With this month’s release of Heat 2, a new novel set in the universe of Michael Mann’s Los Angeles cops-and-robbers epic, co-written by Mann and Meg Gardiner, as well as a potential movie adaptation in the works, the original Heat (1995) may seem more popular and relevant than ever, but in truth, it’s never not been popular or relevant.
Alongside the various podcasts and retrospectives, regular rep screenings and endless stream of social media discourse and memes dedicated to Heat, the last decade-plus has seen a number of movies openly bearing—or in a couple cases, shamelessly flaunting—its massive influence on their sleeve like a prison tattoo. Taken as a whole, there’s even an argument to be made that Heat isn’t so much a movie these days as it is a blueprint.
Right from the jump, Mann’s magnum opus, about a pair of obsessive rivals/soulmates—Al Pacino’s hotblooded, high-wired Det. Vincent Hannah and Robert De Niro’s cool and calculated career criminal Neil McCauley—who (along with their tight-knit crews) find themselves on a violent collision course proved exceptionally inspirational, not only on-screen, but off.
Numerous cases of real-life robberies across the world, including, most famously, the 1997 Bank of America assault that led to the exceptionally bloody North Hollywood Shootout, had used the film as a guideline. This is not to say that Heat bears a shred of responsibility for those crimes, but simply to recognize how great a nerve it touched not only with general audiences and film nerds, but the real-life criminal underworld. That’s as high a praise as a crime flick can get.
But for as successful as the movie was upon release, it would take a little longer for the larger cinematic landscape to catch up, though catch up it did. Today, there is no shortage of bastard children of Heat.
While there may be other, earlier examples, the first big movie to pay obvious homage to Mann’s film was Christopher Nolan’s mega-comic book blockbuster, The Dark Knight (2008). Its instantly iconic opening introduces Heath Ledger’s Joker by way of a daring daytime bank robbery that moves with the same clockwork precision as Heat’s greatest set piece. (It also features Heat cast member William Fitchner in a small but key role.) The rest of The Dark Knight adopts Heat’s blue-gray, glass and concrete aesthetic, while the “flipside to that coin” dynamic between Batman and The Joker takes a lot from Pacino-De Niro’s relationship. Given how massive a pop cultural juggernaut The Dark Knight turned out to be, it’s hard not to credit it with kicking off the spate of would-be Heats (as well as directing audiences who were either very young or not yet born in 1995 to the original).
Two years later, once and future Batman Ben Affleck would put his own Southie spin on Mann with The Town (2010). Homing in on the romance subplot of Heat, Affleck plays the soulful leader of a crew of top-shelf heist men who falls for a former hostage, insinuating himself into her life while planning to take down the ultimate score by robbing Fenway Park. The Kevlar-clad climactic shootout in that film—which spills out onto the streets of Beantown in broad daylight—is pretty much beat-for-beat the same as in Heat, though Affleck does his best to imbue a few small, personal quirks into it (Jeremy Renner’s loose cannon triggerman taking a sip from a discarded soda cup right before getting popped is a nice touch).
As successful as both The Dark Knight and The Town proved, it would be another half decade before the floodgates truly opened. In 2016, Aussie director John Hillcoat released Triple 9, about a team of Russian mob-connected crooked cops and professional criminals who plan to murder an honest cop as a distraction for a major heist. While the look and feel of the film is more immediately reminiscent of the washed-out filters and macho posturing of a David Ayer joint, the bank heist, highway shootout and storage facility assault that bookend it are pure Mann.
Speaking of bookends, the year 2018 saw four Heat homages open and close out the theatrical calendar. The first was Den of Thieves, a Gerard Butler vehicle that swaps out the towering office buildings, corporate suites, chic nightclubs, and “dead-tech, post-modernistic bullshit houses” of DTLA and San Fernando Valley for the flat, desolate, sunburnt streets and suburban tract homes of East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley. It also trades Mann’s stoic, existentialist ennui for a dirtbag, muscle headed machismo. Den of Thieves truly is the dumb man’s Heat—which is not meant as an insult, because goddamn if it also isn’t the best of its bastard bunch.
