Michael Mann Returns to the Scene of the Crime

Michael Mann Returns to the Scene of the Crime

Michael Mann Returns to the Scene of the Crime

Why did the director, for his first novel, write a sequel of Heat


It’s an old showbiz joke: Given half a chance, even the most glamorous actor or actress will tell you that what they really want to do is direct. In the last few years, though, it turns out that what the great directors really want to do is write novels.

Since 2020, Brian De Palma, Charlie Kaufman, Werner Herzog, and Quentin Tarantino have published works of narrative fiction, to greater and lesser degrees of visibility and accomplishment. Enter Michael Mann: the dictionary definition of an auteur, and one who’s spent the seven years since 2015’s costly flop (and cult favorite) Blackhat poking around meekly in prestige television. The self-explanatorily titled Heat 2—cowritten with the Edgar Award–winning thriller specialist Meg Gardiner—arrives hyped as something between a godsend and a punch line: a sequel that nobody expected in an incongruous format. The bounded idea of a novel doesn’t necessarily play to Mann’s strengths: Asking him to tell one of his signature crime stories without awesome wide-screen visuals seems perverse, like a prizefighter brawling with both hands tied behind his back. Also, nobody asked for Heat 2. Half long-gestating passion project, half proof of concept for a future blockbuster, it’s a book that exists solely because its author has willed it.

Which is probably as it should be: In a moment when even the best directors are being sucked into the game of IP and cinematic universes, Mann is free and welcome to renovate his own turf. It’s worth recalling that Heat itself was a remake of an earlier project: the 1989 NBC telefilm L.A. Takedown, based on the experiences of real-life Chicago cop Chuck Adamson. In interviews, Mann—who is currently gearing up for a lavish biopic of Enzo Ferrari—has downplayed the idea that his literary debut represents a cash-in, describing it instead as an extension of his fascination with a certain forensic milieu. “These characters never left me,” he told Rolling Stone, and anybody who reads Heat 2 and has already seen its source material—a Venn diagram that’s basically just a circle—will inevitably visualize Robert De Niro and Al Pacino into all the scenes featuring detail-oriented bank robber Neil McCauley and obsessive LAPD veteran Vincent Hanna (the Adamson manque).

The intricately time-jumping narrative of Heat 2, which toggles between 1988 and 1995, gives both characters plenty of stuff to do—McCauley exclusively in flashback, since his death at the hands of Hanna on an LAX tarmac provides the movie with its tragic, transcendent climax. (No deus ex machina here.) But the book’s central figure is one who occupies a much lower rung in our collective pop-cultural memory: Val Kilmer’s blond-tressed, hard-living triggerman Chris Shiherlis, last seen skulking away bloodied in the aftermath of the botched broad-daylight heist that provided Mann’s movie with its ear-splitting, tooth-rattling shootout centerpiece. Kilmer’s a brilliant, inventive actor, but within Heat’s underlying mano a mano framework, he was very much a third wheel.

The (very) gory details of Chris’s escape and eventual Central American convalescence in the employ of a powerful local crime family give Heat 2 its major narrative through line, while his adventures as a combination fixer, consiglieri, and love object for the boss’s daughter bring the action into the early 21st century and provide a launching pad for Mann’s major theme, which is the encroaching globalization—and corporatization—of criminal enterprise. If big-budget Hollywood leftism sounds like a contradiction in terms, Mann’s oeuvre comes closer than most to evincing real political principles; the director has said that at first, only French critics really grokked the anti-capitalist subtext of 1981’s Thief, about a small-time crook standing up to a vicious syndicate bent on exploiting his skilled labor.

Work and workmanship are Mann’s metier: Thief’s hushed, sublimely tactile depictions of safecracking suggested nothing so much as principled tradesmanship. Forty years later, in Blackhat, Mann privileged a similar strain of taciturn, off-the-grid professionalism—a hacker similarly at odds with the corporate establishment. The methodological shift in these films from analog to digital skill mirrored Mann’s postmillennial embrace of high-def video as his chosen medium, and such matters figure subtextually into Heat 2.

At one point, Chris recalls his days riding (literal) shotgun with McCauley and his crew, his interior monologue mixing rue and nostalgia as he contemplates the state of his art. “With all their expertise,” he thinks, “what were they…. They were maybe the best…but at what, being nineteenth-century bandidos robbing banks?” Imagining himself a 21st-century man, Chris ecstatically contemplates giving himself over to “the electric now,” only to be brought up short by a handwritten letter from his wife, enfolded within a set of printed photographs of her and his child—an old-world artifact that’s not so easily discarded.

In passages like these, Mann proves himself simultaneously as a conceptualist, dramatist, and prose stylist, and Heat 2 has nearly enough of them to justify its forbidding 400-page expanse. What’s good in the book is pretty much the same as in Mann’s movies: long, clean dramatic arcs; an unerring sense of narrative convergence; the layering of vivid, documentary details (makes, models, and brand names) over hoary page-turning tropes. There are passages that shimmer with the same jazzy omniscience as Mann’s direction and editing rhythms, like this Mametian tautology: “His reaction was calm and smooth because smooth was fast…fast wasn’t fast.” Or: “His shoulder aches, but he’s buzzed on adrenaline and possibility.” Or: “Wardell is in Hanna’s bloodstream and his blood is running.”

The problems arise when Mann doesn’t just evoke his older work but shamelessly copies it: The worst of his callbacks are like stress fractures in the titanium solidity of the project. Having killed off Heat’s degenerate, despicable, serial-rapist villain Waingo—the anti–Neil McCauley—in the film’s final act, Mann resurrects him spiritually in the form of the aforementioned home-invasion specialist Otis Wardell, whose predations intersect in the past tense with both McCauley’s crew and Hanna’s Robbery-Homicide Division beat. Plunked into the action like a piece on a chessboard, Wardell inspires the wrong kind of dread in the reader: His profane, explosive appearances are a chore to get through. He’s so programmatically nasty that he eventually transforms McCauley—originally played by De Niro as a sociopath with human shadings—into a sympathetic fortune’s fool.

In the end, the book offers an opportunity to contemplate the razor-thin difference between juicy origin myths and lugubrious fan service. Mann loves his portentous dialectics, so: Are McCauley and Wardell just the same thing, sitting there talking like a couple of regular fellas? The same goes for the relationship between chivalry and misogyny, the latter of which manifests in the vicious details of Wardell’s assorted crimes against women and girls. Once again, the only word for Heat 2’s brazen overuse of child-endangerment scenarios to give the action its juice is “shameless”—a theme carried over from Heat’s adding a preteen girl’s suicide attempt solely to give Hanna a late-breaking personal crisis to fret over before he heads out to take care of business.

Heat 2 comes down to the same thing as its predecessor: Hanna getting his man. It’s a measure of Mann’s well-honed storytelling chops that in the process of homing in on one target, the supercop ends up losing another, and the not-inconsiderable satisfaction of watching such big, heavy pieces slide into place is complicated by the loose ends that Mann dangles teasingly, like promises he wants us to hope that he keeps. Heat 2 was a surprise; Heat 3, meanwhile, feels, for better or worse, like an inevitability.

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