“BREACH” (2007) Review

“BREACH” (2007) Review

I have noticed over the years that some of the most interesting spy thrillers tend to be based upon historic fact. And many of these fact-based movie usually centered on an individual’s betrayal of his or her country on a massive scale. Movie and television productions such as “5 FINGERS”, “FAMILY OF SPIES” and “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” are good examples. Another is the 2007 political thriller, which told the story of how FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen ended up being convicted of selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union and later, Russia.

Set between December 2000 and February 2001, “BREACH” began with young FBI employee, Eric O’Neill and two co-workers, engaged in the surveillance of a Muslim couple in Washington D.C. Eric is recalled from his post and assigned by Special Agent Kate Burroughs to work undercover as an assistant to Hanssen, who is allegedly suspected of being a sexual deviant. Despite Hanssen’s abrasive personality and rants against the Bureau for its lack of appreciation toward his computer skills, Eric begins to regard him as a friend and mentor. Hanssen and his wife has taken an interest in Eric and his marriage to a German immigrant named Juliana . . . who dislikes them. However, Burroughs eventually tells Eric the truth that Hanssen is suspected of spying for the Soviet Union and later, Russia for years. The Bureau needs hard evidence – from Eric – to put Hanssen away for good.

When I said that “BREACH” was an interesting spy film, I was not kidding. Frankly, I consider it to be one of my favorite in the genre outside the usual “JAMES BOND”, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” or “JASON BOURNE” movie franchises. I have nothing against these franchises. But . . . there are times when I do enjoy watching the occasional spy thriller that does not feature excessive violence, car chases and explosives. And “BREACH” happens to be one of those films. Instead of the occasional action sequences; the movie featured good acting, first-rate suspense and more importantly well-written drama. “BREACH” knocks it out of the ballpark with all three.

There are those who will probably dismiss the suspense aspect of the movie’s plot, considering that audiences know the outcome and Hanssen’s fate. But there is suspense. The story’s mystery centered on how Eric managed to help the F.B.I. find evidence to arrest and convict Hanssen. It also centered on Eric’s struggles to maintain his cover and deal with a perpetually arrogant and paranoid man. But what really made “BREACH” fascinating to me were the emotional consequences that Eric faced, while he played a cat-and-mouse game with Hanssen. The best example of this cat-and-mouse game was featured in a scene in which Eric was forced to delay Hanssen with a trip to a government photo session and obtain data from the latter’s Palm Pilot, while F.B.I. agents searched the latter’s car for evidence and plant listening devices. And even more interesting scene occurred later in the film, in which Hanssen becomes aware of the listening devices in his car and allows his paranoia to confront Eric . . . while wielding a pistol.

I found it even more interesting to watch how the case nearly played havoc with O’Neill’s marriage to Juliana, who became increasingly resentful over the Hanssens’ encroachment upon the younger couple’s marriage. More importantly, she becomes resentful toward the Hanssen’s intrusions into her and Eric’s religious beliefs. This tension is especially played out in a scene involving Robert and Bonnie Hanssen making a surprise visit to the O’Neills’ apartment and Juliana’s discovery of a video tape in Eric’s possession . . . one that features a sexual encounter between the Hanssens that was taped by them. Overall, the drama did an excellent job in conveying the tensions and emotional price that Eric faced, while helping his fellow agents take down Hanssen.

Where there any aspects of “BREACH” I did not like? Well . . . there are two, if I must be honest. One, I did not care for how the screenwriters handled the Rich Garces character, portrayed by Gary Cole. Honestly? It seemed as if the actor’s time was wasted in this film. And for a first-rate actor like Cole, I found that rather sad. One other aspect of “BREACH”that failed to impress me was Tak Fujimoto’s photography. I realize that the cinematographer is highly regarded in the Hollywood community. And I have admired his work in past movies. I did not care for his photography in this movie. I found it a bit too dark and metallic for my taste. Yes, “BREACH” set mainly set during the winter months of December, January and February. But guess what? I have encountered other movies set during the winter. And honestly, I found the photography for those movies a lot more attractive.

