Though he has been embraced by the arthouse contingent for decades, Michael Mann nonetheless stands out as one of the most quoted directors in the tough guy cinema pantheon– bros dig Mann’s emphasis on style over substance, his knack for tense back-and-forth monologuing between rivals and enemies, his extreme eye for cool crime details, his representation of masculinity as an unwavering devotion to craft over all other things. Yet paradoxically, Mann’s most bro embraced film, Heat, also serves as a brutal and unflinching takedown of masculinity, something that is all the clearer when viewed alongside one of its most obvious 21st century knock-offs, Ben Affleck’s The Town, a similarly structured heist crew film with its own male community baggage.
Both films are split in their narrative, switching back and forth between crews of extremely disciplined thieves and the relentless authorities pursuing them while also fracturing their narrative further in their examinations of the frayed romantic relationships our criminal and law protagonists navigate. The two films also feature the same tough guy cinema beats– dazzlingly well-exeuted early heists, rifts in the crews that lead to higher and higher stakes and botched “one last job” missions in the final third. Where they differ is in the messages conveyed by the use of these tropes; Mann’s Heat sets out to explore how male insecurity and suppression of emotion permanently damages men on either side of the justice/crime divide and doles out punishment to its characters equally, while Affleck’s The Town lobs softball criticisms at the community his character is born into and lets the character’s failings, and society’s larger sexist failings, off the hook.
You can see that early on in the way Heat introduces Al Pacino’s character Lt. Vincent Hanna. In a scene that’s too purposefully awkward and clumsy to even approach erotic, Vincent and his wife Justine (Diane Venora) are rolling around in bed before work. The two of them aren’t fucking so much as wrestling for control, neither of them really getting anywhere. The scene explicitly foreshadows the way Heat treats relationships, and not just between romantic partners but also work partners. Vincent is on his third marriage and it’s already falling apart becaue his idea of balance in relationships centers around his need to control his internal emotions and deny his loved ones access to them in an effort to “protect” them. Vincent believes that’s because his wife can’t handle his workload and doesn’t understand that she has to “share” him with the crime life, but as she explains, the issue is that there is no actual sharing going on since he won’t tell her about any of the things he sees and deals with and refuses to let any of his feelings out because he believes that would cause him to lose his “edge.”
Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley is similarly failing at relationships, but where Vincent keeps letting people in only to shut them out, McCauley never even gives them that opportunity, instead preferring to keep his relationships casual so that he can leave any situation without hesitation. Though Heat has an arc where McCauley falls for a young graphic designer and makes plans to escape with her to a new life after one final heist, his undoing comes because he refuses to follow through on that and instead gives in to male pride and a need to strike back violently at those he feels have wronged him.
Not coincidentally, some of Heat’s most iconic scenes are devoted to showing the similarities between Vincent and McCauley, from the coffee conversation between the two that is rightfully celebrated as one of Mann’s best moments to the finale of the film, where Vincent is forced to take McCauley down after he refuses to surrender. Tellingly, that final scene is also one of the few moments in the movie that focuses on human touch, as McCauley reaches his hand out to Vincent as he’s dying. It’s usually viewed as a sign of their respect for one another as enemies, but Mann and cinematographer Dane Spinotti shoot it like a romantic gesture, giving it soft, natural light and emphasizing that it’s more than a firm handshake, it’s a caress. It signals that the two men are aware that they share an intimacy with each other that they’ve never shared with romantic partners, that their struggles to open up to women and be clear about their emotions go away when they are together and in this final exchange, one of them has sacrificed their life and the survivor now must acknowledge that the only person they organically opened up to is gone.
By contrast, the three male relationships at the center of The Town lack any warmth or self-awareness. Affleck wants the viewer to believe the men in his crew are unyieldingly loyal to each other and their community, but he never expresses this in anything other than a superficial and expositional way. Affleck’s MacRay and Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Frawley are meant to be professional and romantic rivals, but there is no chemistry between the two and their interactions, even when they are in direct conflict with one another, fall flat and lack that emotional intensity DeNiro and Pacino have. Hamm’s character is a cardboard cutout, a hollow man who we are told is good at his job and is meant to be intimidating but he is devoid of the danger and obsessiveness of Pacino’s Vincent.
