Heat PosterI don’t think Michael Mann is particularly interested in popular music.

It’s practically impossible to think of Phil Collins’ classic song “In the Air Tonight” without thinking of the iconic scene in the Miami Vice pilot when the song plays as Crockett and Tubbs are driving towards a fateful meeting with a narcotics kingpin. Throughout the series, popular music from artists like Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, and Depeche Mode played an important role in the establishment of the show’s distinctive, pastel-driven style. And although Michael Mann helped create the show and served as its executive producer during the better part of its run from 1984 to 1989, it’s not apparent that he was intimately involved in the musical selection. When he remade Miami Vice as a film in 2006, Mann eschewed the opportunity to use period music and instead relied on more modern artists like Goldfrapp, Mogwai, and Moby.

The Film: Heat

The Song: “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” (download)

The Artist: Moby

Moby also appears on the soundtrack to Mann’s epic Los Angeles crime drama Heat, which was produced in 1995. His first contribution is an uninspired cover of the Joy Division song “New Dawn Fades,” and his second is the ambitiously titled “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters,” which appears in a slightly different version on the soundtrack than it does in the film.

In Heat, Mann seemed content to turn a great deal of freedom over to the composer Elliott Goldenthal to score the film, much as he did with Jan Hammer with Miami Vice. And while I very much enjoy a great deal of music from the film, in general I don’t think that the music is used particularly well with the images. The movie’s theme, “Heat,” which is played in the opening sequence leading up to the spectacular daytime robbery of an armored car, and later when Vincent and Eady drive into the blue lights of the tunnel beneath LAX, is the strongest piece. During the bank heist, Brian Eno’s brisk “Force Marker” heightens the tension admirably.

Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the music used in Heat falls flat. In one of the scenes where the lily-white Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) visits a fence in an exclusively black nightclub, looking for a tip, the House of Pain song “Top O’ The Morning To Ya” is playing in the background, which seems terribly misplaced. My favorite piece of music from the movie, Michael Brook’s ethereal guitar piece “Ultramarine” (download), is utterly wasted as Vincent and his squad surveil Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) and his crew from the rooftop of a restaurant.

One of the most infuriating things about Heat is the dialogue. It’s preposterous. Who the hell uses the word “detritus” in conversation? Who? If I heard that word coming out of someone’s mouth in a conversation I’d probably end up hating them about as much as I hated the guy who was complaining about the “tannins” in some skullbusting wine we were drinking one night a few weeks ago while watching “Stomp the Yard” (and no, he wasn’t kidding around. He was serious).

Despite these and other flaws (and make no mistake, Heat has plenty of them), I still adore this movie. It’s a story that Michael Mann himself obviously loves — he’s made the same movie twice. In 1989 he directed a made-for-television film, L.A. Takedown, which featured most of the same characters and an identical central plotline. Six years later, with two extra zeros at the end of the budget, he reworked the film, added the peripheral threads from the original script, and turned it into a three-hour masterpiece with arguably two of the best actors alive.

One of Mann’s consistent strengths in his works is his use of cinematography. There are a handful of movies (Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, the Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski, the unforgettable classic To Live and Die in L.A.) that provide an accurate representation of what Los Angeles truly looks like, but few do it better than Heat. Curiously enough, Mann was actually raised outside of Chicago and doesn’t seem to have settled in Los Angeles until he was at least 28. But his photography of Los Angeles, ranging from freeway underpasses, industrial yards, and the downtown towers of concrete, captures the look of this city better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

The major action set pieces in this film are its greatest strength. The initial armored car holdup, where a shape charge blows out the windshields of a row of nearby cars (as well as the eardrums of the hapless guards within) gives me shivers. The shootout following the bank heist, which was reenacted in real life on the streets of Hollywood in 1997, is one of the most exciting scenes I’ve ever watched, and one of the few times when the ear-splitting sound used in modern theaters is actually justified. And the final showdown between Pacino and DeNiro brings the film to an end that is ultimately satisfying in a way that few crime stories are.

It’s very hard to film an action scene in the dark, as happens here, but Mann somehow managed to capture the essential darkness, where the combatants are relying on their sense of hearing more than vision. And yet we can still see exactly what’s happening. There are far too many films that use darkness as a cover for weak choreography, and there’s absolutely none of that here. This final showdown between Hanna and McCauley is the confrontation we’ve been anticipating throughout the film. No interference, no moral dilemmas, no distractions — just a simple duel between two very dangerous men at the top of their game.

For an epic film like Heat, it’s necessary to have an epic song covering your credits. When the high point of the music (sadly absent from the album version) crashes in over the final fade, it’s perfect. The song becomes repetitive very quickly, but that one single moment is the jolt I’ve been waiting for throughout the entire film, and it doesn’t disappoint.

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