Cat And Mouse, L.A. Style

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) are good at their work. McCauley executes high-stakes heists. Hanna stalks crooks for the LAPD. The cop is a high-strung guy with two bad marriages behind him and a third on the rocks. The robber, a veteran of Folsom, wants no distracting attachments. Cautious, methodical, he's an emotional ascetic. Both MeCauley and Hanna are obsessives who find their deepest sense of themselves in the single-minded pursuit of their passion. It's not justice or money that provides the rush, but the action itself. They are the formidable antagonists, the existential eat and mouse, in Michael Mann's Heat, a stunning crime drama that shares its protagonists' rabid attention to detail -- and love of adrenalin.

A genre movie with epic ambitions, Mann's sprawling saga starts with a bravura heist: MeCauley and his crew topple an armored car, leaving three dead guards behind. Hanna starts his investigation, and Mann starts his, delving into the hearts and minds of the thieves in McCauley's crew, the women who choose to live with them, and the cops, informers and petty crooks whose lives become entangled in the wake of the crime. Mann's not interested in good and evil, but in behavior: the choices people make, the internal pressures that can cause the best-laid plans to go awry. When the heat comes down, Mann watches these human atoms implode, setting off a violent chain reaction that few will survive.

You know you will get high style and hard-bitten romanticism from the man who made "Thief" and "The Last of the Mohicans," and TV's "Miami Vice" and "Crime Stow." There are set pieces here -- a gunfight in an abandoned drive-in movie, a chaotic shoot-out on the downtown L.A. streets -- that leave you open-mouthed. He films L.A. in bold, unhackneyed style, finding in its vast industrial spaces a mirror of the void his characters are trying to fill.

It's that void -- and those characters -- that make "Heat" an unusually soulful action movie. This may be the most impressive collection of actors in one movie this year. Pacino and De Niro are in great form, but there's also Val Kilmer as the crew member with a gambling problem, and Ashley Judd as the unfaithful wife he can't let go of. There's Amy Brenneman as the lonely bookstore clerk who penetrates McCauley's solitary armor, and Diane Venora as Hanna's brainy, unhappy wife. There's also Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Ted Levine and choice bites for Kim Staunton and Ricky Harris. Just when it seemed that the only hope for crime movies lay in the postmodernist artifice of films like "Pulp Fiction," Mann reinvests the genre with brooding, modernist conviction. This one sticks to your gut.