It’s easy to forget with two and a half decades’ worth of hindsight, but Michael Mann’s Heat was not received as an instant classic upon its initial release. That’s true of many films, of course, but Heat also wasn’t exactly under the radar in its day: a big-budget, big-studio Oscar-season crime picture hyping up the first actual pairing of titans Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (they had previously only shared the screen via the dissolves of The Godfather, Part II).
In December 1995, Mann’s film was a success, but a moderate one: Decent reviews, some of which expressed disappointment by how long the movie keeps its stars apart. Respectable box office that was nonetheless significantly lower than the grosses for Jumanji. Incredibly, zero Oscar nominations.
Now Heat is more or less canonized, to the point where it didn’t need to be celebrating a notable anniversary to screen as part of this year’s Tribeca Festival. (Happy 26th-and-change, Heat!) The real reason for the retrospective, or part of it, may be that Mann has co-written a Godfather II-style sequel-and-prequel novel, Heat 2, due out in August and distributed after the screening to those lucky enough to snag free copies before they ran out. There’s also an Ultra 4K disc of a new restoration of the film, which was the version that played at United Palace Theater in Manhattan.
Mann himself was not able to make the screening; he was quarantining with a positive COVID test while prepping his next film. But Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and producer Art Linson turned up to discuss the movie with critic Bilge Ebiri before the screening.
True to the dynamics of the movie, where Pacino plays a fiery, freewheeling cop opposite De Niro’s icier, more taciturn career criminal, Pacino was the more colorful participant, despite a raspy, hoarse-sounding voice (and repeated, sort-of-joking entreaties to just let the audience watch the movie). He and De Niro both had several answers that amounted to “I don’t remember because that was a long time ago,” but Pacino clearly relished the chance to muse about his craft, play to the crowd, and maybe bullshit a little bit. De Niro, as ever, was dutifully clocked in for his Tribeca responsibilities. (Linson, for his part, seemed vaguely annoyed by several perfectly reasonable discussion prompts.)
This left Ebiri to provide more behind-the-scenes info than the actual interviewees, though he was able to shake loose a few tidbits. For example, Mann apparently did not try to extend his famously intense research to his actors, at least in terms of the real people who inspired their characters. Though the actors trained extensively to wield machine guns with appropriate realism, Pacino didn’t recall having any opportunity to meet with the “real” version of Vincent Hanna, noting that he would have jumped at the chance (“When you have an apple like that, you wanna take a bite”).