Structure: Heat

Michael Mann is an auteur pur sang. He masters every aspect of the craft, from the writing to the editing. Sometimes he pushes his vision further than the audience would follow him (Miami Vice) but mostly he delivers a classic experience for all.

by Karel Segers

I have been wanting to analyze this film for a long time because I love it so much. I like how we care for the bad guys, sometimes more than for the hero. I love how the movie has an unbelievably powerful opening sequence and to my taste the best L.A. based shootout in terms of impact and realism. Filmed nearly twenty years ago and still razor sharp and completely up to date.

On the other hand I was somewhat intimidated to take on the analysis because the film is so long and fairly complex – and it has so many fans! What to do with the two main characters. Dual journey? I wasn’t sure…

If you would like to understand this analysis, you must watch the film first. Remember that it is impossible to perform a proper analysis the first time around. You can’t do this ‘on the fly’ unless you roughly know what is going to happen.

And finally – if you are a writer, the objective of looking at a film in this way is to learn and apply techniques to your own scripts, so you can increase the chances of success. Of course each movie is different but even experienced craftsman like Michael Mann uses principles of storytelling he has learned elsewhere – or from experience. By understanding how this film works, you may be able to solve problems in your own story.

I surely don’t claim this is the way to analyze this film. Feel free to comment as I will most likely missed a few things here and there (and sorry about using Vincent/Hanna inconsistently).

So here it is. The journey of Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley, in one hundred and sixty-three minutes.




Sequence A: The Money Transport Score – “They’re good.” (21mins)

00.00 TITLES
02.00 Neil dressed as paramedic, leaving train station.
02.30 Goes to hospital, takes ambulance.
03.30 Chris purchases explosives.
04.30 Vincent at home, making love.
05.00 Vincent has a shower; no time for coffee. “Outa time, babe.”
06.30 Justine’s daughter Lauren freaks out: she’s late for her dad.
07.00 Wayngro joins Michael in the truck, he learns they’re a tight crew.
08.30 Neil radios the others, all are wearing paramedics uniforms now.
09.00 The men put their masks on, the truck rams a money transport.
10.00 Security men call the police. The team know they have 3 mins.
10.30 One of the guards is deaf and ignores Wayngro’s requests.
12.00 Wayngro shoots the guard, the others are shot, too.
12.30 Police arrives on the scene, they’re too late.
13.00 The ambulance explodes.
13.30 Neil, annoyed, delivers the money to Nate, who asks what happened.
14.30 Hanna is on the crime scene, he represents Robbery – Homicide.
17.30 Hanna: The M.O. is that they’re good.
18.00 Neil, Trejo, and Michael at diner. Wayngro is kicked and warned.
19.30 Wayngro escapes

Our first big question: who is the main character? We need to know because we cannot talk about structure unless we know whose journey we are following. Structure is defined by the main character(s)’s goals – and the actions to achieve these.

We could assume that HEAT has a dual-journey structure but Neil’s goal is open-ended: takes scores. Vincent’s goal in this movie is very clear: catch the guys who robbed the money truck and killed the guards. This is a clear, visible goal.

Thematically, it is clear from this first sequence that TIME is a major factor. Lauren’s dad is late to pick her up and Vincent tells Justine he can’t have coffee because he’s “outa time”. Neil’s team work towards a strict timing of 3 minutes and although the police are notified while the robbery is ongoing, they arrive too late. This theme will be confirmed at the mid point, in the dialogue.

The Inciting Incident (I think both for Neil and Vincent) is the moment when Wayngro joins the team. The phrase “tight crew” foreshadows that he is going to disturb the equilibrium.
This first sequence is all Ordinary World and for Vincent The Call to Adventure happens when he realizes that he doesn’t understand the robbers’ Modus Operandi. “The M.O. is that they’re good,” he says. This is confirmed when  he finds that the explosives cannot be traced.

The sequence is closed with Neil’s Call to Adventure, when he realizes they’ve lost Wayngro, who now is a major liability. Later we see a Call to Adventure in Neil’s love journey, when he meets Eady.

Sequence B – Neil meets Eady – Vincent’s false start. (10 mins)

21.00 Neil at home, reflecting.
21.30 Chris and Charlene argue. Chris explodes and leaves.
23.00 Hanna says explosives are too common to trace.
24.00 Hanna at home, argues with Justine over getting home late.
25.30 Neil in book shop. Eady notices him.
26.00 Neil in diner, approached by Eady. He’s rude, then makes up.
27.30 Neil moves closer to her, asks questions.
29.00 Neil and Eady watching the city view together.
30.30 They kiss.

This sequence is the Refusal of the Call sequence for both characters. Neil is reflecting on what happened and Hanna starts investigating as if the robbers were of the regular kind. When he finds that the explosives are untraceable, his hunch is confirmed that they are the best. This is where his investigation will start properly.

Later we see a Call to Adventure in Neil’s love journey, when he meets Eady. Here, too, is a ‘refusal of the call’ as we will see when he leaves her place, he is not yet committed. But HEAT is not Neil’s story because his goal(s) are open-ended. He wants to keep being a robber but he also wants to avoid being caught. It is Vincent Hanna’s story because his goal is clear: ‘to catch the criminals’.



