Michael Mann's Vision For Heat Needed A Different Kind Of Movie Villain

The cops-and-robbers formula is as reliable a formula as there is in entertainment, regardless of the medium. There are typically two approaches to these kinds of stories. The first is to focus on a detective, who could be anything from stolidly righteous (think Jack Webb's Sergeant Joe Friday) to relentlessly corrupt (they don't get much baser than Harvey Keitel's "Bad Lieutenant"). The other is to zero in on the crook, who could range from a principled thief in the Robin Hood mold to the charismatic murderers of Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas." There are endless possibilities in either approach, but, generally, a writer has to work one side of the street.

This is why Michael Mann's "Heat" continues to enthrall audiences. Mann's Los Angeles epic uses its nearly three-hour run time to delve deep into the lives of professional bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and LAPD detective Vincent Hanna. McCauley leads a sparse, fiercely ordered life; his motto is "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." Hanna's life is chaos; he's too invested in nabbing guys like McCauley to be anything close to a reliable husband and father. Mann has immense respect for both men. They've each answered a calling, and this has placed them on an unavoidable collision course with the other. One of them is going down, but Mann never lets us take a side. In doing so, he denies us a bad guy in the conventional sense.

Each man is a universe

In "The Making of 'Heat'" documentary, Mann says his premise examines the notion that "each person is a universe unto himself." "Everybody has a life," he explains. "We tend to two-dimensionalize antagonists in a motion picture. To me, it's much more fascinating if I, and the actors, and everybody else have the ability to imagine, and expand, and inflate that into the dimensionality of a life. So that was the idea. And 'Heat,' when you do what I do, this is what gets you going."

This definitely doesn't get you going in the direction of stock villainy. Producer Art Linson adds, "[Mann] just let you see what is. And so suddenly you realize that the cop's personal life is as truly f***ed up as the robber's personal life, and that both of them, in as many ways, have to deal with the exact same issues in dealing with the same integrity, or the same lack of integrity as the other."

Waingro must go

But this doesn't mean that "Heat" is devoid of evil. The wild card in the film is Waingro (Kevin Gage), a genuine psychopath whose homicidal antics force McCauley to gun down an armored car guard in the film's opening moments. Though McCauley is technically acting in self-defense, he's the one running the heist: Whatever goes wrong on his watch is entirely on him. In his universe, this is an unforgivable slip-up, and you can argue it is the moment he is condemned to die.

We do not want this for McCauley. We want him to make it to that plane with Eady (Amy Brenneman) and build the life he's been denied by his profession. But in violating his core ethic to take out Waingro, which is both a fit of wrath and a moral act, a part of him must know this is where it ends.