Tag Archives: heat

Heat (1995)

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:

bookwormmaddy

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.

-Starke

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What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)

-Starke

I’ve recently started re-watching Burn Notice to help with a story idea I have. What other recommendations do you have on how spies fight?

For spies, combat is an absolute last resort. They’ll use it because they have to. When they do get into combat, what they’ll do will be heavily dictated by who they’re masquerading as.

If they need to eliminate someone to avoid blowing their cover, they’re going to need to take them down as hard and fast as possible. Preferably in a way that doesn’t point back at them. Sometimes this means killing their opponent, but as Westen points out throughout the series, leaving a dead body behind can actually draw more attention in the long run.

Like most genres, spy fiction ends up on a spectrum between formalism and realism. The issue is, at the extremes, they’re almost different genres, so I’m basically going to have to write two separate recommendation lists.

The formalistic genre is your superspies. This ranges from espionage themed action to comic book level insanity. Your spies are a different flavor of superhero. As a tonal element, formalistic spies actually work better when placed against supervillains, because you get a nice parity between them.

The realistic genre is the brutally bleak tradecraft. These are settings where spies will die if they get into actual fights with trained opponents, and saving the day often means outmaneuvering your opponents without resorting to overt action. At its extreme, the realistic genre can actually get bleaker than espionage in the real world, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The best material in the genre finds a mix between these two points, and stays there. So, you’re going to get two separate recommendation lists, just remember to take elements from both.

Burn Notice’s is a bit schizophrenic. The narrator isn’t just a completely different character from Michael Westen, he’s actually at a different point on the spectrum. The show itself is fairly formalistic, while the narrator is talking about concerns and behavior from a realistic perspective. It’s part of why the show worked so well, but when you’re drawing from it, remember to keep those elements separate.

If you’re wanting to go more in the superspy direction, James Bond is the gold standard. License to Kill and Casino Royale are probably the most realistic (which isn’t saying much). If this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

The Bourne Identity (the first film only) is another solid formalistic example. (The second and third film have better fight choreography, but they suffer from a terminal case of shaky cam; which requires you already have a solid grasp of hand to hand to really follow.) The only part of Legacy I’ve seen was Jeremy Renner’s fantastic hand to hand work. It’s more cop than spy, but if you have the time, it could be worth looking at.

The novel is actually much closer to an American James Bond, with the serial numbers filed off. You can pick up some basic tradecraft from it, particularly Bourne’s thought process about blending into his environment can be very useful, and it’s something the film does skim completely over.

Salt is solidly in the superspy genre, the sleeper agents demonstrate supernatural resilience to damage, and the entire premise is a little crazy. But, if your spies aren’t really human, you could probably get some ideas from this.

Red is basically in the same vein, fun, but equally ludicrous. Again, if your spies have actual superpowers, go ahead and watch it. Karl Urban’s character might be worth looking at even if you are pushing for a more realistic bent.

Chuck wore thin for me. There’s stuff to like, so, it might be worth your time if you want to mess around with superspies interacting with the normal world.

The original Get Smart TV series is freakin’ brilliant. It’s a parody of the superspy genre that was partially helmed by Mel Brooks. Obviously, it’s not even remotely serious, but if you’re wanting to mock that genre it’s a must see.

If you’re wanting to run harder into the realistic genre, then you’re going to be looking at a much bleaker recommendation list. I’d start with The Human Factor by “Ishmael Jones”. This an ex-CIA case officer’s memoires, it’s easily available and deals with the current state of the American Intelligence community.

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson isn’t actually about spies per say, but it is about the political consequences of espionage (and foreign policy in general). This might not be something you want to delve into, but I’ll leave it on the list.

With the non-fiction reading out of the way, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic in the genre with good reason. The novel’s been adapted twice, with Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman playing George Smiley. I haven’t seen either, but the novel is a good primer for writing spies.

The Fourth Protocol follows a retiring spy who’s investigating a Soviet plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on an American air base. Bonus points, in that the Russian agent is played by Pierce Brosnan. If you want to see how a realistic spy fights, then he’s probably the single best example. That said, it’s been about ten years since I saw this, so I could have accidentally slipped on rose colored glasses. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on.

Although somewhat dated, The Sandbaggers was a British TV series in the late 70s. Though the answer it gives on how their spies fight is “as little as possible.” Historically the show is actually based on how the CIA would task agents, rather than MI6.

Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country is a modern update of The Sandbaggers in comic form. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already seen Sandbaggers, but if you don’t have access to the show, then this is much easier, and cheaper to find.

Ronin is a mix of formalism and realism. It’s still an action film, but the tradecraft the ex-spies use is remarkably solid. Given that you’ve started with Burn Notice, you should have a pretty good frame of reference to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, I’ll say it again, this is also one of the best films you can watch for car chases, almost every shot in the film was done with stunt drivers on actual streets, and it shows. If you want to get an idea of what a trained operative could actually do with a car, this isn’t completely off base.

Spy Game by the late Tony Scott is a rather hectic mix of realistic elements. I’m more comfortable dropping it here because of how heavily cut together it is, and elements of the film’s plot. This is a very dense primer on tradecraft.

The other mix of realism and formalism is the Mission: Impossible TV series. Not to be confused with the film franchise, the TV series focused on characters actually being spies, infiltrating and manipulating organizations or individuals to achieve their goals. There’s a heavy focus on supplementing their operations with gadgets, but it’s one of the forerunners of the modern genre divide.

