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.

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