The story is based on real characters and events. Neil McCauley was a prolific burglar and bank robber in the 1960s. His namesake is played by Robert DeNiro in another iconic performance of minimal words and intense stares. Al Pacino is Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a sharp as anything cop who obsessively hunts McCauley and his crew, played by actors Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and others. The two leads are perhaps cut from the same mold, opposite sides of the same coin. Both are consumed by their work, methodical in their execution. While Hanna is prone to frequent outbursts and emoting, he shares with his rival a careful observational take on every surrounding, their peripheries are as clear as what is in front of them.
In an interesting scene, McCauley and Hanna sit down for a cup of coffee. They explain their respective paradigms, what they must do when the moment of truth comes down. There's a mutual respect, gentlemanly acknowledgement, like in a Western. McCauley may well know that he's on the wrong side of the law, but resigns himself to his role, seeing little other purpose in his life. Plus he's damned good at what he does, just like his quarry.
That scene would be extremely unlikely to happen between cop and robber in real life, but HEAT makes no stab at hard reality, even as it features the familiar hardships of significant others who are virtual widows to their men, as well as elements of drug addiction, poverty stricken landscapes. Mann shot the entire film on Los Angeles locations, no sound stages, and it is as perfect as any stage for Mann's uniquely studied point of view. As in so many films, L.A. plays itself in all its alluring mystery, a place with infinite secrets.
Also a place where violence can and will erupt at will. HEAT features a lengthy firefight between McCauley's gang and the LAPD following a broad daylight bank heist that is one of the most brutally effective such scenes in film history. Brilliantly staged and frightening. Influential, too. Watch THE DARK KNIGHT again and observe.
But for all the talk about Mann's flashy style, his screenplay does not suffer. His characters are complex and well drawn, right down to the smallest roles. Neil McCauley echoes the character of Frank in Mann's earlier THIEF. James Caan played a master safecracker who yearns for connection with friends and lovers just like the next guy but will not hesitate to walk away from everything within seconds. Neil likewise is always ready to walk out on even those he loves in "30 seconds flat" when the heat is approaching. But the itch for revenge may be a fly in the ointment for him.