AEG’s Spycraft RPG was written so it could be played as either a realistic or cinematic (formalistic) game. It has a lot of resources for both superspies and real operatives. In a rare moment, the character creation system is also useful, as it illustrates the different specialties that are intrinsic to espionage.

Spycraft’s World on Fire supplement is insanely useful, it’s also incredibly hard to find. It was about blending one of the Spycraft settings with the real world, and it has an absolutely staggering amount of information on actual espionage in the 20th century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is mixed in with World on Fire’s six fictional factions. So, it’s useful, but tread carefully.

If you’re wanting to do a spy story set in a science fiction setting, I’d take a look at The First Line from Last Unicorn Game’s now defunct Star Trek RPG. Be ready to parse the Trek out of it, if your setting isn’t similar, but it does offer some fantastic thoughts on espionage and counterintelligence in a spacefaring civilization.

Finally, the line from Burn Notice, that “Spies are just criminals with a government paycheck” is entirely on point. You’re probably tired of me recommending Heat every other post… So I’ll recommend Payback instead. The lead character is a con artist, not a spy, but the general “messing with people” approach is very spy like. (If you’re digging this up, make sure you grab the director’s cut, it’s actually a different, more consistent, film.)

-Starke

What would you say is the most effective way to kidnap a character? it’s spur of the moment. the kidnapper is a strong man with training (but no weapon) and his victim, who does get captured, is a much physically weaker man. there are two witnesses who try to intervene: one with military training (though not as much as the kidnapper) and the other is the kidnapper’s lover, who attempts to stop him. how could the kidnapper incapacitate them all before the police arrives? thanks so much!

Okay, there’s actually an issue in here, so let’s step back and talk about professional criminals for a second. Criminal activity is their job, and they need to approach their life with a risk vs. reward analysis for nearly everything they do. They’ll work together and network with other professionals. This isn’t altruistic, just an understanding that they need to work with other people to achieve their goals. They don’t need to like the people they’re working with, but, if they all still have a shared goal, they will. Most understand how planning and advance setup can help reduce the risks involved in their profession.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the crime. A kidnapping is not something you do spur of the moment. It’s a difficult criminal operation, involving a lot of moving pieces, any one of which can scuttle the whole operation after the team is committed.

Your criminal will need a team backing them up. They’ll need to have a way to grab and extract the victim, a place to hold them, a way to keep them alive and under guard while negotiating, a communications method that can’t be traced back to them, and a method to retrieve the ransom. Some of that can be dispensed, if they have no intention of returning the victim alive, or ransoming them at all.

Grabbing the victim is a little situational, but the difference between a successful extraction and a botched bloodbath is advance planning. Ideally your team needs to be able to grab the victim without leaving any witnesses behind. This is trickier than it sounds, because they can’t actually kill the person they’re intending to ransom the victim back to. Ideally this means picking a time when the victim and the victim’s relative/friend/whatever are at separate locations. If that’s not possible, the team will need a very delicate touch.

If the person paying the ransom dies, then the operation’s over, and the criminals have a corpse and nothing else to show for a lot of wasted effort. In some situations, they might be able to salvage the situation, by ransoming the victim to a new buyer, but that is an extreme long shot.

In a well run kidnapping, once the victim has been taken, they’re fairly unimportant to the criminals. They need to be kept alive, and they can’t be allowed to escape. But, they’re not the kidnappers’ focus. At this point, they’re going to be more interested in getting person paying the ransom to do what they’re told.

The other side of it is, with the extraction itself, your criminal will not want to leave witnesses. If they’re not the ones the kidnappers are planning ransom the victim back to, they’ll have no incentive to leave the witnesses breathing. Killing them sends a clear message that the victim is in serious peril, and it discourages the person paying the ransom from screwing around.

What this means is, your kidnapper isn’t going to grab someone “spur of the moment”. If he decides “now’s the time”, it’s because he was already planning to grab them. Also, there’s a very real risk he’ll simply kill your other characters. Best case the police don’t even realize there’s been a kidnapping, and worst case, they’re no closer to identifying the kidnappers. As opposed to the police now having at least a physical description of one member of the crew. So, I guess the real answer to your question is: two shots to the chest, one to the head.

As a quick aside, if his plan is to force one of the characters to do his bidding, he might just grab them all, and release the one he intends to use as a pawn later, and keep the others as hostages.

Once they’ve got their victim, there’s the question of what they want. If the goal is money, then we’re talking about a ransom, and there’s a lot of literature on the subject. If they’re wanting to force someone else to do what they want, they’ll need the ability to micromanage that person’s actions. Usually we’re talking some kind of communications setup with the pawn, but surveillance isn’t out of the question. If the objective is information, then everything gets a little messed up. I’ll stick a pin in that for later, partially because a discussion on interrogation and torture will rate a trigger warning.

Spartan, the first season of 24, Man on Fire (2004), and Taken should all give you some insight into the kinds of people you’re dealing with. 24 opens with using captives to force the protagonist to do their bidding, and the first 12 hours are really good. Man on Fire (2004), is a kidnapping for money. Taken and Spartan both deal with selling captives into sex slavery, which is something I just glazed right over. Both films illustrate how this particular form of kidnapping operates in a more opportunistic assembly line nature, because of how they’re generating income.

For some additional insight on professional criminals, I’ll keep recommending Heat until you watch it. Ronin and Reservoir Dogs are also worth watching. Technically Ronin is dealing with former spies who’ve become mercenaries, but the same principles apply. Ronin also has the benefit of actually being a smash and grab operation, even though the target is an attaché case, and not a person.

-Starke