I tilt forward in my seat. My heels rise. The balls of my feet press into the floor. My hands clench tight and I realize I'm holding my breath. Heat on the big screen is an experience.
I've seen the film several times, yet the centerpiece shootout scene in the streets of downtown Los Angeles always elicits a visceral reaction.
Boiled down, it's a cops and robbers story. Robert De Niro leads a crew of professional thieves taking down a series of Los Angeles scores. Al Pacino leads the cops in pursuit. They're archetypes in the Howard Hawks tradition—professions personified.
Indeed, Heat feels like a Hawks picture, right down to the underwritten female characters. But while Hawks romanticized the professional, Heat shows us the cost of such a lifestyle. De Niro plans the heists with military precision, yet lives alone in a palatial seaside estate that could pass for vacant. Pacino hunts De Niro's crew with obsessive fervor, even as his third marriage crumbles around him. Both performances feel larger than life yet intensely human.
But back to the shootout. It makes the movie. The scene carries an immense gravitas because everything about it feels authentic. From the way the characters fire short bursts and reload, to their tactical movements, it all resonates.
That's not to say writer/director Michael Mann values authenticity over drama. His kinetic editing includes plenty of long and wide shots to establish movement and geography, immersing us in the scene. We don't witness the gunfight we experience it.