My feelings for the performances featured in this film is a completely different matter. Yes, I was a little disappointed that Gary Cole was underused. And the movie featured some solid performances that did not exactly dazzled me. But . . . despite being underused, I must admit that I found Cole rather entertaining as Special Agent Rich Garces, whose amused and laid back attitude toward Hanssen seemed to ruffle the latter’s feathers. Bruce Davison had a nice appearance as Eric’s father who gives the latter some wise advice. Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of Special Agent Dean Plesac also struck me as pretty solid. But in one particular scene that featured Hanssen’s arrest, I was impressed by how Haysbert expressed his character’s mild disgust and disbelief over the other man’s refusal to face the reality of what was going on. Kathleen Quinlan gave a very interesting performance as Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie. Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Hanssen knew about her husband’s espionage work, I must admit that Quinlan did an exceptional work in conveying a subtle perversity in her character’s personality that I found rather disturbing. It must have been somewhat difficult for Caroline Dhavernas to portray Juliana O’Neill. In the hands of a less skilled or less experienced actress, Juliana could have come off as a shrewish wife who seems incapable of understanding her husband’s profession. But Dhavernas managed to avoid that one-dimensional portrayal and expertly convey how much the Hanssens’ intrusions and Eric’s continuing privacy had put a strain on her psyche.

I cannot deny that I found Laura Linney’s portrayal of Kate Burrough, Eric’s F.B.I. handler, very interesting. And very complex. Linney’s Agent Burrough bridled with righteous anger at Hanssen’s betrayal of his country. Yet, she skillfully balanced that anger with a world-weary cynicism toward Eric’s initial naivety that I found fascinating to watch. There are times when I find myself wondering if Ryan Phillippe is underrated as an actor. Personally, I never have. And his performance as Eric O’Neill has only confirmed (at least in my mind) that he is a superb actor. Eric O’Neill might be one of the nicest characters he has ever portrayed. But thanks to Phillippe’s complex and intense performance, the character also proved to be interesting . . . especially in how he dealt with the stress of serving as Hanssen’s aide, while investing the latter; and how that stress put a strain on his marriage. Also, Phillippe is such a strong actor that it is obvious he had no problem whatsoever in keeping up with the more highly regarded Laura Linney and his main co-star, Chris Cooper. Speaking of the latter, I am still disappointed that he was never recognized for his portrayal of Robert Hanssen with a major acting award. He really deserved it. More importantly, I regard Robert Hanssen as one of his best roles. I thought Cooper was outstanding as the paranoid Hanssen, who seemed to be a curious mixture of the dedicated and morally pure Federal agent; and the perverse and paranoid man, whose ego led him to commit a major betrayal against his country. Cooper really knocked it out of the ballpark.

Overall, I would highly recommend “BREACH”. Is it historically accurate? Of course not. I have yet to see a historical drama that was. But “BREACH” is such a fascinating tale, thanks to Billy Ray’s direction; a tight screenplay written by him, Adam Mazer and William Rotko; and superb performances by a cast led by Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe that it was inspired me to visit my local library and read more on Robert Hanssen and what led to his capture.

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“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” (2013) Review

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“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” (2013) Review

During the late winter/early spring of 2013, the American public found itself bombarded with constant media coverage of militaristic chest thumping from North Korea. By some strange coincidence, Hollywood released two movies featuring the North Koreans as the main villains between September 2012 and March 2013. One of those movies turned out to be the recent action thriller called “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” told the story of a disgraced U.S. Secret Service agent forced to rescue the President of the United from North Korean terrorists that have infiltrated and taken over the White House. I might as well start from the beginning. The movie begins with former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is serving as lead agent for the Presidential Detail that guards President Benjamin Asher and the latter’s wife and son. During a drive from Camp David, the car conveying President Asher and First Lady Margaret Asher crashes against a bridge railing. Banning manages to save the President, but the vehicle falls into the river before he and the rest of the detail can save the First Lady and two other agents. Because the sight of Banning triggers President Asher’s memories of his wife’s death, Banning is taken off the Presidential Detail.