The emotional connection between MacRay and Jeremy Renner’s Jim Coughlin is a little more pronounced but it too fails to acquire the depth of Vincent and McCauley. MacRay and Jim are at odds with one another because the former has higher ambitions than remaining a criminal townie while the latter is content with his life and only wants to do whatever he has to do to not go back to prison. Which is odd, because his explosive temper and recklessness communicate more of a death wish than the calculated survivor’s instincts that drive McCauley’s similarly intense refusal to be imprisoned ever again (something that can also be read as a very male refusal to improve or be held accountable). Affleck’s directing and writing has none of the subtlety or patience of Mann, so we mostly know Jim and MacRay’s wishes because Affleck has them tell us what they are repeatedly. It’s blunt and sloppy, as is Affleck’s curious decision to make a movie about an entire community but focus it almost entirely on one ostracized member of that community who is desperate to get out. Compare that to Heat’s delicate, orchestral approach to characterization, where every member of McCauley’s crew is given a full arc without sacrificing the balance of DeNiro and Pacino’s central performances.
The Town’s failure to come out of Heat’s shadow extends to its chief romantic plot too, as Rebecca Hall’s hostage-turned-love-interest Claire exists as basically a talking Mcguffin. MacRay pursues and falls for Claire after his crew robs her bank and takes her with them for insurance, initially stalking her to make sure she didn’t make any of their identities. Affleck wants us to view the relationship between the two of them as so intense it further encourages MacRay to leave a life of crime, but we’re never given any real reason to believe either of these characters have any true investment in one another. Claire is essentially a peg for MacRay to hang his Town frustrations on, to the degree that their first (and only) sex scene is mostly just Affleck being comforted in her arms, patted on the back and silently told that his big manly ambition is worthwhile. When the FBI reveals MacRay’s real identity to Claire and she leaves him, we’re still expected to sympathize with him for his superficial and poorly planned attempts to get out of the crime life, nevermind the fact that at no point does MacRay seem to give a shit about the danger he’s put Claire in, he goes above and beyond to further incriminate her even after he escapes when his final heist goes horribly wrong.
In its ending, The Town reveals not only how much it owes to Heat but also how badly it misinterprets that film’s point. The Town’s peak heist ends up as bloody and destructive as the heist that costs McCauley most of his crew and forces him to go on the run, but in a baffling move, Affleck lets his character off the hook by basically having everything that was holding him to his community destroyed, including his “brothers” in his crew. Affleck doesn’t just survive his masculine hubris, he’s given a new life as a reward for how fatal his toxic masculinity ends up being. But in Heat, both McCauley and Vincent suffer for their unwillingness to reject traditional ideas of what being a man is. McCauley dies because he has to track down the traitor who sold out his men because he can’t forgive and forget, and Vincent loses his wife and also nearly loses his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman) after she attempts to kill herself specifically because all the men in her life continue to disappoint and abandon her.
The women in Heat are not as fleshed out as they could be as characters, it’s still an immensely problematic film in many respects, but this final message, that male culture’s intense refusal to accept emotions and communication as anything other than feminine weakness is killing off men literally and spiritually. The sole criminal survivor of Heat is notably Val Kilmer’s Chris, and he only escapes because for the first time in the film he actually listens and pays attention to something his wife (Ashley Judd) communicates to him.
Heat doesn’t let any of its male characters off easy because it recognizes that male pride is dangerous, so of course men of a certain generation have embraced it as the ultimate masculine crime film, ignoring the cautionary aspects of it to focus on the action choreography, loyalty and violence. Whether he consciously intended it or not, Affleck’s The Town ends up being a love letter to Heat, it’s just a pity that it’s the kind of love letter that manages to insult everything the object of its affection actually stands for.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover