by John S.
Scarecrow’s crosscut theme this month is “The Last Time.” When it comes to cinematic tropes, the two most common ones under this category are “One Last Party” and “One Last Score.” Examples of the former include Bachelor Party, Can’t Hardly Wait, American Graffiti, and Take Me Home Tonight, all stories wherein young folk engage in one last Bacchanalian orgy of fun and booze and shenanigans before, I guess, growing up and becoming boring.
Movies that fall under the latter category, however, are usually centered on a heist or other illegal activity which the protagonist is pulling off “one last time” before walking off into the sunset. Except it hardly ever pans out so simply. A prime example of the “One Last Score” sub-genre is Heat, which pairs screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and allows them to share scenes (however few) for the first time. Pacino and De Niro had been in The Godfather 2 but their characters never interacted. In Heat, however, they are very much on each other’s minds and eventually intersect. It’s basically Sleepless in Seattle. But in Los Angeles. With two heavily armed men.
Pacino plays Vincent Hannah, a bombastic showboat of a detective on the LAPD payroll for whom over-the-top is just the right height. Anyway, Vincent is one of those workaholic law enforcement types who lives for his job and not much else. Sure, he has a wife in Justine (Diane Venora) and a sweet stepdaughter in Lauren (Natalie Portman), but he’s really committed to his caseload. Particularly an intriguing one that has recently landed on his desk.
An armored truck robbery has gone messily south on Vincent’s turf and he suspects the perps will strike again soon. As he goes around Los Angeles noisily chasing down leads to crack the case, we get to observe his criminal target quietly going about setting up the next job. He is Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), and he’s gotten tired of a life of heists and takedowns, however profitable it may be. A lot of this may have to do with Neil’s chance encounter with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a sweet and unassuming graphic designer/bookseller who makes Neil think that maybe, just maybe, he can have a happy ending, too. Pretty soon, it’s looking like “the next job” is actually going to be “the last job” for Neil before eloping with Eady to New Zealand or something. Problem is, Eady thinks Neil is just a traveling salesman. Methinks there will be one awkward conversation in Neil and Eady’s very near-future.
In between Vincent shaking down informants by doing painful Colonel Frank Slade impersonations (you half-expect Chris O’Donnell to show up looking all concerned), Neil and his crew continue to patiently set the stage for “The Last Time.” This will involve the robbery of a bank on Wilshire Boulevard in broad daylight. Any patrons planning a quick lunchtime transaction are in for a very unpleasant surprise and better plan for delays.
Neil’s crew includes Michael Cerrito (Tom Sizemore), Trejo (Danny Trejo), and Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer). Like Vincent and Neil, Chris is also having domestic problems. It seems his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) is also getting tired of this life of crime. Well, actually, she is okay with the “crime” part, but has an issue with Chris consistently flushing their haul down the toilet through gambling and doing blow.
The centerpiece of Heat is a scene wherein Vincent and Neil eventually meet and have a coffee break. This sequence is historically significant because of the reasons mentioned earlier. However, If you are expecting anything exciting to happen, forget it. It’s just “bro talk” about how horrible Vincent’s love life is and how Neil’s is fraught with secrets and lies. A bit of “fair warning” dialogue also occurs in which the ending is foreshadowed. It eventually all comes to a head, so to speak, on the fateful day of the bank robbery. Basically, Vincent’s team (which has received a tip from a disgruntled ex-member of Neil’s posse) and Neil’s posse (which probably should do a better job of cleaning up loose ends) run into each other in the worst way possible outside the bank – and major fireworks ensue.
Bottom line: Heat is the perfect “One Last Score” movie because there are major stakes for everyone involved. This ongoing element of danger and inevitability is present even in the quieter scenes, mainly due to how director Michael Mann tells the story. The city of Los Angeles is just as much a character in this flick as the men and women who populate it. The way Mann films it, L.A. is by turns seductive and sinister. He clearly loves the place and captures its hypnotic, contradictory nature. Like his Cinematic Soul Brother, Ridley Scott, Mann understands that visuals and atmosphere can enrich story and character.
Mann is also aided immeasurably by a stellar cast. Almost everyone is uniformly on their game. The only occasional mis-step comes from Pacino when he goes a little too broad and ostentatious. He’s best when he allows Vincent weariness to seep through, as with his scene with Justine after the party where they realize it’s just not in the cards for them. As for De Niro, well, this is one of his best performances and he makes Neil McCauley a very empathetic anti-hero, despite his actions. You know a “One Last Score” flick is powerful when you are genuinely afraid the “baddie” will not get away with it and have his happy ending. Neil’s relationship with Eady is the quiet engine that powers the whole movie around it. Without it, there would be no sense of loss at the end.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order.