Eighteen months later, President Asher finds himself facing a state visit from South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Tae-Woo. Korean-led guerilla forces launch a combined air and ground attack upon Washington D.C. and more specifically, the White House. The attack, led by an ex-North Korean terrorist named Kang Yeonsak, results in the murder of Prime Minister Lee and the capture of President Asher, Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan. Kang wants the U.S. forces in South Korea to withdraw from the Korean Pennisula and the access codes to the Cerberus system: a fail-safe device that self-detonates any U.S. nuclear missiles during an abort. Meanwhile, Banning was on his way to the White House to ask the President to allow him back on the detail, when he gets caught up in the attack. Banning participates in the defense of the White House led by fellow Agent Roma, but nearly all of the defenders are killed. However Banning manages to get inside the White House and establish contact with Head of the Secret Service Lynne Jacobs, Speaker of the House Allan Trumball, and Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg. Then proceeds to find a way to save the President and other hostages.

The plot for “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” sounds very exciting. It also sounds very familiar. Some critic or blogger once compared it to some other movie I have never seen. But “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” reminded me of the 1997 Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman movie, “AIR FORCE ONE”. Let me be frank. I despised “AIR FORCE ONE” when I first saw it in the theaters. I still despise it. There is nothing more ludicrous than the President of the United States as an action hero.“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” has its own share of flaws. But I am so relieved that screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt did not transform President Asher into an action hero. But the two movies do share a good number of similarities:

*Both movies feature the U.S. President and personnel being held hostage.
*The hostage situation in both movies are in the presidential settings of either the White House or Air Force One.
*The Vice-President becomes head of state in the 1997 movie. The Speaker of the House becomes head of state in the 2013 film.
*Kazakhstan terrorists disguised as foreign press infiltrate Air Force One. North Korean terrorists disguised as South Korean diplomats infiltrate the White House.
*A Secret Service agent is a mole for the Kazakh terrorists in the 1997 film. A former Secret Service agent is a mole for the North Korean terrorists.

But despite these similarities, I still liked “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”. Somewhat. For me, the movie’s major virtue proved to be its more plausible hero. Instead of using the President of the United States as the main hero, the leading man for “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” turned out to be a former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service agent. And the movie’s action struck me as very exciting and well directed by Antoine Fuqua. I was especially impressed by the long sequence that featured the North Korean terrorists’ attack upon and takeover of the White House. The movie also benefitted from the emotional connection between Banning and President Asher, thanks to Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart’s performances. The pair’s connection reminded me of the Jack Bauer/President David Palmer relationship from FOX-TV’s“24”. What made the Banning/Asher’s relationship more interesting is that it was nearly severed by the First Lady’s death in the film’s first twenty minutes. Rothenberger and Benedikt’s screenplay proved to be somewhat decent. But I do feel it may have been somewhat undermined by certain sequences and plotlines.

While watching the first half of “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, I assumed that the North Koreans’ takeover of the White House would prove to be a plot for something bigger – to generate a war between the U.S. and North Korea, resulting in the fall of Communism on the Korean Pennisula. The reason I had made such assumptions was due to my misguided belief that the Hollywood studios had learned to overcome such one-dimensional demonization of another country – especially one that did not harbor Western or non-Communist beliefs. I really should have known better, considering the release of the 2012 remake, “RED DAWN” and the media’s continuing penchant for villifying all Muslims – regardless of whether or not they are terrorists. As much as I had enjoyed the action and relationships in “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, a part of me felt disappointed by the realization that Kang and his followers were behind the attack and the hostage situation all along. I also felt somewhat perplexed.

Think of it. Two (or three) of Kang’s people managed to steal a U.S. military plane for an aerial attack on the White House. The theft of the plane was never discovered or reported by the U.S. military. Nor was the plane detected, until it was flying over the capital’s airspace. And the U.S. sent only one fighter jet to force it down. And all of this happened in a story set in the post-9/11 world. Are you kidding me? It gets worse. During the movie’s last half hour, Kang’s surviving men post a stolen advanced anti-aircraft called Hydra 6 on the White House roof to kill approaching teams of U.S. Navy SEALs being conveyed to the presidential home by helicopters. Once again, the terrorists managed to steal advanced U.S. military weaponry in the country’s post-9/11 era. No wonder I had originally assumed that some kind of high-level American conspiracy was involved with the terrorists.

