Much was made of the mythic pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. To the point where you wondered if people paid as much attention to the film itself as to fulfilling some fanboy wish for the ultimate action movie cast. But it's almost that too; it's both a good film and an acting tour de force. And it's also a key catalog release that is now finally available in high definition.
Heat is the story of two career businessmen. One just happens to be a cop, while the other is an expert criminal. But they are both in a similar emotional state. Both are married to their jobs, both have difficulty sacrificing that to build meaningful relationships, and despite the fact that they would both like to change those aspects of their lives, they feel incapable of doing so. And the cast of characters around them are in much the same state – an exaggerated version of the human condition – to varying degrees. It's about what you're willing to let go of in order to save yourself.
Homicide detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino) is good at what he does. Too good, as the quick dissolve of his third marriage can attest. His wife feels abandoned, her daughter without a stable parental presence, and although he recognizes these problems seems unable to detach from his work long enough to mend them. Hiding behind other people's tragedies gives an excuse for his own. Meanwhile, expert thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) has no relationship – until he meets Eady – to speak of, but realizes that to remedy that will involve getting out of the game. Which he thinks he can do… after first wrapping up one last job.
And the film is much more about these characters and their self-made plights in life than it is filler for action. In fact, the action – while brutal and authentically executed – is relatively brief in relation to the film's nearly three-hour length. All of the characters of the film become more flawed and tragic instead of less, until each situation comes to an emotional head. And while Pacino and De Niro's characters lead the two main sides of the story, the supporting players are just as crucial, their paths lending depth to the drama. Heat becomes much more than just a genre film, and its this attention to the overall development of story arc and thematic depth that have given it the longevity and replay strength it has built over the years.
To rate the video quality of Heat, it's important to keep in mind the type of film that it is. This is a rather bleak film with troubled characters, and as such bright colors and rich settings rarely play into it. In fact, the film is almost dusty from the commotion and strain. With that in mind, the picture is actually a very solid transfer of the original. There are moments of grainy interiors, as well as some washed-out lighting choices, but they actually fit in with the film instead of distracting. Whether they were all intentional or not is a discussion for people more obsessive than I am, but the look of the film matches the mood and style, and in turn the transfer here is faithful to that look. It's not perfect, but it's very appropriate (and in fact "perfect" might not be such a great thing).
Audio was slightly more of a mixed bag. Overall the sound is strong with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, and channel separation is used to full effect during gunplay and action sequences. But there are several sections where dialogue just feels neutered and forced into the center channel. It's not omnipresent, and there is more to like here than there is not, but a little extra care on the audio track could have made for more of a slam dunk.
The extra content for Heat brings some mostly nice (albeit in standard definition) supplements to the film. Michael Mann's commentary track is an insightful look into making the film and his approach to directing in general, even though there are frequent silent chunks in the audio. "The Making Of Heat" (SD, 58 minutes) is a three-part feature on the production of the film and does a thorough job of breaking down all the details of the story, structure and themes, filming, as well as the cast and crew involved. "Pacino and De Niro: In Conversation" (SD, 9 minutes) ironically doesn't feature Pacino and De Niro in conversation with each other (except for their clip from the film), and is a mess of clips of people talking about their greatness. Nothing to see here. "Return To The Scene Of The Crime" (SD, 12 minutes) follows location manager Janice Polley and associate producer Gusmano Cesaretti around as they revisit some of the locations for the film, and memories of scouting for the film, as well as discussions with Mann about the look of the film. It's a nice glimpse into an aspect of film making that often doesn't get attention. In addition to some trailers for the film, there are a collection of deleted scenes that while removed for good reason still offer some interesting looks at the characters. Not essential, but worth a look.
Heat is both a visual and emotional feast, but it never stoops to showboating. It unfolds at its own pace that feels natural and intentional, and it's this calm confidence that lets it rise above the other examples of this genre. Pacino and De Niro deliver impressively believable characters simply because they're good actors working from a good story. Characters are developed and given motives for their actions. An all-star supporting cast pitch in to flesh out the environment of the story and relationships, and it's directed with style. In other words, a good movie came from top-to-bottom good components. More movies could learn from that formula.