Sequence C: Hanna finds first clue – Neil vs. Van Zant (22mins)

31.00 Neil leaves Eady’s place without leaving finger prints.
32.00 Hanna visits Albert for clues. He’s to meet his brother.
35.00 Hanna warns Albert: “Be there.”
36.00 Neil is briefed on the new job: $12m.
36.30 Van Zant orders to kill the thieves.
37.00 Nate tells Neil to call Van Zant to collect the money.
38.00 Neil talks with Chris about his gambling issues.
40.00 Neil to Chris: no attachments. But Chris; “the sun rises and sets with her.”
41.00 Don’s new job, recommended by parole officer. Boss is a jerk.
42.00 Neil calls Van Zant, details for the meet. He sees Charlene with man.
43.30 Neil confronts Charlene: “give him one more chance.”
44.30 Hanna meets Albert and his brother. A clue: “Slick.”
49.00 Hanna puts surveillance on Michael Cheritto.
49.30 Van Zant has set up Neil. Van Zant’s men are killed.
52.00 Neil calls Van Zant: he’s a dead man.

The fact that Neil exits Eady’s place without leaving finger prints proves that he is still in ‘pro mode’. But will he be able to sustain his professionalism? This feeds into the main theme of the film, also reflected in the title.

When Hanna goes to see Albert, it is his first scene in Act Two; his first action in the chain of events that will lead to solving the case. As a result of this, he will receive the first clue.

The theme is stated when Neil tells Chris he should be able to leave everything behind “in 30 seconds flat” when the heat (the Police) is on him. Chris responds with a line that will become beautiful irony later in the story. He says “the sun rises and sets with her”, setting up a weakness. Ultimately, however, he will be the only one surviving the story in freedom.

When Neil goes to see Charlene to encourage her to give Chris another chance, this could be because he cares for Chris – but it may also be to make sure the wall around his team reminds water tight.

We’re early in Act Two and this is where typically new characters are introduced, about whom we wonder: ‘friend or foe’? In Vincent’s story there’s Albert; in Neil’s story there is Van Zant, Don and Nate. Note that Nate is not strictly a new character but he’s new to the audience.

The subplot around Van Zant shows Neil’s professionalism. From how he acts in this storyline, we have hope he may do the right thing when challenged later in the story.

Sequence D: Neil feels the heat – calls off the score. (22mins)

53.00 Dinner with the families. Hanna and his men are watching.
54.00 Neil calls Eady.
55.00 Hanna etc. watch the ‘convention’, wonder who Neil is.
56.00 Wayngro kills a prostitute.
57.30 Wayngro in a bar, looking for a new gig.
58.00 Hanna and his men out with their wives. Hanna is called out.
59.30 Hanna at prostitute murder scene, keeps mother away.
61.30 Justine stayed alone at the dinner. Hanna: keep my angst.
64.30 Don and Lilian
66.30 Neil and Eady dreaming of moving to New Zealand.
68.00 Hanna and his daughter Lauren. She feels alone.
69.00 Hanna and his men at stakeout in truck
70.00 Neil and his men arrive for their next job.
71.00 Swat team ready. Neil is outside, hears a noise.
72.30 Neil calls it off.
73.30 Hanna doesn’t want an arrest now: they will walk.
74.30 Hanna and his men come out of the truck

When Neil calls Eady, we know he is serious about this relationship, raising the question further: “will he be able to sustain his professionalism?” The fact that he keeps his true identity hidden from Eady adds to this tension.

From the scenes between Hanna and his wife, it is clear he is unconditional in his commitment to the job. He admits this to Justine.

The sequence closes with another indication Neil is still sharp: he decides to call off the job when he feels the heat. This is an anti-climax, but following a highly suspenseful scene, marking the culmination of this sequence. Both main characters seemingly fail in their operation but they don’t make a mistake. They do the right thing in terms of their outer goals.

Mid Sequence: Hero meets Shadow, then loses him. (21mins)

75.00 Neil warns Chris: there’s heat. Chris needs the bank job.
76.00 Michael wants in: “The action is the juice.”
77.30 Hanna has Marciano: give up Charlene and Chris’ crew.
79.30 Neil plans something, while the police are watching.
80.00 Hanna goes to the location. Makes no sense. Looking at us. Neil takes photos of them.
82.30 Nate gives Neil maps for bank job, warns him about Hanna.
84.00 Justine is going out without Vincent.
85.30 Hanna in heli, following Neil.
88.00 Hanna stops Neil, go for coffee.
89.00 I do what I do best. Regular type life… Hanna opens up.
92.00 Hanna dreams of corpses. Neil dreams of drowning – no time.
95.00 All surveillance dumped at 9pm.

The mid sequence offers the last bit of levity before the movie goes into its sensational, dark second half. When Neil tricks Hanna, he seems to have the upper hand and loving it. This will change quickly: Vincent shows how easy it is to get him by stopping him on the highway – and inviting him for coffee.

