The most famous scene in Michael Mann’s 1995 cat-and-mouse heist caper, Heat, is neither a heist nor an apprehension, it’s a conversation. Immediately following a tense traffic stop that could have left either, or both of them dead, LAPD lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) sits down for a cup of coffee with Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), the master thief he’s trying to pin.
“You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas,” says Hanna, Pacino ever feline in the evenness with which he bares his claws. “You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we've been face to face, if I'm there and I gotta put you away, I won't like it. But I tell you, if it's between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.”
“There is a flipside to that coin,” replies McCauley, De Niro never colder nor more calculating—not as Vito Corleone (The Godfather Part II), Jimmy the Gent (Goodfellas), or Max Cady (Cape Fear). “What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down?” he asks. “‘Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We've been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.” Minutes later, he will have disappeared into the night, leaving Hanna and his detectives scratching their heads. Two shots, two cameras, two takes, and no rehearsals, as the master actors later recalled. But in those six minutes a collision happens between two perfect strangers both moving with such force that time itself seems to slow on impact. As viewers, we want them to stay inside the safety of the once-legendary, now-defunct Beverly Hills restaurant, Kate Mantilini, forever. But like it’s a robber’s job to rob and a cop’s job to try and catch them, we know what they must do. The cinematic art reaches its apex in Heat, which is, without a doubt, the absolute-best movie on Netflix right now.
And that’s no small feat, because there are a lot of really good movies on Netflix right now. The entire Godfather trilogy, for instance, Francis Ford Coppola’s crowning achievement. Two of Scorsese’s finest Mafia movies, Goodfellas and Casino, are available for streaming, as is the Oscar-snubbed epic Gangs of New York. And Kubrick? Take your pick between the gritty Full Metal Jacket and debonair Eyes Wide Shut. Even David Fincher’s sado-noir fantasia, Seven, is there for the not-squeamish. But if you have three hours to spare and have yet to settle into Mann’s masterpiece, you’re really not doing anything to improve your overall movie taste.
Heat is a perfect film in the way it delights each one of the senses. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti paints the underside of Los Angeles in the blue-green of opportunity and the marigold of consequence. You can smell the alchemy of caffeine and cocaine in Hanna’s blood when he boils over. It sounds like hope and desperation, the waves of composer Elliot Goldenthal's score shaped by soaring contributions from Moby (including a cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades"), Dead Can Dance chanteuse Lisa Gerrard, and Passengers, a supergroup comprising no less than U2 and Brian Eno. The metallic taste of adrenaline and fear—of McCauley, his crew, and everyone who cares about them—will creep up the back of your throat and settle there like the overcooked chicken dinner made by Hanna’s wife. The drum of bullets in the shootout scene hits like heartbeats. Not a single moment in Heat is without its sensory evocations, right up until the inevitable end.
It also just happens to have career-best performances from Val Kilmer, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, and Tom Sizemore, and unforgettable appearances by Natalie Portman, Ted Levine, Tone Loc, Jon Voight, Danny Trejo, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven, William Fichtner, Wes Studi, Dennis Haysbert, and Henry fucking Rollins. Literally everyone in this movie would go on to have a massive career, but Heat packs it all.
The film hasn’t yet been added to the National Film Registry, where the greatest films in American history are preserved, and its lack of Academy recognition in 1995 was nothing less than a McCauley-level swindle. But looking back, it’s the dignity that Mann gave every line, location, and character, that ranks Heat as one of the greatest films of all-time. “Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,” McCauley tells Hanna at the restaurant, the first time their characters meet face-to-face, the first time in film history that De Niro and Pacino ever shared a scene. If I ever felt the film police closing in, I’d have a hard time letting go of Heat. And so will you.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Emerson Rosenthal on Instagram.