Heat Blu-ray Review

Though there are notable exceptions (Ali, Last of the Mohicans), it is not an unreasonable stretch that Michael Mann has made a career telling stories about cops and robbers. From Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986) through Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009), he has produced tense explorations into the cerebral underpinnings of what makes players tick both in and outside of our legal system. Heat (1995) could very well be considered his crowning achievement in this territory, and its two most iconic scenes epitomize what the writer/director’s classic crime drama is all about.

The no holds bar shootout in downtown Los Angeles during a broad daylight bank heist escape is one of the most thrilling firefights put to celluloid and has been among my favorites to sample out of context on DVD over the years (and its all that more awesome on Blu-ray!). Not just a great piece of realistic, machismo gunplay, what sets the action underway is the defining discipline of the fugitive mentality that Heat studies where freedom is valued over survival.

Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) exits the bank to the getaway car modeling calm assurance and a self-congratulatory grin (cannot really blame him considering the sizable haul slung over his shoulder). Yet within a split second of spotting law enforcement, his demeanor hardens as he opens a can of whoop ass channeled through an AK47 showing not one iota of concern for the innocent bystanders or cops injured. Shiherlis’ actions drive home that as much as we may want to identify with Heat’s outlaw culture, at least in an escapist fashion, its members at heart are sociopaths. The regimented band of thieves exists where at best they can mimic normal relationships (the relaxed “family dinner” scene is a reminder of the life they cannot quite achieve) repeating the mantra to maintain no attachments that “…you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Even more telling is the “over two decades in the making” onscreen pairing of crime drama icons, Robert Deniro (master thief Neil McCauley) and Al Pacino (police Lt. Vincent Hanna) playing off each other as thematic foils. When the characters sit down over a friendly cup of coffee, it is as much a sharing of sentiments that fuel them as a psychological showdown from opposing sides of the law.

Hanna picks at the career criminal’s lonely, systematic lifestyle as both warning and appeal that there will be no leniency when they come head to head in their respective occupations. Insightfully countering that the cop’s conduct is equally alienating and shaped by having to shadow (both on and off the job) ones such as him, McCauley duly notes that maybe their paths will never cross again or the Lt. himself may be on the losing end of the encounter. Since both players are defined by the actions/intent of the other and neither can or will alter course, their fate seems predestined in the most classical sense of tragedy (especially once you know the finale).

And we have only scratched the surface of this tightly woven, purposely paced character study. Dialog is spot on (McCauley and Hanna’s verbal sparring intertwines deliciously and who can forget Pacino’s “She’s got a great ass” rant delivered with such maniacal verve?) and the portrayals, fleshed out by support from Ashley Judd, Tom Sizemore, William Fitchner, Jon Voight, Danny Trejo and Amy Brennerman among others, are utterly believable. The most often heard complaint is that the runtime is overly long (almost 3 hours) burdened by extraneous subplots, but I do not buy it. The subordinate story threads integrally add to the poignancy of the tenuousness personal connections at the thematic center of the film. While Heat’s script and direction are steeped in the clichés of outlaw drama explored prior and since in Mann’s filmmaking career, the writer/director has yet to get it quite this “right” again.

Warner drops Heat onto Blu-ray with all the extras from the 2005 special edition DVD that include a Michael Mann commentary and a great hour long documentary. While I think the flick is well deserving of some new HD supplements, my biggest complaint is the video extras are in less than stellar standard def. Still the content makes them worth watching. The back cover does claim “New Content Changes Supervised by Director Michael Man,” but I will be damned if I can tell what was altered. IMDB lists the theatrical runtime as 171 minutes and the BD is 170, so maybe the director made some very precise and minor cuts. I will also note that while Warner is throwing out numerous deluxe “digi-book” BD editions, Heat seems worthy of such treatment and a missed opportunity.

