I remember the moment when Michael Mann’s “Heat” won me over the first time I saw it. It comes during the first twenty-five minutes and takes place in a bookstore. We see Neil, played by Robert De Niro, sitting alone. He’s reading and trying hard not to stand out in one of those bookstore/cafe combos that are rare but still common in America (Poor Richard’s in Colorado Springs is a great example, but I digress). By now, we know Neil is a “bad guy,” in the classic sense. We’ve seen him lead an armored car robbery, abuse the loose cannon member of his team and even attempt murder. Neil is, for lack of a better term, a slime ball. It doesn’t matter that De Niro has rarely appeared more handsome on screen, he’s playing an emotionally distant, by-the-book jerk. We know that he has an apartment with almost no furniture (it appears he bought it from the realtor and did nothing to it) and that he has a code of dropping everything and leaving if he senses the “heat” coming after him. De Niro makes Neil fascinating but we’re not in this guy’s corner.

What changes everything for Neil (and for us, the audience) is that Neil meets a lovely, quiet and equally lonely woman named Edey and is smitten with her immediately. We’re as surprised as Neil is that he’s suddenly falling in love, with someone he just met. We get it, of course. Edey is played by Amy Brenneman, who’s awfully beautiful and down-to-earth in every role she’s played. Seeing Neil taken off guard and appearing open for the first time, we see him for the isolated, wounded warrior that he is. De Niro makes Neil a touching, aching beast and I suddenly cared very much what happened to him and Edey. It’s one of the many, many great things about “Heat,” Mann’s masterpiece.

Mann’s 1995 crime epic is as intoxicating, rich in character and artful in its filmmaking as “The Godfather.” This is a long movie that uses every minute to give its central characters time to show us who they are, in unguarded, emotionally raw moments. In Mann’s world, being a crook is like being an actor- you play your role, make little to no personal attachments and leave, until the next thing comes alone. Few films are better at exploring the transient nature of being a career criminal (not for nothing, it opens with a train arrival and ends at an airport). I don’t know and don’t care how accurate a depiction of cops and robbers this is. Mann presents a world with its own rules, codes and sense of moral duty. Los Angeles is depicted as a late 1990’s western setting, with cowboys and gunslingers replaced by well-dressed, heavily armed men of action. The good guys and the bad guys are all struggling to keep and create a family unit. It’s hard not to care about all of them, especially Neil.

Neil is a father figure for his group, which includes intriguing figures played by Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Danny Trejo. We see Neil trying to instill a family dynamic, no matter how temporary or ill-fitting. His crew and way of life are all he has. Pursuing him is Vincent, played by Al Pacino, a family man who struggles to give his troubled domestic life the attention he feeds into his job as a police officer. His wife (Diane Venora) is feeling neglected, while his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman) has emotional troubles springing from her absentee father. There’s also great, lived-in turns from Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Jeremy Piven, Tone Loc, Tom Noonan, and many others.

The cinematography is smooth, observant and awash in surprisingly gorgeous imagery (the shot of Neil placing his gun on his glass table after a long day just about sums up the character’s detachment from the kind of life he craves). The action sequences are sensational, over-the-shoulder, You Are There sequences that set the bar very high. Christopher Nolan, Ben Affleck and others have tried to duplicate but never topped the amazing, ground-level quality of Mann’s heist set pieces, which are among the greatest ever staged in an action movie.

Pacino is giving an entirely different type of performance than De Niro. Whereas De Niro as Neil tries to keep his feelings close to the vest, Pacino is mannered and lively, full of stylish bravado that masks the pain simmering in Vincent. The legendary restaurant scene between these two actors is quieter, smarter and better than you might remember. The late night encounter between Vincent and Neil is of two creatures of habit who will never back down from a fight but recognize the limitation in their lives. The words De Niro and Pacino speak are beautiful and they’re both wonderful together. It’s far from the only great scene in a movie that never loses its pull and ends on a note both deeply sad and oddly poetic.

originally published on MAUIWatch