I’ll start off with what may perhaps be an unpopular opinion: I think Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are vastly overrated actors. Pacino, in particular, won an Oscar for playing that blind veteran in Scent of a Woman and seemingly decided to play that character for the rest of his career: in every movie, he’s the same wide-eyed, loud-mouthed ham. Robert DeNiro at least sometimes appears in comedic roles, but he too seems to always play a relatively generic tough guy.
So for my part I wasn’t particularly excited to see Heat. In fact, I only started watching it because it appears on so many lists of the greatest heist movies of all time.
But you know what? This movie is one of the greatest heist movies of all time. I loved it!
Al Pacino is a dedicated homicide cop who’s out to take down a murderous crew of bank robbers that’s led by Robert DeNiro (and rounded out by Val Kilmer, Danny Trejo, and Tom Sizemore). Unlike The Town, which was two and a half hours that felt like two and a half hours, Heat is three hours that feels like two hours.
I honestly could not tell you where the time goes. Only a little of it is given over to bank-robbing and shootouts. Most of it is character moments. Each of the robbers has his own life. Val Kilmer, in particular, has an extremely compelling subplot with his wife, played by Charlize Theron. By the time the cops really start to close in, you understand and empathize with both the bank robbers and with the cops.
The standout scene of the movie is right at the midpoint, when Al Pacino finally meets Robert DeNiro, and the two of them chat for a minute or two in a diner. But I think it does a disservice to the movie to focus on this. Because, as a whole, the final act of the movie is tremendous, and it includes the tensest fifteen seconds of cinema I’ve ever experienced, when Robert DeNiro and his girlfriend, played by Amy Brenneman, are sitting in a car, about to make their mistake, and you can see in his face as he thinks about doing something that you know is going to be a terrible mistake.
The movie is perfect. In terms of structure and character arc, it actually could not be improved. At every moment, you’re completely on board. And the whole thing seems so effortless that when the movie was over I was left wondering why every movie couldn’t be this good. That’s the wonderful thing about crime and suspense movies. In dramas, everything is so naturalistic: it just looks like life is occuring. But in suspense movies, you can see the rails (or at least you can if you’re a storyteller) and when the movie is well-structured, the rails themselves are so beautiful that watching them is half the fun of the film.