Heat’s 2.40:1 framed 1080p transfer is overall a satisfying upgrade from standard def, though Mann’s shooting style utilizing natural lighting and a muted color scheme highlighted by steely grays and blues does not have the pop that makes for standout HD. Thankfully Warner lets the film remain true to its source with a natural contrast supporting a good share of dark to dimly lit shots that resolve with no worrisome black crush, some great detail in close ups plus a solid grain structure throughout. Hopefully this is a sign that the studio is learning that not every catalog title needs overdone visual noise reduction or pumped up detail enhancement. While shots here and there are noticeably soft and you don’t consistently get the sense of 3D depth that other HD flicks have, for the most part this Blu-ray delivers a really pleasing cinematic quality (the director supervised the creation of this new transfer so I am sure it is true to his intentions). Warner’s Blu-ray is most definitely the new home video standard for watching Pacino and Deniro face off.

You are probably wondering how the climactic shootout sounds in the included 5.1 Dolby TrueHD mix. I am happy to say exhaustingly awesome as the Blu-ray’s sound design sports great directionality and panning with an impressive dynamic range. Specifically in the bank heist, bullets are whizzing, windows shattering and gunshots exploding all around the surround setup (including noticeable LFE response) and in the initial holdup, you will not doubt your sub has been called into action when the armored car is forcefully rammed over and then blown open. This lossless track moves between quiet conversations, supporting the subtle ambiance of a restaurant or stake out, to intense action without dropping a beat. If I had any complaint, it is that dialog will rarely get buried in the mix but, considering instances such as the shootout, it is actually realistic.

Dubbed audio is provided as French, Spanish and German 5.1 Dolby Digital and Portuguese 2.0 Dolby Digital. A slew of optional subtitles include English (SDH), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German (SDH), Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.

Commentary –Michael Mann provides a screen specific commentary with some noticeable dead spots. Still the writer/director shows his passion (in a soft spoken fashion) for the art of making movies, most specifically police/crime dramas, and floats enough interesting production notes including character inspiration (also covered in the documentary) and subtle context in many scenes (that you’d never explicitly notice) by us fans to make this well worth the effort.

The Making of Heat (59:03) – Here is an hour long, three-part documentary (True Crime, Crime Stories and Into the Fire with an option to play all) that is just excellent. Interview footage from Mann, many of the main actors (including Deniro, Pacino, Voight, Judd, Sizemore, Brennerman and Kilmer) plus the producer, technical advisor, cameraman and others involved in the production is edited together to give a healthy dose of “making of” goodness. This feature compliments the director’s commentary well (seeing Mann’s facial expressions when speaking gives his comments a bit more weight) and most interesting to me was learning of the real life inspirations in Chicago for the main characters. This is not to be missed!

Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation (9:54) – The most iconic scene in the movie is given an overview on how it came to be. Mann details how he labored over the dialogue, held out filming till halfway through production and avoided rehearsals so the actors did not inadvertently give their best takes too soon. As it turns out there were over ten takes done with cameras simultaneously behind both actors (just out of range of each other) and the majority of the scene is culled from take eleven.

Return to the Scene of the Crime (12:07) – The featurette details scouting for the perfect locations for the film. Interesting stuff since physical locations play an important part in Mann’s films.

Deleted Scenes (9:31) – Eleven scenes, most running less than a minute which makes several seem like quick snippets. These could be interesting as they do give brief context to some of the characters but are not essential viewing and nothing that I bemoan having been cut.

Trailers (6:44) – Three theatrical trailers.

With Warner’s release of Heat on Blu-ray, one of the most requested titles for HD treatment can be checked off the list. While the video is not snazzy, demo material, I am positive it is exactly what Mann intended and should please admirers who remember the movie’s theatrical run, and the lossless audio is hard to fault with some serious oomph in the various heists and gunfights. I would have liked some new extras or a little more special edition treatment for this title, but we do get all the previous supplements and just having the film (especially the downtown shootout) on Blu-ray is a real treat that should make fans rejoice.

– Robert Searle

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