For visceral impact, Heat‘s sustained ten-minute cops and robbers shootout in L.A’s financial district following a bank robbery by Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and gang is hard to beat.
Cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his own crew have been tipped off anonymously by disgruntled ex-gang member and psychopath Waingro (Kevin Gage) that the score is going down. As McCauley, Chris (Val Kilmer) and Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) exit the bank, huge nylon sports bags of bundled cash slung across business suits, a vehicle pulls away and a grinning Chris clocks covert cops across the street. He immediately, unhesitatingly, brings his weapon up, unleashing hell on downtown.
Ex-SAS soldier Andy McNab helped director Michael Mann meticulously plan out the sequence. DeNiro had given the director his infamous account of his Iraq military service, Bravo Two Zero, which convinced the director he was the guy to train this crew as a fighting unit. “The police are not the army,” Mann reasoned. “The police are used to having overwhelming force, they’re not used to being assaulted by an equally well-armed, well-trained force.” McNabb believed that the robbery itself wouldn’t be hard, but the getaway would be more problematic. DeNiro, Kilmer and Sizemore cased a bank for real – only the manager was in on it. The actors entered wearing concealed body armour, dodging security cameras. The film crew secretly taped them perform tasks – Kilmer had to identify a woman who had the key to the vaults, De Niro was to map out the area, identifying the cameras and lockable doors. Sizemore was to ensure the escape route was clear. When they were done, the bank’s security footage was checked – the actors didn’t appear on any cameras.
The bags the actors carried weighed exactly the same as a bagful of $3 million notes – about 80lbs. They rehearsed how to move and fire while carrying the loads – two months in a desert firing range, the street mapped out, and using live rounds. In a sense, the shoot-out flies in the face of received wisdom by the police about taking on heavily-armed opponents, but Hanna is hoping to get the drop on McCauley. Normally, real cops would let them go and tail them, hoping to ambush in an environment that suits them.
The action shot in L.A’s financial district over a period of months, roping the area off at weekends. McCauley’s crew use an infantry manoeuvre known as “advancing to combat” – keeping your opponents head down while you move freely. The barrage of continuous fire is what gets them out of there. Mann shot on steadicams, and made his actors count every shot – if they ran out midway through a take, they’d have to shoot it again. It’s estimated that around 1000 rounds were squeezed off per take. That incredible booming reverb is the actual production sound of rounds being fired and echoing off the buildings around them. Famously, Val Kilmer’s on the spot magazine change has been lauded by the U.S military and used in training as a textbook example. McNabb screened it for the 82 Airborne at Fort Bragg and they went nuts.
But for all the shock and awe of the scene, Mann believes it illustrates thematic consequences for his characters. McCauley’s crew is shredded because he failed to deal effectively with Waingro. Also, parolee and short-order cook Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), who chucks his job to drive the getaway car at short notice, tragically loses his life, due to misplaced pride – “Ain’t a hard time been invented that I cannot handle… What you hangin’ with me for, Lily?”
“That was the real interest I had in the film, ” Mann told Empire. “Not to see who could shoot a sexier shoot-out. An event isn’t just an event, it’s an event that impacts into the beating heart of real human lives and real circumstances and each person in their human condition. That’s the real interest in that and the passion I had for making the film because it told the story of all these people and their lives.”