Archive for December 1995

Dead Man Walking

December 29, 1995

Dead Man Walking 1The spirit of the ’70s — a decade when gutsy filmmaking still seemed possible in Hollywood — lives on in Sean Penn. Penn directed 1995’s The Crossing Guard, a searching and intimate drama harking back to John Cassavetes’ work, and his infrequent but vivid recent performances — in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way and now Dead Man Walking — make us yearn for the days when Pacino and De Niro were young and hungry. Penn is still hungry. In Dead Man Walking, Penn takes a page from Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and barely moves a muscle. He knows we’ll watch him, and he’s right.

Penn is Matthew Poncelet, a Louisiana death-row inmate who contacts a local nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), hoping that she can help him get a reprieve. Early on, writer-director Tim Robbins (adapting Sister Helen’s nonfiction account) defuses any cheap suspense about whether Matthew will get a stay of execution. Robbins is interested in the spiritual awakening of a sinner, a rapist and murderer, who knows he’s going to die in a matter of days. Matthew’s journey is awkward and gradual and sometimes too symbolic; Robbins keeps panning across trees long after we get his point that the roots of good as well as evil run deep.

At this point, though, I should point out that Dead Man Walking isn’t quite as even-handed as many critics have claimed. Matthew’s death is filmed in prolonged close-ups, so that we experience his lethal injection along with him; but during this, Robbins also shows us flashes of Matthew’s murders — which are shot in black and white, at a distance. Throughout the movie, Robbins has scrupulously depicted the agony of the victims’ parents; but if we don’t feel the full horror of what his victims experienced, we’re not getting the whole picture. To say that the movie is neither for nor against capital punishment is disingenuous. Still, this is a fine and painful effort overall, far beyond the smug jokes of Robbins’ directorial debut, Bob Roberts.

Robbins deserves credit for resisting the temptation to elevate both Sister Helen and Sarandon (the mother of Robbins’ children) to sainthood. I kept monitoring Sarandon for signs of the gimme-a-break sentimentalism that might invalidate the whole performance; finally I gave up. Sarandon’s task is perhaps even harder than Penn’s. Without pushing it, she has to play a deeply spiritual woman who wants to treat everyone with kindness. And she pulls it off in some beautiful, understated moments when Sister Helen, talking to the parents of the boy and girl Matthew killed, tries to break through their rage and humbly admits, “I’ve never done this before.” Sarandon gives us a woman who is fulfilled and contented but also complicated; it’s a heroic performance in the deepest sense — without ego.

The clock ticks towards Matthew’s execution date, and Sister Helen agrees to be there when he dies — as “a face of love” to comfort him. Meanwhile, she chips away at his defenses, struggling to get him to confess his crimes and redeem himself. Dead Man Walking ends not with anger or despair but with a promise of peace, and Sean Penn — peeling away each piece of Matthew’s armor to reveal the bleeding humanity underneath — keeps us with him until his final heartbeat. If pain and violence are inevitable, Robbins is saying, so are forgiveness and love.

12 Monkeys

December 29, 1995

James Cole (Bruce Willis), the desperate hero of 12 Monkeys, has been sent from the 21st century — say, around 2025 — back to the twilight of the 20th century. His mission is to gather information about the virus that will break out in 1996 and kill 99% of the world population by 1997. Cole is supposed to arrive in late 1996, right before the outbreak, so that he can discover how it started and deliver his findings to his 21st-century employers, who will use his information to begin research on a cure. (They don’t expect him to save the world from the virus; they know the outbreak is inevitable.) But instead of landing in 1996, Cole lands in 1990, where, of course, he starts raving about his mission and is locked up in a mental hospital.

