Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
"We're not here for your money, we're here for the banks money."
"The juice IS the action."
There is an odd disparity between these two contradictory quotes from this movie - the first one is only touched on but not fully developed, while the second is a quite accurate description of this films characters, theme and subject matter. Mann's vision of Los Angeles is more hellish than Ferrara's of New York: it seems there is a rape/murder almost daily, some people "fry their baby in the microwave," borderline sociopathic bank robbers are not above killing innocent people, lawmakers who genuinely try to do the opposite but do the same anyways, people who try to work their way back into society and only find themselves exploited & bits and pieces of outcasts with no homes found sitting at the scene of a crime scene with a television in a shopping cart going nowhere. The movie is essentially a western of lawmen vs. criminals dominated by male codes within a city that has so much seeping under it that it may very well be a war zone. "With the heat we got, you wanna play World War II in the streets with Van Zant?" Yet there is much beneath the surfaces of this combat space - daily life, including that of the family unit has malformed into a kind of postmodern structuralist hell in absentia of politics - Hanna, his wife & his stepdaughter are the victims more than Mccauley and his crew in this case - Hanna so dedicated to his job that it affects his most intimate relationships to the point where he is on his third marriage, this third wife herself addicted to Prozac and eventually forced to take a lover just to get Hanna's attention, while the stepdaughter in suicidal crisis brought on by this destabilization and displacement in what Mann deems the modern world.
McCauley is mountains away from this, so much so that Hanna compares him to a monk - literally only because McCauley chooses to live outside of society. But this comes at the price of his affections with other people, and in this seclusion becomes so fixed in his inner rules that affection becomes his eventual doom, as he is so far from intuition that the introduction of this into his life can only result in deviation of his own rules - which is the only way he knows how to live and thus this spells his eventual death.
This is quite a bit of synopsizing and character relationships - but as Filipe Furtado alluded to in his review, this is a almost novelistic film - in fact probably the most classically structured of Mann's works. The movie progresses in a series of quiet and suddenly loud moments, which I would guess stems from the trust Mann places in his actors this time around. There's more talk in this movie than any of Mann's others, often devoted to details of either investigation or the planning of robberies. These extensive dialogue sequences are often filmed too conventionally for my taste (though I would say this is my fault and not the films) but they are offset by these 'loud' sequences, which manifest all the ideas billowing below the surface - a city more at boiling point than as boiling pot. But in a way this film seems less about Los Angeles as a city and more about the 1990's itself.
I should note that Mann intended this as his first theatrical feature film and wrote this in 1979, and when he was unable to get the film produced he moved on to the smaller 'Thief,' instead. Both films share very similar ideas - but what is interesting is that Thief seems to develop them more fully! This is all guesswork, but it would seem the film did not develop much other in time setting - 1964 (the year of the events the film is based on) to 1979, to 1995. Though Thief is a considerably more Marxist work than this, I would presume that having used the most interesting political ideas in Thief the principal themes would now revolve around Hanna and McCauley. (note: Mann tried to sell Walter Hill the script in 1984, but Hill told Mann that he should direct it) But if this film is not as interesting politically as any of Mann's other films it succeeds at expanding Hanna and McCauley's relationship to the point where it immeasurably supersedes all the other themes in the film, and is ultimately what makes this movie a great one.
The famous coffee sequence with these two characters is one of the best dialogue sequence ever filmed, yet it is entirely two over-the-shoulder shots in SRS. But frankly it is the quality of the writing and the skill of the actors which make this sequence so successful, but also through Mann's directing of these two-hams that we do not get excessive 'method' acting moments. These are certainly things which have been written about by others with much more skill than I, but i'll reiterate from them that it is the key to the movie and the only way the ending can make sense. It's a cliche to say, but two people on opposite sides of societal spectrum meet and talk humanly, peaceably, and realize they are one and the same. But at the same time, "Maybe we'll never see each other ever again," is the most hopeful thing either can offer the other.
Yet for me, it's actually Dennis Haysbert's character who is the most interesting and who I think we do not get nearly enough of. He is the aforementioned 'working back into society" character and it seems the most overtly Marxist theme to remain from Thief - even the bank robberies, which in 1981 (and later, in 2009) would have been war waged against capitalistic institutions are little more here than jobs of work by immaculate professionals. "I did time for what that motherfucker does every day," Haysbert says about his manager, who gets 40% of his take-home. These moments with Haysbert are the only times where Mann engages with the outside world which we narrowly get glimpses of throughout the film.
Both Hanna and McCauley are incredibly self-aware, accentuating their similarities even more (even though the film doesn't need to) though in fact McCauley is probably more brilliant than Hanna. But what Hanna slightly lacks in brilliance he has in compassion instead, and it's precisely this which secures his life at the end, while McCauley's rigid adherence to his rules spells his doom, merely because this adherence prevents him from having a life to go back to even if he survived, while Hanna still would have had a future.
Interiors are frequently filmed from low angles so that ceilings are visible which then emphasize enclosure within space - though this idea is not fully developed within the film, it seems as the goal is to perceive Los Angeles (or the 1990s) as a sort of prison not much different than the one McCauley says he isn't going back to. This formal device accentuates the mostly outdoor violence - and particularly the famous shootout, which again, illustrates (or explodes) the social and postmodernist inequities frequently billowing. Following the shootout the film really does toss it's sociological implications aside for a breakdown of character interrelationships and their individual fates, yet in this achieves a sort of ultra-formalism which heretofore we have only gotten glimpses periodically, such as the famous blue where McCauley stares out at the sea, or the moment Hanna stares into McCauley's eyes for the first time through a heat-sensitive camera.
This first glimpse is mirrored by mirroring close-ups of Hanna/McCauley, who is alerted by the sound of the surveillance truck. But this also in a sense clarifies the title of the film - two men who are exactly the same become conscious of each other by the heat of ones blood temperature. Hanna and McCauley then are little more than the light and shadow of the same soul. This too is a building of tragic gravitas - shadow cannot exist without light, so McCauley's demise is inevitable - indeed it's McCauley's shadow in the final shootout which alerts Hanna to his presence and his death shortly thereafter - illumination is in favour or Hanna. That this last shootout is at an airport on paper makes sense as a sort of thematic deformation of McCauley's escape, but in action it achieves a sort of onerism where these men are faced with geometric shapes which they choose to hide behind and shoot at each other as though rocks in a generic Western.
But with McCauley's death we see Hanna choose to recognize their frailties and similarities, and holds his hand. Shadow and light cascade together and so illumination holds the hand of silhouette. 'Heat' then, is not an epithet but rather a recognition of energy - body heat, as McCauley so desired with Eady - artificial heat, as the lights which illuminate Hanna to McCauley - and movement itself: "the action is the juice," -this stillness of movement in the films final moments which recontextualize the entire film (indeed Mann says that he only decided to make the film after discovering a new ending which clarified the principal relationship in the film) - 'heat' is movement, physical action - the enemy of postmodernism, heat is what keeps us alive, keeps us with faith....Heat is more necessary than ever in this cold, disparate 1990's and even moreso now. Heat is existence.
Addendum: This last viewing of the film was by far the best for me, and I think it's only possible to see this movie on the biggest screen and best quality available.