Some of the performances in “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” struck me as first-rate. Gerard Butler made an excellent and likable action hero in his portrayal of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning. And if I must be honest, I have not really enjoyed a performance of his in four years. Considering that Aaron Eckhart is ten years younger than Harrison Ford was when the latter portrayed a U.S. president in “AIR FORCE ONE”, I am surprised that the screenwriters and Fuqua did not allow him to indulge in some kind of heroic action. But I must admit that he conveyed his usual intensity and top-notch acting skills in portraying a head-of-state in a dangerous and vulnerable state. Angela Bassett proved to be equally intense and entertaining as Banning’s immediate supervisor and head of Secret Service Lynne Jacobs. Actually, I enjoyed her performance in this film a lot more than I did her take on a C.I.A. station chief in “THIS MEANS WAR”. Rick Yune gave a subtle, yet menacing performance as leader of the North Korean terrorists, Kang Yeonsak. It is a pity that he has been limited to portraying villains most of his career. With his looks and presence, he should be garnering “good guys” roles by now. Ashley Judd had a brief role as First Lady Margaret Asher and did a very nice job with it. Cole Hauser, whom I last saw in “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”, portrayed Banning’s Secret Service colleague, Agent Roma. Fortunately, he managed to last a bit longer on screen than he did in the former movie. And even more fortunate, his Agent Roma died at the hands of the terrorists with style and balls. I can only hope that his next screen appearance will last even longer.

And there were the performances that did not exactly impress me. Some of them came from actors and actresses for whom I usually have a high regard. I love Morgan Freeman, but his performance as Speaker of the House Allan Trumball struck me as somewhat . . . tired. He spent a good deal of the movie either looking tired or reacting to someone else’s dialogue with a stare of disbelief. I am also a fan of Melissa Leo, but her portrayal of Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan seemed a little hammy or frantic at times. I realize that her character was trying to be tough in the face of the terrorists, but . . . well . . . she struck me as a bit hammy. Speaking of hammy, Robert Forster’s performance as Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg was in danger of going far beyond over-the-top. Perhaps his performance seemed unusually aggressive in comparison to Freeman’s tiredness. Then again . . . who knows? Radha Mitchell gave a nice performance as Banning’s wife, Leah. But if I must be honest, she came off as a second-rate Cathy Ryan from the Tom Clancy movies – especially since her character was a nurse. Worst of all, she did not have enough screen time, as far as I am concerned. And finally, there was Dylan McDermott, who portrayed ex-Secret Service Agent Dave Forbes, who became a private bodyguard and mole within the South Korean detail. Hmmm . . . how can I say this? McDermott did not exactly put much effort in hiding his villainy from the audience in the movie’s first half. One glance at his shifty expressions led me to correctly guess that he would be working for the terrorists. And McDermott is usually more subtle than this.

I realize that in the end, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” came off as a somewhat strident message against North Korea, leading me to compare it to one of those old anti-Communist films from the 1950s or even the 1980s. So . . . why do I still like it? One, screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt wrote a decent story, despite some flaws. Two, Antoine Fuqua handled the movie’s action, pacing and a good number of performances with great skill. Three, there were some pretty good performances in the movie – especially from Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett and Rick Yune. But most importantly, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” did not follow the ludicrous example of “AIR FORCE ONE” by allowing its Presidential character engage in heroic actions. For that I am truly grateful to the screenwriters and Fuqua.

“24” and the Breaking Point

 

After watching the April 12, 2010 episode of ”24”, it occurred to me that I had put up a lot with this series during most of its eight seasons run. Perhaps a bit too much – especially since Season Three.  But the above-mentioned episode proved to be the final straw for me. 

 

“24” AND THE BREAKING POINT

It seems a miracle to me that I managed to remain a steady viewer of FOX-TV’s ”24”. Despite being a pretty good series, it has presented its viewers with some mind boggling plotlines. Mind you, some of the series’ plotlines from Seasons One and Two left me scratching my head. Kim Bauer’s (Elisha Cuthbert) Season Two adventures that included encounters with a murderous employer, the law and a slightly demented survivalist portrayed by Kevin Dillon come to mind. And the circumstances that led to Nina Myers’ (Sarah Clarke) revelation as a mole inside CTU left me wondering if she had any senses. The fact that Season One featured two intelligence moles who had no idea that the other was a mole seemed to be skimming on thin ice to me. As did the subplot involving Presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and his family.

