann’s failed TV series, L.A. Takedown, Mann here has elected to shoot the revised ‘Heat’ entirely on location; principle photography lasting a whopping 107 days. Although they had appeared in The Godfather: Part II (1974), Robert De Niro and Al Pacino never shared the screen together until Heat. They have not divvied up the screen nearly as successfully since, arguably, because it takes a 3 hr. masterpiece like Heat to contain, as well as exercise their formidable acting talents.
It has taken far too long to get a serviceable Blu-ray of Heat. I am still not certain we have one. The movie was made for Regency and Forward Pass, distributed by Warner Bros. So it is a bit of an oddity to see it given its second release in hi-def via Fox Home Video; the Warner logo that preceded the original theatrical release (and the first Blu-ray from Warner Home Video), lopped off, but mercilessly, not replaced by the 2oth Century-Fox fanfare. Fox has not really given us any technical specs on what sort of ‘restoration’ work was done in the interim, except to intermittently advertise this reissue as derived from a new 4K scan, presumably made using original elements. The results…hmmm. While definitely more refined in subtler details, the color palette (that previously favored a sort of intense blue tint) has been considerably toned down. The overall image is much darker too. And yet, it exhibits some fairly impressive fine detail. Comparatively, this new incarnation of Heat just seems truer to faint remembrances of my own original theatrical experience; the retired Warner Blu-ray now appearing to suffer from some untoward digital tinkering to its color palette. Neither Blu-ray is plagued by compression artifacts or edge enhancement. But the old Warner release now appears comparatively more softly focused as opposed to this Fox reissue, retaining a consistent level of sharpness throughout.
Interestingly, I detected virtually no sonic difference between the old Warner disc’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Fox’s DTS 5.1 audio. Both maintain exceptional clarity between dialogue and SFX with my subwoofer taking a real beating. Fox’s Blu is a quality affair because it takes virtually all of the old Warner disc content, with the exception of Michael Mann’s audio commentary, and dumps it onto a second disc. Disc One: the movie, retains Mann’s commentary track. But Disc Two is where the real goodies are:11 deleted scenes, the in-depth and nearly hour long, Making of Heat documentary, 2 additional featurettes totaling almost 20 min.: Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation and Return to the Scene of the Crime, plus 3 theatrical trailers. None of this content has been up-converted to HD – a pity. But Fox has not been stingy, adding two new to Blu bonus features in HD; at just over an hour - a 2016 AMPAS panel discussion hosted by Christopher Nolan and featuring Michael Mann, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Amy Brenneman, and, from 2015, almost 30 min. of a Q&A session with Mann, conducted at the Toronto International Film Festival. While a lot of similar ground gets covered in both these extras, it is wonderful to have them nonetheless. Bottom line: Heat is taut and tenaciously entertaining. This reincarnated Fox release is the way to go. Now, if we could only get Fox to do as much for The Abyss and True Lies. I know, I know. Wishful thinking! As for Heat – well duh?!? Highly recommended of course.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS

5+ 

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