It's a Mann's man's world

Michael Mann's new film unites the two kings of Method, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in a hot-blooded good-guys-bad-guys thriller. Adam Mars-Jones tests the temperature
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HEAT Michael Mann (15)

The basic theme of Michael Mann's Heat - that career criminal and detective share a solitary, obsessive temperament - is a familiar one. Its starkest American expression is probably Walter Hill's The Driver, but its genealogy is essentially French: in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, Alain Delon's criminal discipline was positively monkish.

Neil (Robert De Niro), the thief, lives by the principle that there should be nothing in his life that he can't walk away from in 30 seconds, if he sees the "heat" around the corner. Still, he's older now, and he can't help noticing that the other members of his larceny group - all right, his gang - are sustained by steady relationships. Meanwhile, Vincent, the detective (Al Pacino), is on his third marriage. His wife finds it increasingly tough to deal with a man who is psychologically an absentee even when he is there. Both Neil and Vincent, if asked how their day went, are likely to say only, "Don't ask", or "You don't want to know". They keep their feelings inside. They're not accustomed to trust.

Much of an audience's interest in Heat will be bound up in the casting, and the sense of a battle of giants, with stars who occupied different time schemes in the Godfather movies (playing father and son) sharing the screen at last. Mann, who wrote the script and directed, even provides a central theme where the two principals sit in a coffee shop and confide in each other about their emotional needs and recurring nightmares, but it isn't exactly an electric encounter. It's simply a scene audiences have a right to expect.

The film as a whole belongs to Pacino, not because he's necessarily the better actor, though he has the great advantage of eyes that can be both blank and piercing, soulful and soulless. It's more that the script offers him richer situations (a neurotic step-daughter, for instance), and the director allows him some flamboyance. You never know which way he's going to jump in a confrontation or even a line-reading. When an informer says, "I could get killed for this", Pacino barks with a manic upward intonation: "You could get killed walking your doggy!"

By contrast, De Niro has to play muted, watchful, anonymous. Then when the gang is having a family dinner in a restaurant (cue golden light on faces, special glow of women and children), he gets to crinkle with reluctant charm, and to deliver the pathos look as he watches over the full lives of others.

After the successful detour of The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann returns to crime, the city and the present. For Heat, he makes extensive use of Los Angeles locations, but with the perversity characteristic of this director, whereby they function as decor. Why use real locations to achieve such stylised effects? When Neil's gang is about to be ambushed, Mann gives us an image of the site - looking down on a weathered blue- and-white building against a vast expanse of bleached waste ground - that would look good above any millionaire's fireplace.

The heist that opens the film is also an experience of pristine colours: black-and-white (security van) encountering white flashed with orange (stolen ambulance) and jarringly bright green (articulated lorry used as battering ram). Even the slang of the film is stylised: crew means gang, score means robbery, jacket means criminal record.

The use of sound is equally aestheticised. Mann uses a wide range of musical styles on the soundtrack, from sombre full orchestra through noodling melancholy guitar to suspenseful ambient throb. He also knows how to heighten a sound expressively, so that the brusque snap of the sheet as a woman makes the bed is eloquent with her exasperation.

The film's mood is persistently sad, and mainly low-key. Perhaps a film nearly three hours long needs more tonal variety, and perhaps a film whose genre is the thriller shouldn't indulge in so much atmosphere if the result is to neutralise excitement in advance. Mann throws in one extended set- piece of action, a shoot-out in the street after a bank robbery, but even that doesn't make the pulse race. The audience is left wondering how a film that has been so exquisitely muted could suddenly be so bombastic. Bullets pock the coachwork of cars, blood is stippled across windscreens, and it's hard to care. When a Calvin Klein advertisement is shot up, it could equally plausibly be a critique or a particularly downbeat form of product placement.

The problem seems to be deeper, and located in genre. A French film like Le Samourai inherited a streak of misogyny from film noir, according to which it was the refusal to get involved with women that kept men safe in their worlds of obsessive isolation. A contemporary work like Heat disavows this discredited strand, and seeks to emphasise the value of women - or the redemption of men by women, which isn't at all the same thing.

Diane Venora as Vincent's wife, looking like a grown-up Demi Moore, if you can imagine such a thing, has the best lines in the film, in the speeches where she tries to get her husband to take some responsibility for the marriage. Yet when she is ostentatiously unfaithful to him, the quirkiness of his reaction wins our sympathy all over again, and she resorts, for once, to psycho-babble to explain herself: "Now I have to demean myself with Ralph just to achieve closure with you."

There's something suspect about the way the film uses women as totems of value for men, while somehow maintaining the men's loneliness as a universal truth. In the last hour of Heat, four women make huge decisions: one dramatises the failure of her marriage, one discovers her lover is a criminal but stays with him, one risks the custody of her child to protect her man, and one tries to kill herself. These are major events in the movie, yet they are not of the movie, and the emotion released by them flows bizarrely towards the respective men.

Women's crises are part of the portrayal of their partners. So we have our attention directed, after all, in the direction of: the man who saves his marriage at last, the man who breaks the habit of a lifetime and chooses to become attached, the man who is worthy of a sacrifice, the man with the medical knowledge to deal with self-inflicted wounds. Women grieve and women care, women work for change, women despair, but the bond is still between existentially lonely men. Michael Mann has put too much emotional interest at the edges of his film for its centre to look anything but sentimental.

n On release from tomorrow