It seems unfathomable today. Incomprehensible. A head-scratcher for the ages. Yet the truth remains that, released in 1995, Heat, the pulsating, epic-length, labyrinthine crime thriller written and directed by Michael Mann, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, and Natalie Portman, didn’t receive a single Academy Award nomination from those antiquarians, not even a technical pity nom. Film-critics associations were almost equally obtuse, overly besotted with the maudlin likes of Leaving Las Vegas and its empty liquor bottles.
But Michael Mann has enjoyed the last laugh, assuming he does laugh, levity not being one of his cardinal traits. Far from receding into the video landfill of history, the status and mystique of Heat has grown, deepened, attaining an eternal neon aura that haunts the hazy Hollywood sky. Its most memorable scenes, images, comebacks, and dirtbag characters (Kevin Gage’s Waingro) have become permanent fixtures of film lexicon and Film Twitter parlance, its influence muscling across the screen in The Dark Knight, The Town, and Den of Thieves.
A model of classic moviemaking at its collaborative peak, Heat is now considered canonical. A special edition of the movie is being released next month in 4K Ultra HD, coinciding with the release of Heat 2, a pulverizer of a novel co-written by Mann and Meg Gardiner (author of more than a dozen thrillers), and the reason we are gathered here today in chapel.
Both a sequel and a prequel, Heat 2 expands the dimensions of the Manniverse, shifting the saga backward and forward in time, adding new passengers and disposing of fresh corpses. For those heathens and innocents who have never seen Heat, Mann and Gardiner provide a helpful prologue recapping the events of the film in dry Dragnet documentese: “At 11:32 on Thursday, September 7, 1995, Far East National Bank at 444 South Flower Street in Los Angeles was held up by … ”
That out of the way, Heat 2 hopscotches from pre-Heat, where Neil McCauley’s grim-core criminal gang (“like a sheet of black ice, slick and cold”) and antsy, hotshot detective Vincent Hanna are making their bones in late-80s Chicago, to post-Heat, as Chris Shiherlis (Kilmer in the film), the only survivor of McCauley’s heist crew, threads his way to the lawless Faraway, the triple border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina (which Mann fans will recall as a treacherous locale in 2006’s Miami Vice), then back to Los Angeles, where Shiherlis intends to track down Hanna and execute payback. Hanna, in breathless pursuit of a serial killer, has no idea there’s a set of sniper crosshairs following his pompadour around.
As in the original Heat, Heat 2 tees up intricately choreographed set pieces—a foiled home invasion (where would Mann’s oeuvre be without home invasions?), a daring raid on a cartel money house, a climactic shoot-out on the L.A. freeway—that play in the mind’s eye and pump the accelerator with mounting, marauding excitement, marvels of controlled chaos. The novel is nothing if not action-packed, a drive-in feature sandwiched between hard covers. Unfortunately, it is sometimes nothing but action-packed, a perpetual-motion collision machine manufacturing tension and suspense but offering no incidental moments of beauty, no lyric flourishes, just fine-tooled functionality.
This is partly due to the nature of the medium. Print can’t conjure the grainy grandeur of Mann’s digital filmmaking in capturing urban skyscapes and introspective interludes (De Niro’s McCauley staring out at the ocean, bathed in Yves Klein blue), the refuge of a bustling diner. To compensate for the absence of mise-en-scène, Mann and Gardiner furnish tony weather updates (“The desert heat lies like a heavy sear in the air”), spiritual taglines (“The sound drums in the twilight like a prayer wheel”), moisturized odes to female perfection (“Her skin is flawless. Her lips flawless”), and similar prose ornaments that just sort of hang there.
These are easily brushed aside, and Heat freaks will find solace in the scattered callbacks to the film, distributed like souvenirs and Easter eggs (McCauley’s copy of Stress Fractures in Titanium, Hanna’s riff of needing to be “sharp, on the edge,” and the perennial Mann refrain that “Time is Luck”), along with the authoritative inventories of weapons stockpiles (“two Benelli semiauto twelve-gauges and a cut-down Remington 870”), supply routes, surveillance gear, and gang affiliations that give Mann projects that extra verismo. This is surely the only novel of recent acquaintance that cites the Taiwanese Bamboo Union Triad, which doesn’t sound like a group you’d want greeting you at the airport.
What I miss amid all the orchestrated mayhem is the mind-play and gamesmanship of true rivals. In the original Heat, De Niro’s McCauley and Pacino’s Hanna were perfectly matched opponents: the death-stare career felon who relied on schematics and clockwork planning versus the intuitive, clue-combing detective bopping around like Columbo with a buzz on. One took down scores, the other took down guys who took down scores, and each was a lunar phase of the other’s psyche.
With McCauley dead at the outset of Heat 2, the runway lights of LAX having guided him to his eternal rest, a void is left for the role of worthy adversary, which is occupied and then some by a slab of meat named Otis Lloyd Wardell, a sadistic ogre whose calling card is burning women with cigarettes and impaling torture victims on hooks. Apprehension accompanies his every looming entrance, but that’s the stuff of pulp melodrama. There are no layers to his psychology, no craft in his criminality (“a variety pack of gratuitous psycho shit,” as one detective puts it), nothing but pathology in overdrive. Unmitigated evil isn’t interesting, even if it fills a big hole.
Hanna makes the best transition from the screen to the page. We can feel his Spidey sense tingling when he’s closing in on his prey, and can hear Pacino’s voice in his hooting exhortations. (“The power of Christ commands you! … Tell me!”)
As for the further exploits of Chris Shiherlis, they’re plausibly plotted and convincingly detailed, but Shiherlis was something of a cipher in the original, a handsome brooder with not much operating upstairs and not a lot of personality to spend. He does have something more personally valuable: survival instinct. An elusive butterfly of carnage, he slips free at the end of Heat 2, setting up the prospect of a Heat 3.
But before that lands in our laps, Mann officially teased on Twitter that Heat 2, the movie, is “coming soon,” and Pacino has proposed Timothée Chalamet to play the younger Hanna. Timothée Chalamet as Vince Hanna—it’s such a terrible casting idea that only another actor could have thought of it.
Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner, will be published on August 9 by William Morrow. A special edition of Heat will be released on that same date in 4K Ultra HD
James Wolcott is a Columnist for AIR MAIL. He is the author of several books, including the memoir Lucking Out and Critical Mass, a collection of his essays and reviews