All I Am Is What I’m Going After

~ essay on Heat (1995).

In Michael Mann’s transcendent crime action drama Heat, a master thief and ace detective duel to balance the chaos being created in the city around them, directly caused — and clarified — by one another.

Robert DeNiro plays professional heistman Neil McCauley. Al Pacino plays lieutenant police officer Vincent Hanna. The two G.O.A.T.s share the screen for the first time in Heat (1995) — and what a pair of performances. There are other great performances in this film, namely by Val Kilmer as Chris Shiherlis, a hotheaded, hi-tech marksman within McCauley’s crew, Ashley Judd as his ailing, acab-abiding wife, Amy Brenneman as Eady, McCauley’s impassioned muse for normalcy, and Jon Voight as the steady overseer for the heist plot.

For the purposes of my succinct analysis, I am focusing on the characters of McCauley and Hanna, the beating hearts of the story.

~ I am never going back. / Then don’t take down scores. ~

In Mark Fisher’s endlessly relevant 2009 book Capitalist Realism, he marks Heat as not only a cherished artifact of 1990s filmmaking, but a great film about the modernizing alienation of the 1990s, told through the lens of bombastic crime drama:

A guy told me one time,” says organized crime boss Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat, “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.” One of the easiest ways to grasp the differences between Fordism and post-Fordism is to compare Mann’s film with the gangster movies made by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese between 1971 and 1990. In Heat, the scores are undertaken not by Families with links to the Old Country, but by rootless crews, in an LA of polished chrome and interchangeable designer kitchens, of featureless freeways and late-night diners. All the local color, the cuisine aromas, the cultural idiolects which the likes of The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990) depended upon have been painted over and re-fitted. Heat’s Los Angeles is a world without landmarks, a branded Sprawl, where markable territory has been replaced by endlessly repeating vistas of replicating franchises. The ghosts of Old Europe that stalked Scorsese and Coppola’s streets have been exorcised, buried with the ancient beefs, bad blood and burning vendettas somewhere beneath the multinational coffee shops.

This analysis has stuck with me. McCauley’s crew is not about loyalty — they are about the action (“For me, the action is the juice.”) Unlike Godfathers Vito and Michael Corleone, they have no political sway, and nor do they wish to wield such a thing; they are in it for the money and the getaway. Because of new technology, there can be no smash and grabs. McCauley and co.’s heists have to be meticulously planned and executed with impersonal specialty. They are not stealing cash but “securities.” Bonds owned by wealthy financiers that can be bargained with. All this means that in the 1990s — you have a new breed of thief, and a different set of competencies from the detective set to chase them.

McCauley starts the film with shifting eyes in an action-ready stance. He’s constantly plotting, thinking of escape routes and ways out, with or without his crew, one way or another. Hanna, on the other hand, first appears on screen in the throes of passionate love-making in another man’s home. Not long after, we see McCauley romance a woman with only a few looks and well-placed words. Hanna spits out deductions, commands, and rock-solid theories at the aftermath of a heist at such a breakneck speed that you can’t help but realize we are watching two masters of their craft.

~ I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best: trying to stop guys like me. / *nods*

That craft is not just the law and a subversion of it; they are men who excel at what they do best. How they got there does not really matter; Hanna’s an ace and McCauley’s an ace (much like Pacino and DeNiro’s status as generation-defining, god-tier actors).

Midway through the film, inside of an iconic conversation, our pair of masters finally meet face to face. In the midst of their chase, their goals only half-sought — for McCauley it’s one last job and an escape into a new future, for Hanna the capture with evidence and a moment’s respite — they come to know one another.

In another time and place, it’s clear that McCauley and Hanna could have been friends. They *understand* each other. And because they do, it makes their battle that much emotionally harder and strategically easier. In truth, they are the same man just pitted on opposite sides of the law. Kindred spirits on separate paths. You can see it in their eyes, knowing they gotta go after each other ain’t no pleasure.

~ I don’t know how to do anything else. / …neither do I. / And I don’t much want to. / Neither do I. ~

For McCauley and Hanna alike, their work is everything. The alpha and the omega. Chasing bad guys and doing scores. You see it throughout the film, in the sheer effectiveness of how they go about it. Hanna closing in, McCauley getting away. McCauley setting the cops up, Hanna figuring it out.

McCauley can’t keep any relationships because he’s always on the move, feeling “the heat around the corner.” Hanna is emotionally invulnerable and frequently absent, out of necessity, as he continuously delves the “disaster zones” of homicide work in the big city.

They don’t know anything else; they don’t *have* anything else.

~ Maybe it’ll happen that way. Or who knows … / …maybe we’ll never see each other again. ~

Call McCauley’s sleekly empty apartment tragic, or Hanna’s failed relationships sad — but these two men understand their reality and embrace it. They know who they are. And there’s something beautiful about it.

At one point, Hanna says to his wife in the heat of an argument about his absence from her life:

“All I am is what I’m going after.”

That’s McCauley and Hanna. For better or worse, it’s movie magic. ~