In Michael Mann's stately police dramas, the "Thin Blue Line" tends to grow thinner by the minute, as the standoff between cops and robbers becomes less about good guys and bad guys than about like-minded professionals going about their business. Their actions are so crisply syncopated that they're virtually dancing cheek to cheek: The need to keep in step with the opposition is strong enough in Mann's superb 1986 thriller Manhunter that a detective approaches his work like a method actor, trying to think like a serial killer in order to catch one. True to his reputation for understatement, the centerpiece of Michael Mann's sprawling crime epic Heat isn't a showdown at high noon, but a conversation over a cup of coffee, featuring two expert tradesmen on opposite sides of the law. They're too wise and self-possessed to participate in the taunting or petty gamesmanship that takes place between most movie nemeses. For all they have in common, they know their roles, and after pausing for their little caffeine break, they're each fully prepared to play them out, the other be damned.
Inflating these archetypes to a colossal scale, Mann cast Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, two acting titans who had never shared a frame together, except for the overlapping time frames in The Godfather, Part II. As father and son in that film, De Niro and Pacino are so fatefully connected that they're always present to each other, yoked together in viewers' minds. Mann plays the same trick in Heat, keeping them on parallel orbits until they converge, briefly crossing paths before going their separate ways. De Niro leads a crack team of professional thieves (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, and Danny Trejo, among others) through an armored-car ambush that turns messy when a loose cannon opens fire on the security guards. When Pacino and his detective unit catch the scent, a cat-and-mouse game develops between the two men, concluding in a spectacular daylight bank-robbery attempt in downtown Los Angeles.
In fusing their destinies, Mann tries to show how Pacino and De Niro's love lives suffer when they're married to their jobs, but moody atmosphere is all that carries their scenes with their put-upon lovers. At bottom, Heat is first and foremost about men at work, and Mann excels at detailing the ins and outs of a heist job, or the scrupulous imagination needed to snare a master criminal. The extra features on the new two-disc DVD, especially Mann's fastidious commentary track, show the director approaching the craft of filmmaking with a similar work ethic. Whether finding the heart of the true Chicago police story that inspired the movie or converting a bland Everycity like Los Angeles into an unforgettably vibrant noir landscape, Mann poured his considerable creative energy into realizing a project 20 years in the making. The result is that rare epic that lives up to its grandeur.