Someone asked for our favorite film fight scenes earlier, and I posted the bank shootout from Michael Mann’s Heat without comment. It’s here, if you didn’t see it:
Which lead to this response:
that was horrific :/
Yeah, it was. So, let’s talk about my thought process here, why I think this is probably one of the best fight scenes in American film, why I agree that it’s horrific.
There’s a lot of parts with this, so let’s start with the difference between plot, and what a story is about.
The plot of Heat is that Lt Vincent Hanna (Al Pachino) is hunting a career criminal, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) who has recently started operating in LA. That’s it. There’s a lot of intervening pieces, and events, but you can, boil the plot down to, it’s Cops and Robbers without being reductive.
When you sit down, and watch the film, that’s the story your told. That’s not what the film is about.
The core theme of the film (or at least one major theme) is that violence is, inherently, destructive and alienating, on a physical psychological level, but also on a psychological and emotional level.
This isn’t, PTSD, it’s a particular kind of emotional detachment that should be immediately recognizable if you’ve interacted with people who’ve dealt directly with violence for extended periods of time. In particular, the film “gets” cops in a way you rarely see on film.
A recurring theme for Vincent is that he shows far more empathy to the victims and their family members than he can to his own wife (Diane Vinora) and step-daughter (Natalie Portman.) In fact, you can see this behavior in the final seconds of the clip above.
This is part of why I love the sequence above: It says a lot about who the characters are, without having them engage in overly flashy behavior to do so. Chris (Val Kilmer) is probably the biggest offender here. He’s very heavy on the trigger, firing long bursts, which is entirely in character, but he’s burning ammunition, while Neil is practicing short controlled bursts (for the most part), only transitioning into longer, less controlled fire after Chris has been wounded. Again, this entirely in keeping with the characters, even though it contradicts how Neil has been describing himself in dialog up to this point.
It’s worth taking note of this: As a writer, you can have a character who presents themselves as one thing, they may even believe it’s true, but when the time comes, their actions don’t match what they’re saying. This is behavior that’s entirely in keeping with the real world, and it’s something most readers can understand. However, you need to inform your audience of this. It can be subtle, but it needs to be there.
Also, note that Neil and Chris are both using matching rifles (Colt Model 733s), while Michael (Tom Sizemore), the third robber, is carrying an IMI Galil, and note how he’s the one split off from the group, while the other two remain together. This does something that we’re often asked about, which is to distinguish characters by their weapon choice, without compromising their ability to function as combatants.
Also, note that the police are operating their rifles in semi-auto, and the throwaway line from Vincent to, “watch your background,” meaning to keep track of where you’re firing and, more importantly, what’s behind your target. They’re firing 5.56mm rifles, which will pass through their target and continue to travel. Firing at someone standing in front of civilians is just as dangerous as someone using a human shield.
So, all of this lends itself to authenticity, which gets into a part where this film actually runs counter to advice I recently gave. It’s betraying audience expectations.
Up until this point, the film has staged its violence in spaces you probably don’t associate with daily life. There’s an armored car robbery which happens in an industrial area, there’s an ambush in an abandoned Drive-In theater, and a brief sequence in a truck stop. All of the sequences are staged to disconnect them from the world around them. Of these, the truck stop is the least contained, with other patrons, and parked cars, but it also is the most restrained as well. The Drive-In theater is an empty lot, so while it’s a recognizable space, it’s not someplace you’re used to, and the ensuing gunfight never feels like something happening in a place you’d inhabit. The armored car heist features a used car lot, but it’s curiously abandoned, and the sequence is shot to keep the background and surroundings out of focus and fuzzy. This happens in a place you don’t associate yourself with. To the viewer, the violence is, “safe.”
On the other half of the story, Vincent Hanna is repeatedly shown interacting with recognizable spaces where violence has occurred. You can actually see the transition of styles after the armored car scene, which transitions directly from Neil to Vincent. The sequence gets its first establishing shot after Neil’s crew has left, and the police are arriving, showing you that the entire event took place next to the used car dealership.
Once the bank sequence starts, we see violence injected into an identifiable world. You see the U-Haul on the street, there’s a Carl Jr.s Sign behind Vincent’s head when he checks his fellow officer’s corpse. This isn’t happening in a space you don’t identify with, these are bits of corporate iconography that would be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with modern America. In particular the U-Haul is very deliberate, it’s the single brightest color on the screen, when Chris opens fire. It climaxes when the shooting invades a supermarket parking lot.
A used car dealership, or a truck stop is a space you’ll enter sometimes. You may even enter the remnants of a Drive-In theater, though that’s less likely, but when you’re seeing people on a crowded street, or in a supermarket parking lot, looking around in confusion, while someone is hosing the place down with automatic gunfire, that is horrifying. This isn’t fun, choreographed, art, this has intruded into something that is far too plausible to set aside and comfortably enjoy. And, that’s kind of the point.
This isn’t real violence, but there’s an eye towards authentic details that sell the scene and makes it very uncomfortable. It also feeds back into the themes of the story as a whole. Remember, this is a movie about how violence damages people in fundamental ways that aren’t always immediately perceptible, and it asks you to get inside Vincent’s head, where this kind of a sprawling shootout is what he’s trying to prevent.
So, it is horrifying. And the movie isn’t even remotely over.
I really like this because it’s not gratuitous. This serves a very specific purpose. It’s not simply there to pad out the length, or say, “look how cool this is.” It’s a realistic consequence of the decisions of the characters leading up to this point. In a lot of ways it’s the film’s thesis. You miss out on a lot of fantastic acting, and all of the film’s female characters, but you do see what this is getting at.