(Originally written in March 2014, reposted by permission of the author, which is to say I asked myself if I could repost this and was told "sure, why not.")
The time has come to speak of Heat. One of the most towering feats in the history of ownage, Michael Mann's 1995 heist picture is beloved by both hardcore cinephile and civilian alike. It's full of memorable dialogue, two fantastic late-career performances by Pacino and De Niro, a couple iconic heist sequences, what might be the definitive collection of ownage movie supporting actors (Danny Trejo's character is just named “Trejo” because fuck a character name, he's Danny Trejo), and Michael Mann's uniquely magical ability to make soundtrack tracklists that look fucking horrifying on paper—in this case, the U2 side project Passengers and a fucking Moby cover of Joy Division's “Where Will It End”—into cinematic moments of ferociously transcendent beauty (seriously, the half minute or so of that Moby track? In the freeway scene where Pacino's driving 120 trying to catch up with De Niro? That shit's tight). These things, along with with the central contrast—Pacino's an obsessive, brilliant cop, De Niro's an ascetic, brilliant thief—are what we think of first when we think of Heat. What we rarely consider, and what I didn't realize until quite recently, is that if you delete one character fromHeat, nothing ever happens. That character? The new recruit, Waingro.
At the beginning of the movie, De Niro and his crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo; remember, this was 1995, that was a fuckin all-star team) find themselves with a job that requires an extra man, and director of human resources Tom Sizemore reaches out to his extensive ex-con contacts and comes up with this long-haired bearded biker looking motherfucker named Waingro. As we later see, perceptibly but fleetingly, Waingro is possessed of a seductive ability common to many total fucking psychos. If he wants something from you, he's going to get it one way or the other, and if the best way is for you to want to give it to him, he's going to make you want to give it to him.
This was something I didn't initially notice. Instead of realizing he must be there for a reason, the first time I saw Heat I (like many others) was like, “If they're such a great crew, why the fuck did they hire that guy in the first place?” Well, Waingro seduced them. It, clearly, happens to the best of us. Of course, Waingro's control over himself only extended so far: once they were in the heat of the moment with the adrenaline pumping and a gun in his hand, he fucked everything up by killing the guard, so they had to had to kill all the guards (because, as Pacino puts it in a devastatingly dry line reading “what difference does it make?”) And that fuckup led to the deaths of three-quarters of the crew, Ted Levine, and a whole bunch of civilians.
Without Waingro—let's say, Sizemore hired hypothetical steely, efficient pro Russell Wong (I stay trying to get Russell Wong more work), whom he met in the joint doing six months because the cops couldn't make him for any of the real shit he pulled—Heat's a short film about a bunch of guys who pull off a flawless armored car robbery and some cops standing around afterwards going “fuck, that was a good heist” and then credits. Well, okay, there's still the shit with Van Zant. William Fichtner still tries to have De Niro whacked for selling him back his bearer bonds, but without Waingro distracting him De Niro deals with that in like two seconds, the cops never find Van Zant's body, then the movie ends. Unless Michael Mann shows them hitting the precious metals depository just to totally give the cops the finger. They never need to hit the bank, which means no one gets killed. Hell, without Waingro fucking everything up, Al Pacino isn't even in the movie. Instead of a cops-and-robbers saga it's about a 45 minute featurette about a bunch of guys who are good at their jobs.
Waingro, who proceeds to murder a series of underage hookers and align himself with William Fichtner, is the fifth business, without whom Heat doesn't happen, but more than that, he's a manifestation of chaos, a personified sense of cynical pessimism. There are hints throughout the picture that De Niro's professionalism and the absolute precision of his operation came to him late in life; he is, after all, an ex-con. Thus, the likelihood of his managing to keep on being a criminal without getting caught were minimal. But what if (I know, I know, bear with me) . . . what if De Niro did actually manage to attain that level of talent at crime where he could manage to keep pulling scores until he accumulated enough to retire on, and then retire? He still meets Amy Brenneman in the Waingro-less timeline, after all, and even in Waingro world (which is to say, the actual movie) the only thing keeping De Niro from riding off into the sunset (well, it's the middle of the night because it's a Michael Mann movie, but you know what I mean) with her is the fact that he needs to make sure Waingro is dead. Because Waingro, taken as a literal psycho, is going to keep popping up in De Niro's life fucking things up no matter what after De Niro humiliated him by owning him in the diner parking lot. And, taken as a symbol of the inherent chaos of life, De Niro as a control freak needs to kill Waingro to persuade himself of the folly that is control. Even then, De Niro is thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to getting away with Amy Brenneman. But there is no escaping Waingro.
This is one of the reasons why Michael Mann is the best there is right now at exploring masculinity in art. We're in an age where gradually (a little bit too gradually, but still) society and the arts are moving away from the straight white male as a default, and into regarding him as one of many. (This is something I'll be addressing once True Detective, which is a little shakier on this front than Heat, concludes, so stay tuned.) Michael Mann writes about MEN because being one that's what he knows, and he's also a great transitional figure between the old default era and the new/coming one-of-many era because the fact that even his name is “Mann” is kinda funny and heightened. But it's also because he has enough perspective as a writer to realize that a testosterone high is a lot like cocaine: it's a goddamn blast while it lasts, but the comedown's a bitch, and no matter what you might think when you're flying, you are, ultimately, doomed. And his women characters are actual human beings, even if their dialogue is a little wonky from time to time; this is less a “best hustle” Little League trophy than a note that there's nothing in the rules that says that masculinity necessarily has to exist at the expense of femininity. (He is a bit heteronormative, but I'm willing to cut the fuckin guy some degree of slack for getting this far in spite of being in his 70s now, Rome being built in >1 days et cetera.)
It's kind of odd, even for me, to realize that the best part of a great movie is its fatalistic recognition that everything and everyone is fucked no matter what we do, but what do you want, it's the truth. In this sense, Heat is a fairly decent representation (structurally, at least) of a well-lived life. It takes its time getting to the finish line, it's full of event, characters are constantly taking little detours because what the fuck—a well-lived life should always feature little detours because what the fuck, period, point blank, -30-, end of fucking discussion—and Tone Lōc is in it. But like life, it's the little things that keep it from being a grim march to the final credits. Eccentric Pacino line readings. Atypically good Moby songs. Cool cinematography. Danny Trejo just existing. Knowing that sometimes the troubled teenager grows up to be Natalie Portman. One of the last great De Niro performances.
Well, the little things, and all that massive fucking ownage. That's another thing about life, sometimes critical through-lines don't hold up for whole essays. The irrefutable larger, encompassing point is, Heat owns. QED.