Then came Season Three. Personally, I thought it was a pretty good season. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and CTU found themselves battling a former MI6 agent named Stephen Saunders (Paul Blackthorne), who wanted revenge for being abandoned during a disastrous operation against the Season One main villain, Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper) by unleashing a deadly virus upon Los Angeles. This season also featured a con job perpetrated by Jack, Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and a CTU employee named Gael Ortega (Jesse Borrego); the return of Nina Myers; the introduction of Chase Edmunds (James Badge Dale) as the first (and my personal favorite) of several younger partners for Jack; a virus outbreak in Los Angeles and an exciting showdown in which Jack and Chase attempt to prevent one of Saunders’ men from carrying out his threat.

Unfortunately, Season Three seemed to have kick started many major mistakes created by the series’ writers over the next six years. I tried to deal with the introduction of the Chloe O’Brian character (Mary Lynn Rajskub). But I failed. After another five seasons, I still dislike her. From Season Three to the present, serious mistakes piled on one after the other – Jack’s murder of Nina Myers; the subplot involving Wayne Palmer’s (D.B. Woodside) involvement with a billionaire’s wife and Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson); Tony’s arrest for the so-called “treason” charge for exchanging Jack’s kidnapped victim for his kidnapped wife – CTU’s own Michelle Dressler (Reiko Aylesworth); the loss of Chase’s hand and his departure from the series (I rather liked him . . . a lot). In Season Four, I had to deal with Jack’s dull ass romance with the senator’s daughter Audrey Raines (Kim Ravner), that stupid plot to infiltrate the Chinese consulate and extract a terrorist, which ended in the death of the Chinese consul, the return of that traitorous ass, Mike Novik (Jude Ciccolella); and a disjointed and badly written season. Season Five brought about a series of deaths that I still believe was heavy-handed – former President Palmer, Michelle Dressler and the near death of Tony Almeida. Many fans have claimed that Season Five – which centered around President Charles Logan’s attempt to sign some treaty with the Russians – was the best. I would have been more tolerant of it, if it were not for the series of murders that occurred in the season’s first episode, Kim’s reaction to Jack’s fake death, and a major plot that really did not require a 24-hour setting. Season Six – with a badly written storyline about suicide bombers and Jack’s family (James Cromwell and Paul McCrane) – was the worst. Wayne Palmer became the new president, but he ended up in a coma from a bombing before mid-season. Chloe’s husband – the equally annoying Morris O’Brian (Carlos Rota) – played a major role in this season . . . unfortunately. I found Season Seven tolerable, especially since it introduced FBI Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) and brought back Tony Almeida. However, Season Eight proved to be another matter.

Mind you, I did not hate Season Eight, like I did Seasons Four and Six. But . . . its plot about a group of Middle Eastern terrorists trying to prevent the president of their country from signing a peace treaty with the United States proved to be . . . old hat. Many fans could see that this series seemed a little tired and filled with some plot holes. The worst and dumbest subplot in the series’ history centered on CTU Agent Dana Walsh’s (Katee Sackhoff) problems involving her criminal ex-boyfriend and some of the dumbest plot lines in television history. But last week’s episode – (8.17) “Day 8: 8:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.” – proved to be the last, fucking straw for me. Two things happened. Renee Walker – whom Jack had fallen in love with – ended up murdered by a Russian assassin. And Tim Woods (Frank John Hughes), Director of Homeland Security, fired CTU New York director Brian Hastings (Mykelti Williamson).

It was bad enough that producers Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, along with screenwriter David Fury had killed off Renee. One, she turned out to be one of my favorite characters from the series. And she also seemed to be the only female capable of dealing with the real Jack Bauer – warts and all. Two, Renee’s murder has jumpstarted an old and tired subplot – namely Jack’s desire to go after the person or persons responsible for the death of a loved one. We saw this in his murder of Nina Myers in Season Three. We also saw this in Season Five, when he murdered the man who had assassinated David Palmer. Some fans see this as a return of the old Jack Bauer. For years, I had disliked Jack for his murderous inclinations, his hypocrisy and the fans’ hypocritical view of his crimes. For the first time in years, I managed to enjoy Jack as a character. With Renee’s murder, it looks as if that enjoyment has come to an end. I do not see any possible hope of an emotional recovery for Jack after this. And honestly . . . if Surnow and Cochran wanted to kill someone off, they could have waited to bump off Jack either in the last episode or in the damn movie. But no . . . they drummed up some contrived plot line to kill off Renee in order to bring back Killer Jack.

