The main attraction of Heat when it appeared was the prospect of De Niro squaring up to Pacino. It was like Ali vs. Foreman, or Godzilla vs. King Kong; two super-heavyweights were going head to head. Michael Mann first became well-known for getting his actors to power-dress in the TV show Miami Vice. Here, instead of Crocker and Tubbs in those awful 1980's sports jackets, he gives us De Niro and Pacino looking as serious as death in smart, conservative suits; when they meet at the table they look less like cop and criminal and more like two ferociously competitive CEOs from rival companies.
De Niro's impervious 'cool' in the face of all dangers and troubles have of course made him an icon ever since that moment when, as the Italian-speaking Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part 11, he blew away a rival, with a gun wrapped in a muffling white cloth which went up in flames as soon as he pulled the trigger. (That film was the last time he shared credits with Pacino, though they were in different segments and never actually shared the screen). This seductive self-assurance was not evident in everything he made in the 80's and 90's but films like The Deer Hunter, Once Upon A Time in America and Goodfellas did continue and expand his renown as a guy's guy you could look up to. They showed him as very sure of himself, very forceful if anything got in his way, and his taciturn nature seemed to bespeak a certain inner nobility.
Heat was a return to that De Niro and probably also its last ever outing; after that he started playing dads in knitted sweaters. He is certainly at his most Zen-like here and in terms of the acting competition I think he comes out the winner. Pacino in facts seems to be strangely over-acting at points; when he's rolling his eyes and making funny faces at informers you're not quite sure how to take him. Is it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek? But surely this is a serious film? These bouts of hyporbolic thesping are one of the few weak points in the film. The others are some of the dialogue given to Diane Venora, who plays Pacino's long-suffering partner, always trying to connect with him more than he'll allow (does anyone really say 'you sift through the detritus'?) and the plotting at the end which allows the Val Kilmer character to escape simply by using a false ID is surely a blunder; I was mystified how the police, after having Kilmer under surveillance for weeks, would not simply recognise him. But these criticisms really don't matter. They really don't. You could likewise find things to complain about in King Lear or Hamlet if you really tried.
There are so many things that make this a great film. Right from the start you are sucked in by the fantastically broody, haunting music, written by Elliot Goldenthal and the Kronos Quartet and interlaced throughout the movie with tracks by William Orbit, Brian Eno and others. As a train rattles across night-time L.A. it's like the opening bars of a symphony which you will want to experience again and again, and you know you're about to witness something special. The action scenes that follow are so much more menacing and thrilling than those in your average action movie because of the professionalism and intent evident in De Niro and his crew (of whom Tom Sizemore is a stand-out). The huge firefight in the street after the bank raid is one of the most kinetically powerful scenes ever put on film. The cat and mouse aspects of Pacino's pursuit of De Niro and how De Niro turns the tables on the L.A.P.D. are wonderful; you really sense and sympathise with De Niro's existential battle to be master of his own life whatever the cost (despite his immorality). The use of Moby's 'God Moving Across the Face of the Waters' for the final scene is particularly effective, and the lushly romantic aspects of the film -De Niro having to leave behind his woman, for example- are also handled just right, a bit movie-cliché but in the context they work.
Above all it's a beautiful film to look at. The photographic compositions are masterly: De Niro's face under surveillance, seen through a night-vision camera, startled by a sound and reacting like a dangerous animal; De Niro and Jon Voight at the top of a hill with an unearthly-looking LA motorway in the distance behind them at sunset; De Niro and Val Kilmer sitting drinking coffee in De Niro's beachside house, dwarfed by the huge windows, the sea rolling away behind them; Pacino in a helicopter swooping down over the lights of LA at night and then speeding along the motorway to catch up with De Niro....you feel like you're in some alternative universe where everything looks more striking and ethereal than in reality. It's a masterpiece, and I’m probably not the only one who thinks it’s the best film of the last 20 years.