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Friday, December 15, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Law And Lawless Find Common Ground

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

------------ MOVIE REVIEW ------------

XXX 1/2 "Heat," with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight. Directed and written by Michael Mann. Alderwood, Bella Bottega 7, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Everett 1-3, Everett 4-10, Gateway, Issaquah 9, Kirkland Parkplace, Neptune, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Puyallup. "R" - Restricted because of language and violence.

Unlike "Casino," that other three-hour Robert De Niro crime drama that opened just a few weeks ago, "Heat" becomes consistently more interesting as it forges on toward the 180-minute mark.

The characters never thin out or start to grate. Rarely do they simply repeat themselves, "Casino"-style, or remind you of roles these people have played elsewhere. The parts are substantial, they're filled out by actors who know how to define them, and they're there for a purpose that adds up to more than bogus regret.

The quintessential scene in "Heat" is a coffee chat between a professional thief, Neil McCauley (De Niro), and a veteran Los Angeles detective, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who has been trying to nail McCauley after a series of elaborate and lethal robberies. Unlikely their truce may be, but it dramatically underlines what they share.

The law and the lawless have so much in common here, taking part in the same experiences, the same kinds of driven relationships and professional failures. Points of view may differ, but they're

obsessed by the same matters, and their significant others seem equally trapped in this urban-crime nightmare.

Hanna has an exasperated third wife (Diane Verona, who rises above the script's most awkward dialogue) who appears to take up with a lover just to get her husband's attention. It's not that these two can't communicate with each other. They know only too well what isn't working in their marriage, and they can't seem to do a thing about it.

While McCauley insists that there's nothing in his life he can't walk away from, he has grown attached to a woman (Amy Brenneman) who hasn't guessed what he does with the hours he spends away from her. By film's end, she finds herself so deeply involved in this relationship that she's practically immobilized.

McCauley is also attached to his accomplice and ex-prison mate, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), a gambler who's having problems with his straying wife (Ashley Judd). Further complicating the scenario are two more accomplices (Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore), a startling subplot about Hanna's suicidal stepdaughter, and McCauley's homicidal fury at a loose cannon in their midst.

Mann was the creative force behind "Miami Vice," and his penchant for mayhem sometimes threatens to unbalance the movie, particularly during a bank robbery that takes place about midway through. So many bullets, so many bystander bodies, so few key characters mortally wounded. It's a little much; so is the revelation that one of the central characters is a serial killer.

On the other hand, the sizzling "Vice"-like visuals and musical touches give the movie a distinctive, heightened-reality quality that makes L.A.'s light pollution seem positively entrancing. Elliot Goldenthal did the seductive score; Dante Spinotti is responsible for the darkly handsome wide-screen cinematography.

In its broadest outlines, "Heat" is an ironic/tragic heist movie in the tradition of John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle," in which character determines everything.

In a sense, all the actions are as easy to predict as the built-in limitations of pieces on a chess board, yet the combinations of those movements allow room for dramatic possibilities. There are many routes to checkmate.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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