So far, this sounds a bit like The Terminator, in which Michael Biehn dropped in from the future to do battle with a robotic killer and was similarly waylaid by authorities who found him delusional. But 12 Monkeys has a lot more going on. The director, Terry Gilliam, specializes in fantasies that can be viewed either literally or as the characters’ own delusions — or, at least, as expressions of their psychological states. Gilliam’s cult classic Brazil is the obvious example, but you can also see it in all his other movies: The Fisher King, his previous film, with Robin Williams as the homeless man driven mad by his wife’s murder, who constructed an elaborate medieval fantasy out of his anguish; Time Bandits, with the little boy who dreamed about visiting storybook legends and came rudely back to earth, where his home was in flames; and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Gilliam co-directed, in which the knights “rode” not on horseback but on coconut halves they clacked together to simulate the sound of hooves. 12 Monkeys is far from the “Bruce Willis in Outbreak 2” thriller you might expect, and overall it’s Gilliam’s best film since Brazil. But all his movies are both dazzling and flawed (the brilliance and the flaws are often inseparable), and in this case — I never thought I’d say this about a Terry Gilliam movie — the flaw is his over-attention to the plot.

12 Monkeys was written by David Webb Peoples (who worked on the scripts for Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Hero) along with his wife Janet, taking off from the 1962 short La Jetée by Chris Marker. Judging from his produced scripts thus far, I’d say Peoples has a gift for structure; his themes come together with a neat click when you mull them over later. I don’t think Terry Gilliam was a wrong choice for this tidy script — he was probably the only right choice, since the screenplay’s concerns intersect so smoothly with Gilliam’s. But Gilliam’s strength (and weakness, in terms of narrative) has always been mess, chaos. He demolishes context, replacing it with the nightmare logic of clutter; he puts baffling things on the screen, and you don’t know why you respond, or how you respond — you just do.

Gilliam, who started as a cartoonist and contributed animated bits to Monty Python’s Flying Circus before he began directing, is a master of sour visual hardware-surrealism (a klutzy label, I know, but Gilliam resists labels). His style is best described as antique-futuristic (perhaps one reason that his weakest film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, fell flat; it was just antique). 12 Monkeys has futuristic trappings, all right, and when Gilliam cuts back to 1990 or 1996 he gives us his own baroque vision of modern craziness. But the text itself isn’t always fertile enough soil for Gilliam’s inventiveness to bloom. Visually, much of the movie is cold and brackish in an undifferentiated way: 1996 doesn’t look much worse than 1990, and Gilliam doesn’t show us much of the 21st century except the junky interior of a prison, which Cole takes off from and keeps returning to. The futuristic scenes in 12 Monkeys are what Brazil might have been if it had never left the teeming Ministry of Information building.

In 1990, the institutionalized Cole meets two people important to his 1996 destiny: Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an imbalanced wacko (even his eyes are crooked) with dozens of conspiracy theories, and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist who studies the “Cassandra complex” — the delusion that you have seen the horrors of the future and can do nothing about it because no one will believe you. Dr. Railly tags Cole as a textbook Cassandra; Jeffrey looks at Cole and recognizes a kindred spirit. Gilliam bounces us back and forth between three time periods, and the movie gets a bit too clever and plot-centered; the plot is just elaborate scaffolding for Gilliam’s delusion theme.

In 1996, Cole kidnaps Dr. Railly, who gradually begins to believe him, and they try to track down Jeffrey, who is now an animal-rights activist turned terrorist — part of an underground group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Jeffrey is rebelling against his dad (Christopher Plummer), an eminent virologist; Cole suspects that Jeffrey plans to steal a virus from his father’s lab and uncork it, killing off the humans and letting the animals take over. There are also flashbacks that might be flash-forwards — they’re flashes, anyway, and they hint at something dark. 12 Monkeys isn’t hard to follow, but sometimes it seems that too much of Gilliam’s energy is spent trying to keep things clear for us, taming the wild time-tangle of the plot. In a simpler plot (and Brazil really had no “plot”), Gilliam is free to tear the fabric of logic and stitch the tatters into a crazyquilt all his own. 12 Monkeys is more like individual, dazzling quilt squares that Gilliam shows you one at a time, so that you don’t get confused.