But the worst thing I ever saw during Season Eight and during the series’ entire run the demotion of Brian Hastings by Homeland Security Director Tim Woods as director of CTU New York and being replaced by that whining bitch, Chloe O’Brian. I had stated earlier, I do not like Chloe. I never have. I have always found her whining and personality disorders a pain in my ass. But this latest plot development regarding her promotion as CTU New York’s new director was truly the most utterly stupid thing I have ever seen on ”24”. On television period. First of all, Chloe was a computer analyst for CTU. A computer geek. Chloe has had at least one or two hours of experience in the field. And yet, that idiot Woods had decided she would be a better person to run CTU New York than Hastings. Why? Because Hastings had failed to sniff out Dana Walsh as a mole. No intelligence official in his or her right mind who allow a computer analyst to assume command of an intelligence field office. It is an utter act of idiocy. And yet, Surnow and Cochran allowed this to happen. And instead of realizing the stupidity of such a plot twist, many fans have been cheering Chloe’s promotion. Why? Because Hastings had failed to do two things – immediately follow Jack’s lead and sniff out Dana Walsh as a mole. Damn hypocrites!

Why do I call the fans, David Fury and the producers hypocrites over this situation with Chloe, Hastings and Dana? Hastings was not that popular with fans. Chloe is very popular fans. And the fans were impatient with Hastings’ failure to spot Dana as a mole. Well if that is the case, then allow me bring up another name. Nina . . . Myers. Have fans and television critics actually forgotten that for several years, Nina was Jack’s second-in-command at CTU Los Angeles? In fact, they even had an affair. Jack eventually learned that she was a mole out of sheer . . . dumb . . . luck.  Nina was ordered to tell a lie about Kim in order to lure Jack into the clutches of Victor Drazen. No one has ever complained about Jack’s inability to sniff out Nina as a mole, until it was almost too late. Hell, in Season Seven, Jack never knew that a vengeful Tony Almeida was playing a double game against him, the FBI and the Allison Taylor Administration until it was almost too late. Yet, Brian Hastings is criticized for failing to sniff out a mole. This is an example of the fans’ hypocrisy at its worst. And all of this happened six or seven episodes before the end of the series.

I did not bother to watch tonight’s episode of ”24”. After the debacle of last week’s episode, I decided that I finally had enough. In fact, I will NOT be looking forward to any ”24” movie in the future. Thank you, Joel Surnow, Robert Cochran and David Fury for allowing any leftover enjoyment I might have of “24” to hit rock bottom. This is how I will always remember the series – with two of the dumbest plot developments I have ever seen.

“HEAT” (1995) Review

Below is my review of ”HEAT”, Michael Mann’s 1995 crime melodrama that starred Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer: 

”HEAT” (1995) Review

For many filmgoers and critics, the 1995 crime drama ”HEAT” is regarded as director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. It is the movie that most fans think of when the director’s name is mentioned. ”TIME” magazine had even placed it on its list of top 100 crime dramas of all time. And the brutal downtown Los Angeles shootout is considered to be one of the best action sequences in movie history.

So . . . how do I feel about ”HEAT”? Like many others, I consider it to be one of the best crime dramas I have ever seen. Honestly. The movie centered around a cat-and-mouse game between a Los Angeles Police detective named Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and a ruthless professional thief named Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). McCauley’s carefully planned heist of an armored car that contained US$1.6 million dollars in bearer bonds owned by a money launderer named Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner) goes slightly wrong when one of his crew – a trigger-happy cowboy named Waingro (Kevin Gage) – kills one of the armored car guards being held at gunpoint by the crew. Realizing they cannot leave behind any witnesses, McCauley’s crew is forced to kill the remaining guards. This multiple homicide, along with the armored car robbery, attracts the attention of Detective Hanna and his squad – members of the L.A.P.D. Robbery/Homicide Unit.

