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It turns out that Mann had found a well too rich to go back once. While preparing “Thief” in 1981, Mann had hired a retired Chicago cop named Chuck Adamson as a technical advisor. The pair would become close friends, and Adamson’s experiences pursuing and ultimately killing a professional thief named Neil McCauley in the 1960s would inspire many of Mann’s later television and film projects. (De Niro’s character in “Heat” shares the name of the real criminal Adamson shot three decades earlier.) Mann, in turn, helped Adamson launch his own screenwriting career. The 1986-1988 NBC series “Crime Story,” co-created by Adamson and produced by Mann, was set in the ’60s, but featured scenes and dialogue that Mann would repeat almost verbatim in “Heat.”
The film was a hit, but not a blockbuster. The reviews were admiring, but not over the moon. It took a while for “Heat” to get its due: one of the great crime movies, one of the great LA movies, one of the great ensemble movies. Mann has made rich, memorable, and formally daring films since – “The Insider”, “Ali”, “Collateral” – but he has never made a better one.
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But still, how odd to find Mann repainting his masterpiece a generation later…in novel form. “Heat 2” – helps anchor a few points for this uninspired title – is, like “The Godfather Part II”, both a prequel and a sequel to the film. The book opens the day after the film’s bloody events circa 1995, but quickly jumps back to 1988, allowing Mann and Edgar Award-winning co-screenwriter Meg Gardiner to bring De Niro’s Neil McCauley back from the dead. and to advance to 1996. and 2000. This hopscotch in time enriches the characters but costs the book in rhythm and tension, traditionally Mann’s strong points. Mann’s 170-minute film rushes to its inevitable yet satisfying climax as a bullet. Mann and Gardiner’s 470-page novel moves in spurts, intermittently picking up the narrative steam only to let it dissipate. It’s frustrating.
The character who benefits the most from the expanded treatment is resourceful burglar Chris Shiherlis, the only member of McCauley’s team to survive the film, in which a ponytailed Val Kilmer made a strong impression despite minimal dialogue. Chris spends most of “Heat 2” living in Paraguay with a fake Canadian passport, working as muscle for a Taiwanese crime family with a base of operations in Ciudad del Este. Silently absorbing everything he witnesses, Chris discovers that even the multi-million dollar “scores” he and his best friend Neil used to “take” were small potatoes and that globalization offers unlimited earnings – well, flight – potential to an industrious outlaw. Chris also finds himself falling in love, though he longs to reunite with the wife and son he left behind in LA.
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This all feels fresher than the 1988 chapters, in which Neil, Chris and their team plan to rob a Mexican drug cartel. Neil’s Mexican lover Elisa is a partner in their plan, and Neil is a loving father figure to his young daughter Gabriela. This flimsy domestic subplot seems to have been put here to explain the origin of the “no-attachment” philosophy that Neil adopts in “Heat’s” most famous scene – over coffee, and to the cop who wants to lock him up no less. (Adamson claims that this unlikely coffee klatch was taken straight from his own life.) But it wasn’t something that needed an explanation. De Niro’s performance provided all the subtext and backstory we needed.
What’s more damaging is the arbitrary persona Mann and Gardiner use to tie together the 1988 and 2000 segments – a sociopathic invader and sex offender named Otis Wardell, who crosses swords with McCauley and Vincent Hanna, the jittery detective character of Pacino, years before they crossed swords (and coffee mugs) with each other. True to Mann’s philosophy of not wasting, not wanting, Wardell’s sadistic MO will be familiar to readers who recall a few specific episodes of “Miami Vice,” the pastel-hued ’80s crime show that Mann produced and later, would you believe, recycled into a feature film.
Wardell is a creepy, albeit indistinct, character, but his role is entirely a coincidence spanning a dozen years and half a continent. Turns out crooks McCauley and Chris, cop Hanna and killer-rapist-demon Otis everything operated in Chicago in the 80s before moving to Los Angeles in the 90s. Really? This “heat” is traced as tightly as a Swiss watch makes the shapelessness of this tracking all the more difficult to forgive. And the writing, alternately terse and flowery, isn’t elegant enough to disguise the sloppy narration. Mann’s cinema may be poetry, but his prose is… well, prosaic.
Chris Klimek works for the Smithsonian magazine and is co-host of the podcast A Degree Absolute!
By Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner
William Morrow. 480 pages. $28.99
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