Yet within those squares, Gilliam is free to doodle and embroider. In this movie and The Fisher King, he disproves once and for all the old, false charges against him as a graphic artist who lets humans recede into the design. It might be a coincidence that the three main characters here correspond almost exactly to three of the main characters in The Fisher King, and Gilliam’s actors here deliver performances of comparable depth. Bruce Willis (like Jeff Bridges’ self-hating shock-jock) is wounded and vulnerable; Madeleine Stowe (like Mercedes Ruehl’s strong, responsible video-store clerk) is low-key and logical until circumstances force her into angry action; and Brad Pitt, in the Robin Williams holy-fool role, is a revelation — this is his second solid performance of 1995, after Seven, and I’m daring to hope that his blank-stud days are behind him. Watching him pose and pout over candelabras and horses in Legends of the Fall or Interview with the Vampire, you’d never dream Pitt had this Gilliam-esque wingnut in him. As in his other films, Gilliam calls time-out so that his characters can pause to appreciate pop culture — Fats Domino, Hitchcock. This is where Gilliam’s soft artist’s heart comes out: Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Gilliam doesn’t drop pop-culture references for a goof or a tickle, but to illustrate art’s redemptive power.

Again and again, Cole finds himself up against people who don’t believe his story; after a while, he himself doesn’t believe it, and resigns himself to the fact of his delusion. 12 Monkeys flips back and forth after this — the movie, unlike Brazil, doesn’t end with an icy “And it was all in his head after all” parting shot — but the idea of Cole faltering in his mission and thinking it’s all a mind trick is uniquely unsettling, as I’m sure Gilliam means it to be. It’s a common metaphysical dread that, say, Angel Heart fumbled: What if everything that seems to be happening to you — the life you experience as reality — is in fact your delusion? Terry Gilliam, as a primarily visual fantasist, must place singular importance on his senses — not only his eyes and the way he sees, but his whole set of artistic antennae and what they pick up.

Well, what they pick up is pretty strange: Gilliam’s art doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Artists who scare us with stories about unreliable perceptions are really inviting us into the way they perceive things, and letting us know how lonely and frightening it feels to look at the world and see what no one else sees; this, I think, is the true heart of 12 Monkeys, despite the plot apparatus. All artists have their delusions, and the lucky artists — the geniuses — can forge imagination from delusion. In 12 Monkeys, Gilliam’s images — a mental patient in a tux and pink bunny slippers; a lion prowling atop the ruins of the city; the barcodes tattooed on Cole’s grimy flesh; the metal-intestinal hell of buildings crammed with air vents — tweak parts of you that you didn’t know were there. And this, as I said, in a plot-heavy movie that gives him comparatively little room to doodle. Gilliam has taken on a conventional Hollywood sci-fi thriller with big stars and turned it into his own rough beast. 12 Monkeys confirms his status as the leading movie fantasist of his generation.

Four Rooms

December 25, 1995

It must have seemed like a great idea: Take four of today’s hippest and/or hottest writer-directors and turn them loose on an anthology — Twilight Zone: The Movie for Gen-X. The result, Four Rooms, earns the comparison in more ways than one. The episodes themselves are like wilder, dirtier Twilight Zone segments — a fusion of Rod Serling and David Lynch (who did a similar omnibus, Hotel Room, for HBO) — and one of them is in fact an acknowledged swipe from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Man from Rio.” And Four Rooms, like TZ: The Movie, is ideal for video: Both anthologies begin with two awful segments, which you’ll want to fast-forward past to get to the third and fourth segments. Like some other anthologies, this one has a unifying figure: Tim Roth as Ted the bellhop, who finds himself stumbling into one outrageous situation after another. But even Roth isn’t a very good unifying element, because he’s awful in the awful segments — the directors let him twitch and overact shamelessly — and much better in the other two pieces, where the directors keep a lid on him.

Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca) takes the blame for the first segment, “The Missing Ingredient.” I’d rather not sink to the level of the piece and say that the missing ingredient here is humor. Actually, Anders’ idea isn’t bad — a coven of witches need semen for their ritual and enlist Ted to provide it — so I was shocked that she didn’t do anything with it. The story has extremely shaky logic (has this hotel room been set up for the witches for the last forty years?) and even less point, except to showcase Madonna, who proves once again that she has no presence as an actress (Courtney Love might have brought more outlaw snap to the role of the coven mother). A classic case of a good filmmaker having a bad day.