Back in the late 1980s, Michael Mann had written a transcript for a 1989 made-for-television film called ”L.A. TAKEDOWN”about a cat-and-mouse game between a Los Angeles Police detective and a hardened and methodical criminal that affected a bank robbery in downtown Los Angeles. Following his success of ”THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS”, Mann took that transcript and broadened it for a theatrical movie that would become ”HEAT”. Mann’s screenplay featured a multi-layered and complex look into the lives of professional criminals and the police officers that pursued them. Through characters like the introverted thief McCauley and one of his co-horts, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), audiences received a glimpse into the lives of professional criminals that were neither mobsters or amateurish lone wolves. Men like McCauley and Shiherlis were just as organized as the Mob, but they did not come from any particular ethnic group like the La Cosa Nostra. The movie also offered a glimpse into their personal lives and reveal how their pursuit of crime affected their families and other loved ones. ”HEAT”also presented a parallel glimpse into the lives of police officers like Vincent Hanna, who led a special unit of detectives that investigate robberies and homicides. Mann took filmgoers into Hanna’s marriage. There, the director revealed how the detective’s intense dedication to his profession and temper affected said marriage.

As I had earlier stated, ”HEAT” is a complex tale filled with intriguing characters and multiple subplots that served the movie’s main plot. Well . . . some of the subplots accomplished this task. The one plot that dominated the movie (and served as the only plot for Mann’s ”L.A. TAKEDOWN”) was the clash between Hanna and McCauley that culminated in a downtown Los Angeles bank robbery and its aftereffects. Through his script and direction, Mann provided some memorable moments in the film. I found myself impressed by the scene that featured McCauley and his crew being double-crossed at a local drive-in theater by men working for money launderer Van Zant. Another scene that impressed me was the more dramatic quarrel between Chris Shiherlis and his wife, Charlene (Ashley Judd) over his gambling habits. The scene served as a reminder on how the activities of criminals end up affecting their lives on a personal scale. One favorite scene featured an amusing, yet crowd-pleasing moment when Hanna realized that McCauley had become aware of the squad’s presence with his own investigation. But the movie’s tour-de-force remains, of course, the famous shootout in downtown Los Angeles, following a bank robbery committed by McCauley and his crew. I could rave over the excellence and excitement of the scene. But why should I bother? The sequence’s positive reputation amongst critics and filmgoers is a perfect reflection of the scene’s excellence. I can only think of a handful of similar action sequences – two of them from other Mann movies – that are this well shot.

As much as I admire ”HEAT”, it has its flaws. One, the movie has a running time of 165 minutes. Now, this might not be much of a problem on its own. However, it does become something of a problem with a movie filled with what I consider to be unnecessary subplots that dragged the film in certain areas. I could have done without the movie’s romantic subplots. McCauley’s romance with a bookstore clerk/graphics artist named Eady (Amy Bremmerman) bored the hell out of me. Hanna’s marriage to a divorcee named Justine (Diane Verona) annoyed me. Well . . . her character annoyed me. I became weary of her constant complaints about his “dedication” to the job. This particular subplot had its own in the form of Hanna’s suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman), who seemed incapable of dealing with her real father’s absence from her life. In the end, Hanna and McCauley’s personal lives seemed to have NO real impact upon the movie’s main plot and minor impact upon their respective characters. Worse, both subplots nearly dragged the film. Ironically, the two relationships that had a stronger impact upon the movie’s main plot turned out to be Chris and Charlene Shiherlis’s troubled marriage and the marriage between another member of McCauley’s crew named Trejo (Danny Trejo) and his wife, Anna (Begonya Plaza). Chris and Charlene’s marriage and feelings for one another played a role in Chris’ fate following the disastrous bank robbery. And Trejo’s love for his wife led him to reveal McCauley’s robbery plans, while being tortured by Van Zant’s men and Waingro . . . before they could tip off the police. And yet, these two relationships did not receive as much screen time as Hanna and McCauley’s relationships.

