Michael Mann Delivers More UltraCops, Gutter Poetry & Fetishistic Nitty-Grittiness

Dec 11, 2022

In the year 2000, the late literary critic James Wood put forth the concept of “hysterical realism,” a then-emergent micro-genre in which the delirious overstimulation of modern life is expressed through a hoarder-caliber accumulation of detail. At the time, he was talking about the likes of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and their doorstopper works’ endless minutiae on land surveying or tennis strategy or the ethics of lab rat usage. Whether the similarly hefty “Heat 2 1989-2002” shares this inclination toward state-of-the-world assessment is up for debate — there’s quite a bit about how the computer radically and rapidly terraformed international crime into a more chillingly efficient marketplace —but writers Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner nonetheless follow in this tradition of fetishistic nitty-grittiness.
READ MORE: Michael Mann Confirms His ‘Heat’ Sequel Is Already Underway & Will Be A “Very Large Movie”
In his work as a filmmaker, and particularly on “Heat” (which the novel bookends as both prequel and sequel), Mann has drawn praise for his slavish attention to the finer strokes of crime fiction. Every suit has been tailored to perfection, all the weapons have been checked against those of real-world bank robbers, and each bit of lingo comes right from the lips of the professionals. On-screen, this bolsters credibility in an unobtrusive way, visually coalescing into a hardline realism that fortifies each frame. On the page, however, everything must be named instead of shown; this is good news for people who enjoy looking up makes and models for watches, cars, or firearms, all of which get mentioned by brand name, but less-good news for people who find this as distracting as in-your-face product placement. A security camera must be specified as Panasonic. A simple guitar can’t be strummed in the corner of one scene — it has to be a Les Paul. Upon the umpteenth name-check of a .45 Colt Combat Commander or the Ford F-150, a reader may be reminded of the parody of hard sci-fi in “Party Down,” all stiff technobabble from an obsessive personality content to catalog his insular world.
The episode’s takeaway was that the components of genre fall flat without a sufficient counterbalance from a human element, the same issue inherent in Mann and Gardiner’s fixation on the surfaces of pulp. They write (an odd phrase that poses the question of how this even came together, with some speculating Mann essentially directed the more hands-on scribe Gardiner) in a clipped, almost comically terse fashion, under which sentences of more than three clauses are strictly forbidden and special permissions are required to exceed one. Sometimes, the prose nails the rhythmic, percussive hardboiled-paperback economy it seems to be going for, as in one key character’s introduction: “Alex Dalecki has a record. Burglary. Shoplifting. Car theft. St. Charles juvie and a stint in Stateville Penitentiary near Joliet.” But because this tone dominated the entire book, it misses the mark when applied to banalities. “Fragile, broken, silent,” goes the omniscient narration. “Jessica should be on a school bus or getting crazy with friends. Blasting music.” In either case, there’s a fatal lack of interiority to the characters caught up in this international, decades-spanning saga that’s mostly just a series of increasingly hazardous jobs.
The brilliance of Mann’s films lies in how he reveals the sensitive emotionality beneath the stoic visages of repressed tough guys, a recent retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image categorizing his films as macho melodramas. He prefers men of action and few words, leaving it to his actors to expose the undercurrents of feeling through performance rather than dialogue. In this respect, it’s impossible to read the novel without mentally enriching it by picturing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, or true protagonist Val Kilmer reading their lines. And even then, a lot of poignant heft is lost without the mediating interpretation of the cast, bringing depth to material that we can now see would otherwise fail to penetrate past the exterior.
There are brief flashes of gutter poetry here and there, such as an admonition to Pacino’s hopped-up ultracop Vincent Hanna from a lover: “Speed won’t give you the power to track your prey in the dark. That glow you feel? It isn’t x-ray vision. It’s self-incineration.” Even so, their scarcity raises the question of what’s to be enjoyed by anyone other than Mann diehards already predisposed to share in his preoccupations. They’ve got a thick slab of unalloyed Mann-iana to savor, but everyone else faces a more daunting task in accessing this brisk, engaging, yet ultimately stunted pic. In its truncated sentences that often read like direction, brief chapters that start and end as single scenes, and exhaustive explication of firefights, what could’ve been a work of literature more often comes off like a great script. [B-]
“Heat 2” is available now.

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