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Heat: Cops & Robbers

By Karel Segers

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I know this is going to sound odd but some of my favourite movies make me fall asleep. Kathryn Bigelow's STRANGE DAYS is one. Atom Egoyan's EXOTICA does it too; Malick’s THIN RED LINE and Michael Mann's HEAT. It may have something to do with their hypnotic music. Or perhaps with lack of sleep.

Among movie buffs, HEAT is generally considered a classic. Written and directed by Michael Mann, it is one of those rare pieces that impressed both critics and audience, the latter to the tune of $187m worldwide. It demonstrates Michael Mann’s authority as an ‘auteur’, achieving excellence in all: screenplay, direction and editing.


You may say that in essence HEAT is an ordinary cops and robbers movie. Only, a Michael Mann picture is never just an ordinary anything.

The story is based on real-life Chicago bank robber McCauley, transposed to Michael Mann’s beloved L.A., where detective Vincent Hanna is on the case of McCauley’s gang. Analysts have had a ball trying to figure out whose story this is. The characters of McCauley and Hanna have largely equal screen time, neither has a typical hero’s character arc and the stars are each other’s match. A clue may be the movie's ending but whomever side you pick, Robert McKee would call it an 'ironic ending', i.e. neither up or down.

It proves to me that Hollywood can cut films from the finest characters, stories and scripts. This one you might even call an ‘arthouse blockbuster’.


For a long time, my favorite sequence was the L.A. street shootout, frighteningly realistic in its mise-en-scene, picturing space and depth in a way I had not seen before. Throughout, Mann also milks the 2.35:1 aspect ratio brilliantly. In fact the entire movie bursts at the seams with spectacular cinema, including - I found out when I finally stayed awake - the nail-biting finale.

Over the years I have come to really appreciate the movie’s mid point. Back in 1995 the scene was hyped because it showed Pacino and De Niro for the first time together in one shot. The historical value somewhat overshadowed the scene’s thematic resonance and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mann went back to the screenplay and expanded the scene after confirming his top cast. The March 1994 draft only gives it 3.5 pages while the cinema version carries a full 6:30mins.


The scene opens with exactly what the gurus will tell you never to write: a standard 'meet 'n' greet.’ ""How you're doin'? What do you say I buy you a cuppa coffee?" "Yeah, sure, let's go." Next, in true mid point fashion, ‘things get personal.’ The tone of the conversation is congenial; these guys are not arch enemies. Deep down they are each other’s mirror image, perhaps even soul mates. But it turns… Hanna calls his life a disaster zone, precisely because he chases guys like McCauley. And he will bring him down. Next, McCauley reminds Hanna that there’s a flip side to that coin...

The scene anticipates two possible end scenarios, neither of which we really want to see. Why not? Because if anything, at the end of this movie moment we love these characters. Both of them. Want both to win - and neither to lose.

About Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst, script editor and producer with experience in rights acquisition, script development and production. His screenwriting classes have trained writers in Australia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and his clients include international award-winning filmmakers as well as three Academy Award nominees. Karel is the founder of The Story Department and!, and he ranks in the world's Top 10 of most influential people for screenwriting on Twitter.


Screenwriting Article by Karel Segers

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