Reel Rumbles: “Heat” vs. “Collateral”
Director Michael Mann‘s seminal crime saga, Heat, celebrates its 20th anniversary today. In the years since its release, it has come to be known as the director’s masterpiece, and its influence on filmmakers like Christopher Nolan can’t be overestimated. For Mann, whose work is so steeped in the world of crime and punishment, it truly is the pinnacle of his career.
Or is it? There exists another film in Mann’s oeuvre that not only Heat‘s equal in technical proficiency and polish, but also Heat‘s mirror in structure and theme. That movie is Collateral, and it is equally deserving of conversation about the high points of Mann’s work.
These films are two sides of the same coin, but which is truly better? Enter the Reel Rumbles ring and find out. It’s Heat vs. Collateral.
(As usual with Reel Rumbles, I’ll be discussing these movies pretty thoroughly, including their endings. If you happen to have not seen them…come back once you do!)
Round One: Story & Script
Here we have two films focused on the relationship between two men at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Professional thief Neal McCauley (Robert De Niro) and LAPD Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) see something of themselves in each other, and build a mutual grudging respect, even as Hanna is forced to hunt McCauley down.
In Collateral, the hitman known only as Vincent (Tom Cruise) has a lot in common with McCauley. He’s a sociopath: a slave to professionalism and a near complete disregard for his fellow human beings. Yet cracks form in his self-imposed control when he spends time with his hostage and de facto getaway driver, Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx). Max is a character very unlike Hanna in Heat. He’s a decent man with grand dreams, yet lacking the motivation to take charge and make them happen. When he unwittingly invites Vincent into his cab, he learns to take action under the most extreme conditions possible.
Heat presents McCauley, ever the professional, as a man who becomes undone only when he deviates from his own plans. It begins when the unstable Waingro (Kevin Gage) becomes a last-minute addition to McCauley’s team for an armored car robbery, only kill one of the guards, resulting in Neal and his team slaughtering all witnesses. This, in turn, puts Detective Hanna on their trail. Waingro’s treachery extends further to cause deviations in the film’s central bank heist, derailing the entire job.
McCauley himself is defeated, though, not just because Hanna is so dogged on his trail. A lesser cop would not get close to McCauley, but it’s Neal’s relationship with Edie (Amy Brenneman) that causes him to falter, and hesitate when he should take action. His very personal vendetta causes him to go after Waingro when he should just make a clean getaway, and that’s when Hanna catches up to him. In the final showdown, Hanna’s attention and skill allows him to catch a glimpse of McCauley’s shadow, and not hesitate to take the killing shot.
Heat is very concerned with a specific cause and effect, but by contrast, Collateral is all about fate, and blind, dumb luck. Early on, Max’s random encounter with a passenger (Jada Pinkett Smith) in his cab sows the seeds of looking for something better in his life. And Vincent, the killer, is undone almost completely by chance. By chance, Max flags him down before Vincent can find another cab. By chance, the body of Vincent’s first victim lands on the cab, alerting Max to just what is going on. Then come calls from Max’s boss, and Max’s mom, and Max’s impulsive decisions to throw away Vincent’s briefcase and crash the cab… It’s a series of small course corrections that force Vincent’s hand throughout the night, and the importance of Dumb Luck in Collateral is illustrated no more plainly than in the final confrontation: Vincent goes for his habitual double-tap to the chest, only to hit the metal of the subway door, while Max fires blindly through the glass to deliver a fluke fatal bullet.
With Heat, writer/director Michael Mann adapts his own screenplay, in a remake of his own 1989 TV movie, L.A. Takedown. There may be a sense that he’s too in love with his own material, as Heat runs just shy of three full hours, yet Mann effortlessly weaves so many interlocking stories featuring so many well-drawn characters that it is difficult to see any seams and know what should be cut to trim it down. (In evidence of this, Mann cut all of three seconds from the film for the Blu-ray release; there’s no doubting he made the movie he wanted to make.)
Collateral, from a script by Stuart Beattie, is a different animal. Mann made several changes when he signed on to direct, not the least of which was moving the film’s location from New York to Los Angeles. But the film has a tighter focus than Heat, with not as many characters, and taking place over a much shorter period of time. (January 24, 2004, to be precise, ending at sunrise on the 25th.) We learn about the two leads in tandem as, unlike Heat, they spend almost the entire movie together, playing off of each other.