Three other subplots failed to grab me. With Trejo and his wife in Van Zant’s clutches, McCauley was forced to recruit a driver for the bank robbery – a paroled convict named Donald Breeden (Dennis Haysbert). Unfortunately, Mann included a subplot that led Breeden to break his parole and accept McCauley’s job offer – a subplot that described the parolee’s difficulties in staying straight. I found the story a bore and a waste of Haysbert’s talent. And I never understood Mann’s decision to include Waingro’s murder of a teenage prostitute. Hanna and his team had never linked the murder to Waingro. Nor did the crime have an impact upon the movie’s plot, except force Hanna to abandon a dinner party with his squad and their wives . . . and give Justine another excuse to complain about his job. One last subplot seemed useless to me. It featured Hanna and McCauley’s only meeting at a local diner near, where each man examined the other and revealed that they would not hesitate to kill the other if the situation demands it. And while I must admit that Pacino and De Niro gave top notch performances, the entire scene struck me as a . . . waste . . . of . . . time. The only thing this entire scene had served was a chance to allow Pacino and De Niro to share one scene together.

I realized that I had written so much about the movie’s plot that I nearly forgotten about the performances. Fortunately, Mann had cast the movie with talented actors and actresses and I cannot fault any one of them. I realize much has been said about Al Pacino’s tendency to engage in theatrical acting. In other words, he can be a ham. He certainly was a ham in”HEAT”. But the thing about Pacino is that he can be subtle or he can be a ham . . . with style. Which is why I am willing to give him a pass on some of his hammier moments. But I cannot deny that Vincent Hanna may be one of his best roles. Whereas Pacino’s Hanna is all fire and theatrics, De Niro’s Neil McCauley is quiet intensity. His McCauley must be one of the most subtle performances he has ever given. I cannot even remember a scene where he had raised his voice, let alone mugged for the camera. There were other performances that also impressed me – Mykelti Williamson as the no-nonsense Sergeant Drucker, one of Hanna’s teammates; Tom Siezemore as McCauley’s most loyal henchman, Michael Cheritto; Jon Voight as Nate, McCauley’s pragmatic fence; and Diane Verona as Hanna’s embittered wife, Justine. Yes I had complained about her character, but I must admit that Verona gave a memorable performance. However, I have to give special kudos to Natalie Portman’s emotional performance as Hanna’s suicidal stepdaughter who is desperate for her real father’s attention; and to Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd, who managed to give complex performances as Chris and Charlene Shiherlis – one of McCauley’s colleagues and his wife. Despite their constant clashes over his gambling habit and her brief foray into adultery with a Las Vegas resident named Alan Marciano (Hank Azaria), Kilmer and Judd made it clear that these two loved each other . . . especially in a quiet and tense scene that featured Charlene giving fugitive Chris a silent warning to stay away, due to the presence of nearby police.

As much as I admire Michael Mann as a director, there is one aspect of his filmmaking that turns me off – namely his cinematic view of Los Angeles. I tend to find this view cold and antiseptic. I have noticed this in both ”HEAT” and his 2004 thriller,”COLLATERAL”. Hell, Mann’s view of Chicago in ”PUBLIC ENEMIES” struck me as ten times more colorful. Considering that Mann is from Chicago, I am not surprised. Mind you, cinematographer Dante Spinotti captured some memorable shots of Los Angeles – including one breathtaking one of the city at night from McCauley’s Hollywood Hills home. But it still came off as slightly chilly. Mann’s view of Los Angeles is probably a reflection of his view of the city . . . which is completely opposite of my own. I did find Pasquale Buba,
William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig and Tom Rolf’s editing very impressive; especially in the downtown shootout. But there is one technical aspect of ”HEAT” that really knocked my socks off. I am speaking of Elliot Goldenthal’s score. Granted, most of Goldenthal’s score failed to make an impression upon me. However . . . his score for the bank robbery sequence was more than memorable. I enjoyed the way Goldenthal used percussion to underscore the scene’s growing tension that finally exploded into violence when Chris Shirherlis spotted cops and Hanna’s team waiting outside of the bank. For me, the entire sequence featured a perfect blend of music and action.

To repeat myself, ”HEAT” is not a perfect movie, despite its reputation. I consider Mann’s septic view of Los Angeles to be one of the movie’s minor flaws. But its major flaw seemed to be the numerous subplots that had nothing to do with the movie’s main narrative. A flaw that ended up dragging the movie’s pacing in many scenes. But despite these flaws, Mann still managed to create an exciting and complex story about two men – a methodical thief and an intuitive police detective – whose cat-and-mouse game engulfed those in their lives and an entire city. It is this cat-and-mouse game that made ”HEAT” a recent Hollywood classic.