Much the same can be said for Craig S. Zahler’s knowingly reactionary Dragged Across Concrete, which came out in September of that year. That film’s plot–about two crooked cops plotting to rip off a gang of terrifyingly vicious bank robbers–is very much its own weird beast, but the aesthetics of its set pieces and costume design, as well as its lengthy runtime (something it shares with Den) feels of a piece with Mann’s film. (Heat’s subplot about Dennis Haysbert’s doomed ex-con getaway driver also would seem to be a huge influence on Dragged’s story.)
The tail end of 2018, meanwhile, saw two far more interesting-on-paper, but ultimately disappointing Heat homages that put a feminine twist on their tried and tested narratives: Steve McQueen’s Widows (a feature-length adaptation of an early ‘80s British television drama of the same name) and Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer. The former picks up where Heat leaves off, following the bereaved wives and girlfriends of a crew of deceased Chicago bank robbers as they plan to rip off a corrupt politician while also outmaneuvering a powerful mobster. The latter is a smaller character study about a Hannah-esque L.A. detective (Nicole Kidman) suffering burnout while attempting to take down a cult-like crew of armed robbers with whom she had previously spent time undercover.
Unfortunately, for as fresh a spin as the respective films come with, they each succumb to sloppy and turgid plotting, boring action sequences, and distractingly showy (but hollow) performances from their lead actors. Whereas Den of Thieves revels in its hungover sleaziness, much to the delight of its steadily growing cult of admirers, both Widows and Destroyer boast pretensions of profundity that end up sinking them because of how thuddingly obvious they are.
Oddly, 2021’s Wrath of Man (remade from the 2004 French film Cash Truck) manages to walk that line between. A major tonal departure from director Guy Ritchie, that film—which sees Jason Statham’s satanically cunning crime boss go undercover as an armored truck driver in order to infiltrate the heist crew who murdered his son during a hijacking—shares with Widows and Destroyer a not entirely earned sense of depth and weight (as best encapsulated by its ridiculous chapter titles that read like death metal songs: “A Dark Spirit”, “Scorched Earth”, “Bad Animals, Bad” etc.). However, like Den of Thieves, Dragged Across Concrete and, to an even greater extent, the severely underrated Triple 9, it is so mean-spirited and so gleefully nihilistic that it ends up being conversely and perversely fun. If Den of Thieves is the dumb man’s Heat, then Wrath of Man is the thinking man’s Den of Thieves.
Finally, at least of this writing, we have Michael Bay’s Ambulance, from earlier this year, about a pair of adopted brothers, one of whom is a reluctant veteran with a sick wife and young child at home, who lead the cops on a high speed chase through the streets, freeways, and aqueducts of Los Angeles following a—you guessed it—brazen daytime bank robbery. It shares a lot of the same dude-bro qualities as Den and Wrath, although it distinguishes itself through Bay’s gonzo and frankly groundbreaking use of drone camerawork. Also, for as clear an influence as Heat is on the film’s first act, the majority is classic Bay bombast (including a heavy heaping of lowest-common denominator humor that is about as far removed from Mann’s sensibilities as can be).
Ambulance does share an interesting overarching thematic connection with several of the other films mentioned—specifically Triple 9, Den of Thieves and Wrath of Man—in that the criminal crews at their center are comprised of ex-military specialists. Ambulance is the only one of those that uses this as an excuse to justify its characters criminal choices (and boy, does it lay it on thick), but the prevalence of this archetype across all of them—a dynamic totally absent from Heat, save one brief mention of Hannah serving in the Marines—suggest a pervading anxiety about the long-term damage and disastrous legacy of America’s Forever Wars. Combined with their innate recognition of the casual brutality and corruption of American policing—most prominently on display in Triple 9, Dragged Across Concrete and Den of Thieves, the latter of which outright references the real-life Los Angeles Sheriff’s gang The Regulators a couple of years before stories about them kicked up national interest—they can’t be dismissed as simple escapist fare or masculine wish fulfillment.
So, sure, the dumb man’s Heat…but give credit where it’s due.