“The Wrong Man,” by Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), probably won’t do much to change Rockwell’s status as a little-known director. Here, Ted enters the wrong room and stumbles upon weird sexual games between a man (David Proval) and his wife (Jennifer Beals, who was Mrs. Rockwell). It’s good to see Proval again — he hasn’t been around much since Mean Streets — and there are a couple of nice visual gags involving Ted stuck in a window. But generally the piece is monotonous and unpleasant, and when Beals rattled off a list of nicknames for Ted’s penis, I laughed but was ashamed of laughing; it’s a pure sign of screenwriting desperation (and our desperation to laugh at something).

Fortunately, Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) swoops in and almost erases our memory of the first two misfires. “The Misbehavers” is easily the best of the four rooms; Rodriguez’s infectious sense of play catches you up immediately. In this one, Ted is pretty much intimidated into babysitting the two active children of an imposing bruiser (Antonio Banderas). Playing this cartoon heavy, Banderas at last recaptures the wit he showed in Pedro Almodovar’s films but had forgotten in his American movies until now. The segment itself builds to an uproarious finish, made all the more effective because the audience at this point doesn’t expect anything funny. It’s a beautifully shaped comedy short, establishing Rodriguez as a director who can move beyond bang-bang.

The final entry, “The Man from Hollywood,” is by Quentin Tarantino, and Quentin Tarantino makes damn sure we know it’s by Quentin Tarantino. No more acting attempts, please. Quentin plays an obnoxious movie star who pulls Ted into a wager based on (you guessed it) “The Man from Rio”; in other words, Quentin basically plays himself. To say he’s better here than he was on Saturday Night Live isn’t saying much. The piece is redeemed by Tarantino’s usual crackling dialogue, but it dawdles far too long before its “shock” ending. Some of the dawdling is amusing, some isn’t. Rodriguez’s piece is a hard act to follow anyway. Tarantino’s name may have been the key to getting Four Rooms to open, but only one guest in this hotel throws a good party — and it isn’t the man from Hollywood.


December 20, 1995

Something strange happens during Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and it’s not just that ex-president Richard Nixon — figure of evil, target of ridicule — emerges as a real, suffering human being. It’s that the man, his life, and the movie itself merge, as in some unholy trinity, and pull together the themes Stone has underlined throughout his career: the twin decline of American conscience and American consciousness. Stone’s recent films, particularly Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers, seemed to me to express a dark self-disgust. I assumed the self-disgust was Stone’s, but now, with Nixon — which drips with Tricky Dick’s self-loathing — Stone’s message becomes clear. America hates itself; our country is on a suicidal guilt trip, and has been, perhaps, since Hiroshima. Nixon, the bitter mama’s boy who clutched at the American dream, was a perversely apt leader for this nation in its hour of seething chaos. Some of Nixon is crude, much is factually (and dramatically) slippery, and Stone is still too pushy and insistent. Yet this is still, I think, the great neglected American film of 1995: philosophical and experimental, wounded and impassioned — a fragmented epic of the psyche.

At first glance, Anthony Hopkins hardly seems an obvious or even a good choice to play Nixon. My heart sank when I saw the early photos of Hopkins wearing the familiar Nixon haircut but otherwise resembling him no more than I do. But looks aren’t everything. Sometimes, from certain angles — especially when he activates his wolfish fake grin — Hopkins does look startlingly like Nixon, or at least like Hopkins possessed by Nixon’s ghost. And really that’s what the performance is. Hopkins digs deep, drawing on his own reserves of self-doubt (how to play such a well-known, well-parodied man?), and brings back Nixon’s burned-out, paranoid soul — his eternal, essential loneliness, the resentment and neediness and grief beneath the impenetrable shell. In public, Hopkins’ Nixon puts on his Nixon mask. In private, his stubbly features collapse. He becomes a raging, depressive id, an exposed nerve.

