Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Heat (1995) Question

The critical party line on Heat is that its one of the best movies of 1995, maybe one of the best of the entire decade, and certainly one of the greatest cop movies ever made. IMDb has it ranked on its list of the Top 50 Crime Films ever made and on its list of the Top 250 Movies of all-time as well. I've had trouble seeing it that way and lord knows I've tried — this is the sort of movie I should love, don't you think? Two previous viewings, though, never did it for me. I've just had a third.

I now see the movie as a great Robert De Niro performance — maybe the last truly great Robert De Niro performance we've gotten — alongside a truly bizarre and I'd say not particularly successful Al Pacino performance. I know some people love the movie and love him in it. Frankly, I think some scenes are hilarious. But they're utterly distracting to the movie. Consider these two scenes from the film, one with De Niro and his crew — which is pure menace — and one with Pacino and his — which is pure lunacy:

I put forth a challenge to the Heat lovers out there: Defend that Pacino scene and the numerous other ones in the movie where he acts like a lunatic. I have read plenty of defenses of the movie, many of them quite persuasive, on the grounds of its treatment of cop and criminal as equals and as professionals or for its authentic underworld flavor and so on. But I've yet to have someone convince me that Pacino's performance in this movie works. Yes it's funny. Yes I love imitating it. But why does it work?


Blogger MovieMan0283 said...

Hmmm. Compelling query but I'm not sure I'll bite. I mean, I don't think I can justify it either. And yet...I do love quoting it (as do you). That's something, right? A teacher of mine once said, "I love Heat. I don't even know if it's a good movie, I just love it." I kind of know what he means.

And yes, Pacino's performance in this movie is often beyond bizarre. Did HE even know what he was doing?

11:36 PM  
Blogger Jesse said...

You know, I think what's odd about the Pacino performance is that it's aged pretty well. I mean, I was 15 when I first saw the movie, and liked it a lot, and still do. But I remember the reaction at the time that this was hammy, archetypal Pacino, rather than subtle, inventive Pacino. In retrospect, the performances seem exactly right: Pacino's over-the-hop HOO-AH squaring off against the grimacing, cold De Niro. Both characters are aging professionals, and you can sort of extrapolate, from their behavior, the tolls their jobs have taken on them, even as they've perfected their routines. With Pacino, you see the kind of craziness this job brings out of him. What I value about the movie isn't so much the "cop and criminal are two sides of the same coin" theme (as Kaufman says in Adaptation: "see every cop movie ever made for other examples of this") but the attention to the "jobs" of cops and criminals -- the amount of detail in their professional (or quasi-professional) worlds is key. So it's OK for Pacino to be the nuts of this nuts-and-bolts thriller.

Maybe it's also gotten a better reputation in retrospect because while the performance may have seemed a little nuts at the time, much of Pacino's work over the past five or six years has had a wandering, dazed quality that makes one long for the straight-ahead hamminess of a Heat or a Devil's Advocate. They seemed cartoonish at the time, but now these performances look a bit more modulated by comparison. I mean, I just saw Righteous Kill, and it's fun for a little while to watch those two actors together, but they both wind up way more on autopilot than in Mann's film.

1:33 PM  

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