The flaw of all gangster movies, at least those acknowledged as "classics" (Godfather trilogy, Scarface, Goodfellas, Casino, White Heat, Once Upon A Time In America etc), is how obvious and predictable their narrative progressions are. We get the rise, the joyous ecstasy of crime and the obvious monetary rewards, and the fall, that period where the world violently collapses around the criminal. With the scripts all so loosely similar, it just becomes a game of dress up. Of who has the best period details, acting and set design.
Released the same year as Scorsese's "Casino", Michael Mann's "Heat" positions itself as one of the first "neo liberal" gangster movies, all the others still caught in the old framework of mafia patriarchy, family values, loyalty, honour, total adherence to a distinctive creed, blood lines and tribalism. "Heat", in comparison, completely breaks away from these old-fashioned ways. In Mann's film, everyone is an individual in the most extreme sense. The gang is no longer a gang, but a crew of "independent professionals" who just come together for a specific job and then split. In this world, families and friends are non-existent or total charades.
While Don Corleone hid like a king behind his armed guards and giant fences, Mann's gangsters are trapped in a state of perpetual mobility. Like a group of shareholders, they are held together only by the prospect of future revenue. Their arrangement is temporary, pragmatic and lateral. They know that they are interchangeable parts in a larger machine, that there are no guarantees and that nothing lasts. Compared to this, the gangsters of "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" seem like stagnated sentimentalists, nostalgically trapped in dying communities. While The Corleone's fight over territory and family honour, Mann's guys are only interested in Capital. As DeNiro yells during a bank heist, "We're here for the bank's money, not your money!"
Tellingly, the DeNiro character's creed is one of "zero loyalty". He has a 30-second rule of walking away from anyone, however close he may be emotionally or romantically. The message of the film is thus double edged. It isn't just that the film's final resolution is that "justice prevails" and the bad guys are put away; rather, it is that those who fall, who get caught, are those who failed to live up to the modern creed, which is actually repeated twice in the film: "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." In other words, late capitalism and attachment do not mix.
So in this sense, a film like "Heat", though otherwise entirely predictable, essentially a bunch of little boys engaging in idiot machismo one-upmanship posturing (Pacino's obsessive-compulsive manic cop vs DeNiro's cool sociopathic dedication, etc), nevertheless was one of the first films to manifest a fundamental social change. A series like "The Wire" then takes all of this much further, with its attempt to consciously map out the vast and unrepresentable complexity of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. (In fact, a series like "The Wire", with its sheer scope, complexity and writing credentials, renders ALL gangster and crime movies irrelevant to any serious viewer.)
And so today's gangsters are all "entrepreneurs", all so called "self-made individuals", the "self-employed Petite bourgeoisie", radically without any social links, even down to the kid selling crack to his buddies. This is all a million light years from the long obsolete world of "The Godfather", "Casino" or "Goodfellas". While those elegiac films are about moments that had long passed, Mann's is distinctively modern. This is a film about the 90s. This is a Los Angeles of polished chrome, designer kitchens, featureless freeways, fluorescent bulbs and late night diners. All the colours, sounds, aromas and cultural quirks of Coppola and Scorsese have been torn out, painted over, re-fitted and re-modelled. Mann's LA is a world without landmarks. A vast urban sprawl, all traces of Old Europe replaced by business franchises, multiplexes and multinational coffee shops. While Coppola's film centred around a family called the "Corleone's", their name itself a reference to the village in which they originated, Mann's criminals have bland names like "Neil". They are without history, culture or family ties. In a brilliant touch, Mann even has De Niro reading a book on metals when he first meets his love interest. The guy is a piece of cold, polished steel in a world that is likewise.
Rather than a "rise/fall" structure we also get something a bit different. These criminals get no joy from their profession. Trapped in a world of paranoia, Mann's aesthetic is one of flat glass panes and expansive windows, his criminals always fearing exposure. For Mann, crime becomes a means of escape from the world in its entirety. Crime is total disconnection from both family, society and man, his criminals all looking to amass enough wealth to escape to some idyllic island on the horizon.
But it's Mann's style itself that seduces us. This style, which I call "Armani decorum", owes much to Mann's fondness for such painters and architects as David Hockney, Alex Colville, Edward Hopper and Ed Ruscha (Alex Colville's "Pacific" is visually quoted in one shot). Mann's thus trades the "old noir" look for 1950's modernism, block colours, expansive glass panes, geometric divisions and contemporary, linear houses. His frame is divided into flat surfaces, characters are dressed in pastels, scenes are assigned panels of light and buildings are relentlessly modernist, with fluorescent bulbs and geometrical, flat surfaces. Couple this with his unique choice in music (minimalist, industrial and techno) and you have a very sexy aesthetic.
8.9/10 – Dismissed upon release, "Heat" achieved "classic" status a few years later due to young film buffs. As the star status of De Niro and Pacino fades, and films like "Dark Knight" rip off its style, the film seems to be on another downward spiral.
Worth several viewings.