Cops and Robbers: Chasing the Heat
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
Cops and robbers, fewer binaries are easier to grasp on the silver screen. The man with the badge, the good guy. The man with the mask, the bad guy. At a glance, Heat is the quintessential cops and robbers movie but by giving this binary new life, it has become my definitive American crime thriller. By examining how it embraces and rejects this dynamic in equal parts, we can explore how and why.
(Honourable mention to Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, the only ninety minutes I’m comfortable spending in a room full of angry white dudes, and the iconic be gay, do crimes based-on-a-true-story that is Dog Day Afternoon.)
Let’s first get this out of the way. Two iconic actors set the stage here: Vincent Hanna played by Al Pacino and Neil McCauley played by Robert De Niro. Hanna, a police lieutenant who’s the best at what he does and McCauley, a professional thief who’s also the best at what he does. A showdown between these two on paper is already a compelling proposition, and to be sure, their performances are incredible, but it’s the material they’re given which makes Heat truly special. Sitting on opposite sides of the law, one must fall as per convention. One does, but it’s not so straight forward as the timeless saying may suggest, ‘crime doesn’t pay’.
Crime doesn’t pay, it’s a comforting sentiment that’s echoed across the genre. For many stories, this is where the message begins and ends - as a simple moral fable - but not in Heat, even if Hanna successfully hunts down McCauley.
Air planes fly overhead as McCauley spends his final moments by a runway, Hanna grabbing onto his hand. Deep strings from Moby’s ‘God Moving over the Face of the Waters’ plays us out as the credits roll. There is no sense of moral victory here. There is catharsis, but it’s not in the way we expect. Why is that?
Aaron Biggersm, in a rare, quality Letterboxd review puts it best: every michael mann movie is about loving your homies, but because your men, the only way you can show it is by shooting bullets at your enemies
Heat takes the hypermasculinity which defines the crime genre, and America itself, to its end result. The mythical herocop that does not rest and the master criminal that cannot be pinned down collide as both chase the heat, the action. That is all they can do because that is all they are allowed to be in the world of Heat - our world. They found their calling, and they cannot imagine doing anything else at the sacrifice of lasting connections and a sense of belonging.
When the two characters finally meet halfway through the story, they establish that an “ordinary life” is not for them. Settling, settling down, and stillness is the real enemy, not each other. Hanna and McCauley may be the best at what they do, but this leaves them strikingly alone. Neon cities and lonely people are a timeless combo and few movies capture the neon, city, and lonely people as well as Heat does. Through the lens of McCauley and Hanna, we experience this miserable existence.
Thus, Heat is about two men on two sides of the same coin, a common juxtaposition that is able to tread fresh ground here by being masterfully committed to creating an anti-power fantasy. I will never tire of seeing anti-power fantasies, and it is especially compelling here.
The cliché of the loose cannon that could solve all the crimes if only the rules weren’t in the way may not be as prominent anymore, but it goes deeper than that when stories of police create an image that amounts to no more than propaganda. Cops and robbers stories, and police stories as a whole, not only relish in power fantasies, they are the ultimate power fantasy. The day is always saved, and the crimes are always solved. In the US context at least, studies show that police neither prevent crime, nor do they solve it. ¹
Among the narrative threads Heat sets up and pays off, it’s worth noting that McCauley is the one to catch the conventional ‘bad guys’ in the end, dishing out what would be framed as vigilante justice in any other movie to two characters which represent opposite ends of the villain spectrum as far as crime stories go: one, a wandering serial killer and the other, a wealthy, white collar criminal. Instead, tidying up these loose ends becomes the downfall of McCauley who misses his window to escape.
As a proxy for good and bad, the story of the law enforcer and lawbreaker teaches us what is right and wrong from a young age. Heat takes this same approach to reach a conclusion we’re trained to expect, but not in the way we expect it to subvert the endless cat and mouse game cops and robbers play.