FILM; The heat is on, and it's cool

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MICHAEL MANN'S sleekly accomplished Heat (15), for all its 170- minute running time, is essentially a duel: between two characters, two lifestyles, and, some might argue, given that the duellists are played by two icons of contemporary cinema, between two actors. Al Pacino plays driven cop Vincent Hanna (no resemblance to the Channel 4 political pundit); Robert De Niro plays big-time thief Neil McCauley. The two meet twice, and at the end of the second meeting they shake left hands: a fitting symbol of the perverse respect each feels for the other, a tie of topsy-turvy honour. Each man, cop and crook, has his crew. We see De Niro's bunch, which includes Val Kilmer and Jon Voight, and their women, having a celebratory restaurant dinner. A few scenes later Pacino's people are doing the same. The only difference is that the cops are a little more disorderly.

The movie has a quick-slow rhythm, switching between stupendous action sequences and low-key discussions. We start with a heist, planned by De Niro's team in ruthless detail, down to their exact knowledge of the police response time. We then cut to Pacino and his wife, squabbling over his obsession with his job. The pattern continues throughout the film: an intercutting of suspenseful action and uneasy domesticity. De Niro warily enters into a relationship with a young woman (Amy Brenneman), against his principles about the solitary ruthlessness his job requires. Mann, who also wrote the film, highlights his protagonists' struggle to come to terms with life away from the mean streets. At its best the film shows how their professional precision is undermined by the blur of their home lives.

The consensus is that De Niro wins the battle of the acting titans. I am not so sure. True, De Niro is the more composed, giving one of his subtler recent performances. His McCauley stretches self-discipline to the point of denial: this is a man who has deliberately shrunk himself. His pinched personality runs the risk of alienating us. But De Niro maintains interest by registering flickers of emotion - pride, passion, even humour - on the deadpan exterior. There is a moment when McCauley looks to be bailing out of the criminal life, and De Niro allows some warmth to course back through his face, before he once more turns it to stone. His combination of arrogance and caution is as fascinating as his close-groomed goatee-beard.

Pacino has been accused of grand-standing, indulging his odd verbal riffs and arpeggios. It's true, he does; but it's in character. Mann gives him showy, hyped-up dialogue: "Drop of a hat, these guys were rock 'n' roll!" There is a deliberate contrast between Pacino's wide-eyed expansiveness and De Niro's closed tightness. Had they both played it as minimalist as De Niro, it would have been dull. As it is there is an engrossing contrast, pointed up by a scene where Pacino discovers that De Niro is photographing his LAPD crew from atop a crane. Tickled by the idea and the ingenuity, Pacino laughs out loud, and, grinning broadly, flings his arms wide, making a bow before De Niro's telephoto lens. De Niro betrays just a tic of wry amusement.

This movie confirms Mann as one of the most distinctive and skilled of current American directors. He is approaching his peak, where more lauded talents are slipping from theirs. But there is something alienatingly cool - in the sense both of cold and preeningly chic - about Mann's movies. Ever since his feature debut, Thief, Mann's true subject has been man: what it takes to be a guy. For Mann it is clearly some nexus of pride and heroism: in his world, you can only define yourself through action - preferably illegal. A great scene in Thief - which is in many ways a dry run for Heat - has Willie Nelson begging a friend not to let him die in jail: "You wouldn't believe the quality of people they're puttin' in here these days." The macho power games have continued through Mann's other movies, The Keep, Manhunter and The Last of the Mohicans - and are redoubled in Heat. Mann's characters have no real hinterland. Living in his trade-mark modernistic universe - everyone in the LA-set Heat inhabits what Pacino describes as "hi-tech, postmodernistic, bullshit houses" - they are devoid of culture or tradition, trapped in the smooth sheen of the present.

You cannot deny, though, that Mann is a master of set pieces. Some of his stunts are mind- boggling: a 15-minute shoot-out between Pacino's and De Niro's gangs, which leaves a fleet of police cars charred and riddled with bullets; a pick-up of loot in a car park that also degenerates into a hi-tech shoot-out. Mann is not afraid to show the cost of such brutality: a group of security men stare bloodied at the camera, their ear-drums burst by the explosion in the first heist, all the more poignant for being not only wounded but humiliated. Even dialogue scenes can be set pieces, as in the by-now famous diner-confrontation between De Niro and Pacino, which although anti-climactically underwritten, is perfectly paced and edited. Mann draws uniformly strong performances from his minor players: especially Kilmer, Ashley Judd as his long-suffering wife, and Brenneman as De Niro's soupily entranced girlfriend.

Whether you think Heat is anything more than a superb thriller will probably depend on your reaction to its domestic scenes, Mann's much-touted attempts to give context and depth to the action. For me, they flirt too dangerously with cliche - how many cops' wives have we heard railing against their men being married to the job? - to justify their length. But having seen Heat twice, I find myself admiring its craftsmanship more and more. Anybody interested in film - or crime - should see it.

Pedro Almodvar's The Flower of My Secret (15) is that rare, remarkable thing: a movie that has for its heroine a middle-aged woman - though her name, Leo (Marisa Paredes), might suggest otherwise. Leo writes romantic novels under a pseudonym, and we get the impression she's a Hispanic Barbara Cartland - though not so proud of her bestsellerdom. Leo is as passionate in life as in literature, hopelessly enraptured by her unfaithful soldier husband. Paredes gives a wonderfully edgy performance, lurching between the raddled and the radiant, neurotically calling up a friend to pull off her new boots in one scene, discoursing on the passionate female writer - from Djuna Barnes to Virginia Woolf - to an admiring literary editor in another. There is not much of a plot; just real, romantically entwined lives - a world away from the gaudy camp Almodovar had begun to tire us with.

Another cinematically under-represented group, black women, get a say in Forest Whitaker's Waiting to Exhale (15). Based on Terry McMillan's novel, it follows the romantic fortunes (mainly misfortunes) of three affluent professionals (Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett and Lela Rochon) in Phoenix, Arizona. The movie is as moody as the three, flying off the handle at one moment, smooching on the sofa at the next, and as fluid as its soul soundtrack. There's less context than in McMillan's novel, and more lingerie. But the theme of (black) women searching for acceptance and empowerment is equally strong, especially in Angela Bassett's gale- force performance as Bernadine, dropped by her husband for his white secretary.

If there is a more turgid movie all year than Sydney Pollack's Sabrina (PG), I hope I don't have to see it. Miraculously, Pollack makes Billy Wilder's 1954 light comedy leaden, like a chef turning a meringue into a bread pudding. Julia Ormond as the eponymous heroine, a Long Island Cinderella, daughter of a chauffeur, who falls in love with one rich brother (Harrison Ford) while being wooed by the other (Greg Kinnear), is luscious but unmagical - in short, no Audrey Hepburn. Harrison Ford acts as if applying for a job as undertaker - a stultifying performance even by his staid standards. Only Greg Kinnear as his roguish, playboy younger brother shows any spark. And when Sabrina moves to Europe, Pollack's Paris is as ersatz as a souvenir Eiffel Tower.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.

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