Leaner is not automatically “better”; it depends on the kind of story your film is trying to tell. Heat may be more sprawling and “epic”, and Collateral may be focused, but this is too close to call. Round one is a draw.
Round Two: Performances
In the lead roles, these two films feature three of the biggest stars the silver screen has ever known: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise. The fourth lead, Jamie Foxx, was truly made a star in 2004 with two Oscar nominated roles, including his part in Collateral. (He won the Best Actor award for his title role in Ray.) All four men do some of the best work they have done in their entire long careers.
In 1995, much was made of the fact that Heat featured the first on-screen pairing of Pacino and De Niro, doing their best work (at least, post-Godfather). And yes, they share a couple of electrifying scenes in the film.
Yet the time they spend on screen together is but a fraction of the film. We first meet De Niro and his crew (played by Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore) as they go about the business of obtaining materials for their next job. Ever the cool-headed professional, De Niro’s McCauley is a model of efficiency, cool, calculating, uncompromising. Witness the scene where he tells Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis that you “don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk away from in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” They are words that McCauley lives every facet of his life by, from his starkly furnished apartment, to his willingness to drop months of prep for a job when something is just the slightest bit wrong.
But he sees his cohorts, Shiherlis and Cherritto (Sizemore), with their families, and realizes he’s missing…something. In walks Brenneman’s Edie, and McCauley suddenly finds himself with something he may not be able to walk away from so quickly.
De Niro’s performance is cool as ice throughout Heat‘s run time, punctuated by explosions of ferocity when the situation calls for it. With just a look – the briefest moment of hesitation – he is able to convey exactly when McCauley’s facade cracks, imperiling the job. Sure enough, his emotional attachments get in the way.
Pacino’s Hanna, by contrast, holds on to his visceral, emotional reactions to a heinous crime, and uses them to sharpen his skills as an investigator. He’s on the criminal’s trail, and he won’t hesitate either – not because of his detachment, but because the fire inside won’t let him. However, this makes him cold and detached at home, as he tries to shield Justine (Diane Venora) – his third wife – from the ugliness his job brings him. Pacino plays it all just right: from the world-weariness Hanna feels when he comes home, to his quick thinking on the job, and his tremendous explosions of overacting to intimidate witnesses.
Collateral gives us a good glimpse into the life of cabbie Max, a mild-mannered guy with a dream of something bigger. Jamie Foxx channels Max’s laid-back, affable air as he talks the talk about his cab driving days being nothing but a stepping stone (“It’s just temporary”), yet he’s been doing it for over a decade because he just lacks that final push into action.
The push comes from Vincent, who almost winds up being a missed fare while Max is daydreaming. Tom Cruise is a revelation as the hitman: all affable Cruise charm when he needs it, and utterly lethal efficiency when he doesn’t. Unless one counts Interview with the Vampire, this was Cruise’s first stab at a villain character, and he absolutely nails it. At first, it seems like he’s playing completely against type, until one realizes that the role only works so well because this is TOM CRUISE embodying it. One could almost start rooting for him because he’s so charming…until people start dying.
All four principal actors are at the top of their games, but Mann goes many steps further by populating his films with a plethora of recognizable, talented actors. Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd play perfectly off of each other as Sheherlis and his wife, Charlene, a couple with obvious chemistry whose relationship is nonetheless toxic. Tom Sizemore’s Michael Cherritto is all bluster and bravado, to his own undoing. Kevin Gage oozes menace as the treacherous Waingro. Dennis Haysbert is tragic as the ill-fated Breedan. Amy Brenneman and Diane Venora play two very different women in two equally doomed relationships with a cob and a robber who are ultimately too much alike and more married to outwitting each other than to their relationships outside of work.
Filling out the rest of the cast is a who’s-who of talented actors including the great Jon Voight, an up-and-coming Natalie Portman (hot off of The Professional), William Fichtner, Mykelti Williamson, Ted Levine, Wes Studi and Hank Azaria. And don’t miss the insanely hard-working Danny Trejo in his first major studio film. All make an impression as they weave in and out of Hanna and McCauley’s primary narrative.
Though only Jada Pinkett Smith’s Annie Farrell and Mark Ruffalo‘s Detective Fanning play significant roles in Collateral – one to reappear and one to disappear in not-entirely expected ways – Mann also populates small roles with exceptional actors: from Bruce McGill‘s blustering federal agent to Barry Shabaka Henley‘s soulful jazzman; from Debi Mazar‘s brief appearance as an obnoxious passenger in Max’s cab to Javier Bardem‘s movie-stealing single scene as the gangster Felix, whose machinations are the spark that ignites the entire evening’s events. And don’t forget Jason Statham‘s almost inexplicable, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo. All bring presence to characters that could, or even should, be entirely forgettable. Bardem, in particular, makes a sinister impression, three years before he would become a monster of a different sort to out-evil Cruise’s Vincent in No Country for Old Men.
