Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner, “Heat 2” (2022) – I yield to few in my admiration for Michael Mann, my favorite director, and like most Mann fans my age, I first got into him from seeing “Heat.” I don’t look for perfection in artists and works I admire (stupid I have to say that but there it is)- Mann isn’t “perfect” and “Heat” is no longer my favorite Mann movie. I see it as being great, in the sense of having a lot going for it and some huge flaws. “Heat” adds and forgets at least one major plotline (serial killer Waingro) to an already over-stuffed script, the characters are needlessly wordy to the extent that Pacino especially almost becomes farcical, and it’s the nadir of Mann’s uneven ability to depict women. But it’s still compelling- the actors, the action, the pathos Mann never sneers or winks at. In a time when we’re all encouraged to be either shitty little stand-up comics inflicting our not-so-tight-fives about everything to everyone, or else woofing, yawping nincompoops, Mann’s deadly serious, but not self-serious, stories of connection and tragedy constitute signals from a better world. This is as true for his misses (like “The Keep”) as much as it is for checkered successes (“Heat,” “Public Enemies,” “Miami Vice”) and indisputable masterpieces (“Thief,” “Manhunter,” “Last of the Mohicans”) (note- I actually –like– some of the “checkered” works better than the masterpieces- enjoyment is more subjective, to me, than mastery).
So, on the one hand, I get the jokes that rise to the mind when one hears that Michael Mann, with help from bestselling thriller writer Meg Gardiner, wrote and published a book called “Heat 2,” both a prequel and a sequel to his 1996 film. Chris Fleming, a comedian who almost fills the role in comedy that Mann does for me in film, described it as a government program to get adult men to read (considering the last book that you could make that joke for would be “American Sniper,” I think we can agree this is an improvement). Moreover, being a follower of Michael Mann’s work, I know this is part of a “comeback.” His last film, “Blackhat,” was a massive, almost inconceivable flop (I think it’s kind of good), and for years the studios wouldn’t let Mann near another movie. I think now they realize enough dads out there will buy stuff with “the guy who brought you Heat” on it, especially if it’s a sequel, to let him out of the doghouse a little- he got this book out, and now they’re letting him make the Enzo Ferrari biopic he’s been talking about forever.
So, I do think there’s some calculation here. But I also know Mann’s work well enough to know, from the first page, that this stuff was going to be cask-strength Mann, an immersion into the Manniverse, if you will. He’s known for writing extensive biographies for his characters, most of which don’t come up in the movies, and you know he’s just been dying to get all of that, and the research he does for locations and criminal dynamics, out there somewhere, too.
Anyway, guess I should say what happens in the book, a little! We first catch up with Chris Shiherlis (the only place I’ve seen that surname outside of the universe of Heat is actually here in Watertown- wonder if it’s Greek or Armenian), Val Kilmer’s character, hours after the botched robbery that formed the pivot of the movie. He’s been shot, his wife is working with the cops (but no so much she doesn’t find a way to warn him out of a cop trap), his best friends have all been killed. Jon Voight’s character smuggles him out of the US and gets him a job in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Real Mann heads know that Mann loves places like that, weird nether zones exposing both capitalism’s darkness and it’s potential for adventures for Mann to dramatize. Ciudad del Este is more or less openly run by smuggler clans, and Chris gets in with one of them.
Zap back to 1988! Neil McCauley, Robert DeNiro’s character, is still alive, and something like the crew is still intact, and in Chicago. They take a big score there, but also pick up an enemy in the form of the leader of a crew of home invasion robbers. Those of you who know Michael Mann, or really who read/watch a lot of crime stories, know that home invaders are bad news. Neil, Chris and crew are criminals, sometimes violent, but never do crime to sate their violent desires- they’re professionals. Otis, the leader of the home invaders, on the other hand, makes his already violent crimes more violent intentionally. He’s a creepy sadist on top of everything else. Meanwhile, Al Pacino’s detective character, Vincent Hanna, is in the mix- he was canonically a Chicago cop before moving to LA, so he’s trying to find Otis (he’s not on Neil’s tail yet- Neil’s Chicago score didn’t involve violence).
The score they do in Chicago leads the crew to taking down a cartel stash house in Mexicali, on the border. This was probably my favorite part of the book, the best heist of the bunch (and there’s a few, enough for pretty much any heist-head). But Otis, despite not being a “professional” in the sense of Neil et al, is dogged and lucky, and he finds them. Specifically, he finds Neil’s love interest, a Mexican smuggler lady who helps out with the crimes (over time, Mann has gotten better about having women who aren’t victims or shrews in his stuff, and one imagines Meg Gardiner probably helped here too). Tragedy ensues, one of the things that helps lead Neil to his “have no attachments you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds” credo from the movie.
Back to the future! By 2000, Chris is in with a Taiwanese-Paraguayan smuggler clan. Despite still having his wife, Ashley Judd, back in the States (they can’t talk much because Chris is extremely wanted), he gets together with the business-minded daughter of the clan, who sees the transnational criminal entrepreneurial possibilities of the future. This takes them back to LA, where a concatenation of weird Chinese-Paraguayan dynastic politics, and our old friend Otis, somehow combine to create big time problems that Chris and Vincent Hanna, still on the force, need to navigate/shoot their way out of.
Those of you who know Michael Mann’s stuff (and even more so those of you know his stuff and then lick the boom up) will recognize the story, it’s themes, and much of its background as a melange of elements Mann used in any and all of his crime movies. It’s not just “Heat,” but especially “Miami Vice” and “Blackhat” with their emphases on interconnected global crime, “Public Enemies,” “Thief” (especially in the Chicago parts), even “Manhunter” given how much pivots on sociopath Otis, whose motivations aren’t all that different from the Tooth Fairy in that move… all present and accounted for.
It’s not so much fan service for fans of Heat — you get more of Kelso, Tom Noonan’s wheelchair-bound hacker, but kind of more a plot device, and not people you’d rather see like Tom Sizemore’s Cerrito, Wes Studi’s Casals, or Danny Trejo’s character, named after the actor — as fan service for fans of Michael Mann as a whole. It won’t surprise you to know that I follow Michael Mann’s Facebook page, and his fans are now talking about a “Michael Mann extended universe,” which you gotta figure is exactly what the publishers/studios want. I try not to do this in reviews, but it’s a very strong case of “this is the kind of thing you’ll like, if that’s the kind of thing you like.” Michael Mann’s work is so stuck in my brain it’s hard to tell if other people will respond to it. There’s definitely enjoyable crime material, here, and it’s also encouraged me to check out Meg Gardiner- while the vision is definitely Mann’s, I could see her doing a lot to make a real novel out of it. Anyway… I’d call this middle-rank Mann, which means it’s better than high-ranked stuff from lesser mortals. ****