Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a natty Los Angeles thief — great jackets, neat goatee — who orchestrates fantastically complicated heists that hinge on the sort of split-second timing generally employed on voyages to Jupiter. (He’s also pretty good at shooting people between the eyes.) To keep himself disciplined, he forms no attachments: His life is business, and his business is crime. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is an LAPD detective who is working around the clock to trap McCauley. When Hanna’s wife complains that he never lets his guard down, he says that he needs to hold on to his ”angst,” that it keeps him ”on the edge, where I gotta be.” (Funny how people on the edge seem a lot cooler when they don’t talk about it.)

It’s no surprise to find these two characters sharing the spotlight in Heat (Warner Bros., R), a movie written and directed by Michael Mann, who has fashioned some of the most inspired underworld tales of the past two decades (Thief, the serial-killer masterpiece Manhunter, the best seasons of Miami Vice). What is surprising is that the movie is 2 hours and 52 minutes long, and that neither character is entertaining enough to fill up the time. Heat is an ”epic” that feels like a stunt. Mann’s action scenes aren’t like those in other underworld thrillers. They have an existential, you-are-there jitteriness, especially when McCauley, a sociopath with the instincts of a cobra, sneaks into a hotel to kill an enemy who’s being heavily guarded. But when the characters are sitting around hatching schemes, Heat is a dry, talky movie; it’s like a grid for a crime thriller that was never filled in. McCauley and Hanna have both been at this game too long, and so, it’s tempting to say, has Mann. We know his tricks now—the ”hypnotic” synth pop, the cop and criminal who share the thrill of the hunt, the whole cataclysmic street-opera…angst of these guys. It all worked better back when Don Johnson was making pal sound like an insult.

Pacino is still doing his spasmodic overacting from Scent of a Woman — you know, that thing where he speaks quietly and then SHOUTS! a random word or two REAL LOUD! (He seems borderline insane.) De Niro gives a physically commanding performance, but here, as in Casino, he’s playing an ice-minded humanoid. Mann’s most perverse decision was to cast these two legends and then keep them apart from each other. Half-way through, they finally get an extended dialogue in a coffee shop (it’s the first time the actors have ever been in a scene together), and you can feel their joy in performing. We’re not watching McCauley and Hanna anymore; we’re watching De Niro and Pacino trying to out-insinuate each other. For a few moments, Heat truly has some. B-

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