There are no false performances, no miscast actors. Michael Mann’s attention to detail extends equally into the casting process. All four central performances are career-best work from talented actors, but only one comes across as truly transformative. Tom Cruise wins this round for Collateral.
Round Three: Direction
Heat begins with a shot of the subway. The very same subway, in fact, at the very same stop, that features in Collateral‘s closing shot. Collateral opens in an airport; Heat stages its final, climactic scene just off the runway. Mirrors.
Thematically, structurally, Heat and Collateral have a lot of similarities, yet they are glaringly different in other ways, including how they were filmed. Heat was shot on traditional film, while, less than ten years later, Collateral made waves as one of the first theatrically-released feature films to be shot almost entirely in digital video. (The scene in Club Fever was shot on film.) This was, in part, because Michael Mann found that digital was better able to capture the film’s predominantly low-light, nighttime scenes.
The result is two very different looks for Mann’s beloved Los Angeles. Heat is painted in hues of icy blue and cool grey, while Collateral captures the unique orange glow of L.A. at night. (Though the city no longer bears as much resemblance.)
Mann’s direction of action is masterful. The downtown shootout just past the midway point of Heat is deservedly considered one of the greatest single action sequences of all time. The Club Fever sequence in Collateral features an almost unbearable building of tension before it explodes in frenetic violence. Mann brings a coherency to his action sequences that so many straightforward “action” movies can’t match. Yet he also knows when to pull back, to slow down and make time for the characters between the chunks of bombast. (Mann is known as a director partial to shooting many takes; in his commentary for Heat, he reveals that, for the infamous diner scene, in which Pacino and De Niro were shot simultaneously by two cameras, he used Take #11.)
Notable, also, is the no-frills, matter-of-fact way in which Mann shoots his subjects. It’s easy to imagine a showier director shaking the daylights out of the camera and using a string of fast edits during the Heat shootout, or zooming around the cab in Collateral with a variety of “hey, look at me, isn’t this cool” camera angles. With both of these films, Mann is there to observe, and put his characters front and center. As a result, he sucks the viewer right in.
We come to know and understand Vincent Hanna and Neal McCauley quite well over the course of Heat‘s run time, because Mann takes the time to flesh out his characters in an effective way. The same, of course, can be said of Max in Collateral, and most of the more minor characters in both films are well-drawn.
The big enigma remains Cruise’s Vincent, and that is how it should be. The hitman is treated by Mann as a force of nature; in many ways, particularly in Collateral‘s finale, Cruise is played and shot like the monster in a horror movie. This is how it should be: We learn of Vincent’s brutal efficiency and his antipathy towards others, yet we never truly learn what makes him tick. This is what makes all great monsters scary, and is in sharp contrast to the sympathy Mann creates for De Niro’s McCauley – in reality, a similarly “evil” character – in Heat.
The only real difference between the ways Mann shot these films is in the media he used to capture them. The film works for Heat; the digital works for Collateral. (Later, it would not work so well for Mann’s Public Enemies.) With no appreciable lack in the director’s craft for either effort, round three is a draw.
And the Winner Is…
Heat is the more highly-regarded of these two films, if only because it has been around longer, and features some of the greatest work of two legitimate film legends. Yet Collateral – much like its lead character – is like a caged beast ready to strike at the unsuspecting. Whether Tom Cruise actually managed a complete subversion of self, or the film simply uses his persona to its advantage, his ferocious performance as Vincent comes across as a greater achievement than simply allowing the incomparable Pacino and De Niro do what they do best. That statement sells the two greats short, but with little else to point to with regard to the craft of these two films – different from each other as they may be – it is a slim point in the newer film’s favor.
There may be no truly wrong answer here. Yet the winner of our bout, by a narrow split decision, is Collateral.
Collateral is ranked #867 of all time on the global Flickchart. 4,930 users have it in their personal Top 20.
Heat is ranked #242 of all time on the global Flickchart. 4,177 users have it in their personal Top 20.
These films are currently ranked #9 and #10 out of 1,445 films on my personal Flickchart.