We know all this, of course. Nixon’s bizarre psyche became common knowledge with the Woodward-Bernstein books, and Saturday Night Live wasted no time jumping on the abject Nixon-Kissinger prayer anecdote in The Final Days. In retrospect, Nixon was not so much a monstrous or tragic figure as a cautionary one — less a Richard III than a lumpen Macbeth, a pathetic man consumed by his own naked ambition. Helplessly, he brought shame upon his country, his office, himself. What Nixon illustrates so indelibly is that the shame festered in him from the start. Two of Nixon’s brothers died of tuberculosis, freeing up some money his parents used to send him to law school. But that school was Whittier, not “the right school” — i.e., Harvard, which birthed Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Nixon’s drive to power, according to Stone, was ambiguous and vengeful. Deprived of the American royalty and telegenic suavity of the brothers Kennedy, he had to prove that he, Richard Nixon, could transcend anything, could “keep fighting.” In the movie, when Nixon assumes the presidency, he becomes a rigid man, a rusty flagpole that won’t bend in the hot winds of change. Yet he also craves popular acceptance. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown of thorns.

In Nixon, Stone introduces “the Beast” (in Natural Born Killers it was “the Demon”), a catch-all mystical boogeyman that apparently symbolizes the primal chaos and violence of human nature, the collective American id. Like JFK, Nixon posits a military-industrial Beast, fed by corrupt tycoons and Cuban interests. James Ellroy, in his kaleidoscopic novel American Tabloid (which reads like a jazz riff on JFK), swam through this same sewage without slapping a fancy Biblical name on it. At times, Stone’s Beast is as silly a straw man as Bob Dole’s media violence or Bill Clinton’s Joe Camel. Two examples: the scenes in Nixon when Nixon butts heads with callous, shadowy big-wigs (among them Larry Hagman, doing a tumorous variation on J.R. Ewing) play like special pleading. “See,” Stone is saying, “Nixon stood up to these guys, but there was only so much he could do without getting popped like JFK.” And there’s a terrible scene, set days after the Kent State massacre, in which Nixon confronts young protesters in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Nixon tries ingratiating himself by talking football — that part is fine. But then a pretty young student asks Nixon why he doesn’t stop the fighting in Vietnam. Perhaps having read the script, she concludes, “You couldn’t stop it if you wanted to.” Shaken, Nixon walks to his limo convinced that the student has put her finger on the Beast that forces his hand.

Stone doesn’t need this mythology. Most of Nixon paints a stark portrait of a rougher Beast — the Beast in Nixon and, by extension, the Beast in us. Stylistically, Nixon is the third panel in Stone’s shattered-glass American triptych, begun by JFK and continued in Natural Born Killers, whose Cuisinart style was itself the subject. In form, Nixon is far from the usual biopic. It hops from decade to decade, from style to style, as if trying to reconcile the scattered pieces of Nixon’s soul, the schizophrenia of a life lived under a magnifying glass. The effect is less trippy than free-associative. Stone is collecting the jagged shards of what we know about Nixon and gluing them into a cracked mirror on America. “When they look at you,” Nixon mutters to a painting of JFK, “they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.” The editing (by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin, Stone’s NBK team) strobes us subliminally into complicity with Nixon. We share his experience; we swim around inside his head.

If we’re never with him all the way — if our understanding is aesthetic instead of compassionate, if we observe his fall with pity rather than with empathy — that’s because Nixon finally blocks us out just as stubbornly as he shuts out everyone else. The glimpses of raw, anguished need that Hopkins flashes us are more than enough. Nixon is about a frozen man burning in shame, refusing to let himself melt in the heat. In the end, he isn’t broken — he’s splintered, like the film itself. The Beast may have left Nixon, but Oliver Stone assures us that it will always fiddle while America burns.


December 15, 1995

Moviegoers who want to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share the screen will have to wait another few decades, I guess. They appeared as father (De Niro) and son (Pacino) in 1974’s The Godfather Part II, but, since De Niro appeared in the flashback sequences and Pacino in the modern ones, they didn’t actually work together. The same is true of Heat, the long and confusing cops-and-robbers drama from Michael Mann (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans). Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, a detective, spends the movie chasing De Niro’s Neil McCauley, a criminal mastermind. Midway through the film, Hanna pulls McCauley over and suggests they go get coffee, and I settled back hoping for the fireworks of two modern movie legends sparking off one another. But Mann never gives us what we want: a clear shot of both of them in the same frame. He keeps cutting to De Niro or Pacino talking to someone filmed from the back — who could actually be the other star or could, for all we know, be a stand-in. They have one other (climactic) scene together, and Mann blows that, too.

Heat has gotten some heavy-duty reviews, as if it weren’t just a cop drama but the cop drama. Michael Mann seems to cast a spell of blindness over otherwise intelligent (male) reviewers, who dutifully praise his handling of violence, his understanding of alienation, blah blah blah. But the Heat I saw clocks in at two hours and 51 minutes, and I felt every minute. In outline, the movie isn’t about anything but a guy who robs banks and a guy who wants to catch him, but Mann pumps it up, throws in characters and subplots that could have been left out with absolutely no adverse effect, holds his camera on the men staring at the Los Angeles city lights …. Heat isn’t a terrible movie; it has some fleeting pleasures. But it’s a jumble. Mann can’t come up with a compelling narrative, so he piles narratives on top of each other, and each scene has identical dramatic weight. You can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t, and some may mistake the movie’s incoherence for profundity.

This is as much as I could make out. Some banks get robbed, some cops get killed, and some thieves get killed. Except for Hanna and McCauley, nobody seems to have a name; characters with names like Van Zant are referred to, but I still don’t know who Van Zant is. Heat isn’t complex; it’s just complicated. People like Jon Voight (looking like Gregg Allman in Rush) and Tom Sizemore (I remember his short gray hair) drift in and out of the movie, doing things I never quite understood; if they register at all, they only register visually. If you’d never seen Wes Studi before, you’d never know from his flunky role in Heat that he can be a powerfully scary actor (in Last of the Mohicans). Mann resorts to giving hip cameos to Henry Rollins and Tone-Loc, who are as blurry as everyone else on the screen — except the two Godfathers.

Val Kilmer is in it, too, giving a non-performance that makes me afraid that his mesmerizing work in Tombstone was a fluke. He has a wife (or is she a girlfriend?), played by Ashley Judd, who has nothing to do except bitch at Kilmer and hold a baby. (Is it hers? Is it theirs? Is it a Rent-a-Baby?) Pacino also has a wife, played by Diane Venora, who gives the same jaded performance she gave in Bird, only without the humor. She gets the worst lines, too: Defending a fling with some loser, she spits at Pacino, “I had to degrade myself with Ralph so I could get closure with you.” Take that. Venora’s depressed daughter is played by Natalie Portman, and, again, if you hadn’t seen this young actress in The Professional you’d never know she had any spirit. Finally, De Niro finds love with NYPD Blue‘s Amy Brenneman, as some sort of innocent bookstore clerk and aspiring graphic designer. (Do we ever see her working on anything? No. Does she ever show De Niro her portfolio? No.) These are gifted actresses, but the women they’re playing are made of paper — old paper, too. (They all deliver some variation of “Be careful” to their men.) Heat has been acclaimed for its compassionate treatment of non-stereotypical female characters. That’s a joke, right?

Michael Mann specializes in hip abstractions. The difference between him and Quentin Tarantino, another hipster abstractionist working in the crime genre, is that Mann takes himself seriously. He gives the impression of being a deep thinker with a colorful palette, but all he has is the colorful palette (which is easy when you have an ace cinematographer like Dante Spinotti, who does the honors here). Mann isn’t satisfied with simple entertainment. He wants to give you the definitive cop show (Miami Vice, Crime Story), the definitive safe-cracker movie (Thief), the definitive serial-killer movie (Manhunter), the definitive historical saga (Mohicans). Heat is his definitive macho-showdown movie, and the proof is in the casting. Would any of us be the least bit interested in Heat if it starred, say, Michael J. Fox and James Belushi? Mann uses Al Pacino and Robert De Niro for the great-American-actor gravitas they can bring to the shallow characters. The only real drama in the movie is our collective memory of all the classic movies De Niro and Pacino have done over the last three decades, and this is the dream match: De Niro versus Pacino, like Ali versus Tyson in Madison Square Garden — this is it, this is the big one.

About Mann’s script, the best I can say is that there’s always something going on, even if we’re never sure what. I guess if I try real hard I can justify the serial-killer subplot: one of De Niro’s henchmen goes nuts, escapes, and starts picking off prostitutes. But really the psycho is in the movie to give Pacino more corpses to find. There’s a scene in which Kilmer gets around a roadblock by flashing fake ID; doesn’t he have a criminal record, and are the LAPD that easily fooled by Kilmer’s new haircut? As a director, Mann has always been overrated. Every scene has at least one image that calls attention to itself, like De Niro’s car momentarily turning white when it passes under tunnel lights. Except for the way De Niro softens towards Amy Brenneman when they first meet, the movie has no real feeling, just Mann’s intellectualized concept of feeling. And since the character are so hollow there’s no context for the few heated emotions there are.

The movie doesn’t really insult your intelligence (except for a moment when Al Pacino roughs up Henry Rollins — Pacino’s whole body is maybe the size of Rollins’ neck); it does test your patience, though. It’s no mystery why Heat scored with critics. They were all psyched for Casino — so psyched that no movie could have lived up to the anticipation — and they were let down, and so they latched onto Heat, pretending that it’s what they desperately want it to be: the big American masterpiece of the fall. Will the movie connect with a large audience? I doubt it — not after word-of-mouth gets out and the critics’ emperor Michael Mann is revealed to have no clothes.

Heat boils down to Pacino, De Niro, and Mann’s pretentious direction. I honestly don’t know why the stars committed to Mann’s script. Was it the chance to play large, empty characters they could then fill with acting flourishes? Given nothing new or specific to express, De Niro and Pacino fall back on familiar mannerisms. Vincent Hanna is a synthesis of Pacino’s flamboyant turns in Scent of a Woman and Dog Day Afternoon, with a dash of Serpico; Neil McCauley is pretty much De Niro’s efficient boss in Casino with a goatee and a gun. Both men have exciting or amusing moments, but they’re not playing people. Michael Mann doesn’t do people; he does icons. Heat is an almost completely abstract cops-and-robbers movie about The Cop and The Robber. Some may enjoy the abstraction itself, the decorative images, the masculine brooding, the elaborate planning of heists; they may even float lazily in the nearly three-hour length and not worry about following the plot. But the movie, like Pacino and De Niro, never truly comes together. It’s the De Niro-Pacino movie for De Niro-Pacino fans who don’t care that it makes no sense; it’s like those lame crossover comic books where Superman and Spider-Man team up — the idea of them being in the same story is meant to be so thrilling that we’ll overlook the flaws out of gratitude. Sorry. Michael Mann is an ambitious but cold director, and this film, like his other work, has size without shape, incident without meaning, ideas without focus, artistry without personality, fire without heat.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

December 1, 1995

A clumsily titled (after the Warren Zevon song, and Zevon was reportedly none too thrilled about it) but funny and engaging whatsit that didn’t really deserve all the comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. Andy Garcia is Jimmy the Saint, who used to be in the mob but now runs a service that allows the dying to videotape advice to their survivors. Jimmy’s former boss, The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken in a wheelchair), asks Jimmy to do one last job. Jimmy recruits former partners Bill Nunn, William Forsythe, Treat Williams, and Christopher Lloyd to perform the duty, which goes tragically awry. Soon, Jimmy must avoid not only hit-man Steve Buscemi but also ardent ragamuffin Fairuza Balk (who wants to have his baby) and his own growing love for Gabrielle Anwar. What could have been quirky plot overload turns out to be one of the slickest yet most deeply felt movies in some time, with highly quotable dialogue (“Give it a name”) by Scott Rosenberg. The standouts in the wonderfully eclectic cast are Williams, Balk, and especially Garcia, who gives the movie heart and soul. A home run for first-time director Gary Fleder, whose work since (Kiss the Girls, Runaway Jury, Don’t Say a Word, Impostor) has been consistently lame.