In what is a legendary movie scene (and I believe the first time ever De Niro and Pacino were in the same scene), we have a classic meet of the Hero and Shadow at the mid point. You might argue there is even a bit of love and understanding going on between the two.

An ironic aspect of this scene is that, while normally the mid point makes things personal, here it is made clear that if they’d end up killing each other, it’s NOT personal. But I guess to the audience, this diner meet inevitably does make things personal. Often the mid point is set at an unusual setting for the movie. Certainly for cop and robber to meet over coffee is highly unusual.

Not how Neil’s dream foreshadows what will happen at the end of this story: he won’t have time to do what he wants to do and the drowning is just another way of dying.

As all great mid points, this one marks the Approach to the Inmost Cave, i.e. the characters are preparing to face their worst fears, to enter the Inmost Cave. They both state that they’re ready to kill the other. From now on they’ll have to live their lives in (each their) integrity – or die.

The Mid Point Reversal has a seeming victory, followed by a major setback. The victory is Vincent meeting with Neil, showing it’s fairly easy to get to him, should he need to. Immediately thereafter, all traces have gone. Can you see how this is the equivalent of ‘boy gets girl – boy loses girl’?

Sequence E: Bank robbery and shootout. (19mins)

96.00 Neil’s team prepares for the bank job.
[?] 97.00 Van Sant with Wayngro
98.00 Neil & team at diner, phone from Trejo: cops are on him.
100.0 Neil hires Don as the driver.
101.0 Eady is packing.
101.3 Bank job: they’re going in.
102.3 Bank job in progress.
105.3 Hanna hears of bank robbery, road blocks installed.
106.0 Neil’s team are coming out, Hanna sees them.
106.3 Chase on foot.
107.0 Into the car. Chris starts shooting.
110.0 Chris is shot.
112.3 Neil and Chris get away.
113.0 Michael takes a child, is shot by Hanna.
113.3 Lilian sees the TV news about Don.

Past the Mid Point, the Hero does all the right things, yet it becomes harder to make progress. For Hanna it’s clear that he is not winning yet as he fails to prevent the bank robbery – and people get shot.

The deaths of Don and Michael have weakened Neil’s team and show that things are changing for him. Eady is packing to leave with Neil, which is a great metaphor for his ‘approach to the inmost cave’. He will have to prove that he can unconditionally stick to his mantra, now the heat is on him. Will he drop everything and get out?

Sequence F: Ticking clocks – Running out of time. (17mins)

114.3 Chris gets surgery. Neil: meet you at Nate’s.
116.3 Chris calls Charlene: see you in two hours.
117.0 Neil at Trejo’s. He’s dying, “done by Van Zant’s men”.
119.3 Neil gets Van Zant’s address, asks for a new ‘out’.
120.0 Hanna believes he has 8-10hs to catch Neil. “After that he’s gone”.
121.0 Hanna tries to get intel from Van Zant’s aide.
122.0 Neil finds Van Zant, who refuses to give up Wayngro. Neil kills him.
123.0 Charlene is in safe house with Drucker.
124.0 Drucker pressures her: “Betray Chris for Dominic” (their son).
125.3 Hanna sends men to hotel, in case Neil goes after Wayngro.
127.0 Eady knows and runs off, Neil follows her.
129.0 Neil gives Eady cash. She asks how much longer… 22 hours.
130.0 Vincent finds Justine: “to demean myself with Ralph to get closure”.

In a long movie like HEAT it is crucially important to keep things moving. The ticking clocks are countless here: Chris tells Charlene he’ll see here in two hours. Hanna believes he only hs 8-10 hours. Neil gives himself 22 hours. This could be trouble for Neil.

But things are going like clockwork for him; a typical situation for the Antagonist/Shadow at this point in the story. All this while the Hero suffers setbacks one after the other, both in the outer journey (the case) and the love journey (his marriage). The final scene of this sequence can be seen as the Ordeal in that relationship journey: Justine has betrayed him – be it reluctantly – with Ralph.

But the darkest part of the movie is yet to come…

Sequence G: Vincent’s ordeal – Neil’s failed redemption. (16mins)

132.0 Nate has organised a plane for Neil.
133.0 Neil tells Eady she needs to choose. He wants to stay with her.
135.0 Police trap set for Chris. Drucker to Charlene: Show yourself.
137.0 Charlene signals to Chris. He gets away.
140.0 Hanna believes Neil is gone. All was in vain.
141.3 Hanna finds his daughter in bathroom after suicide attempt.
143.3 Hanna reunites with Justine at the hospital. “Not going anywhere.”
145.3 Nate calls Neil, who’s driving. So long.
146.3 Neil and Eady: home free.
147.0 Neil wants to “take care of something”. “There’s time.”

Vincent experiences two ‘all is lost’ moments (or ‘Ordeals’). First he believes he lost Neil for good, which would mean the failure of his outer journey. Next he finds Justine’s daughter unconscious in the bath tub after a suicide attempt. In this metaphorical ‘Inmost Cave,’ he is facing his worst fears – and possible death (Lauren). But he does the right thing by looking after Lauren and his Reward (Seizing the Sword) is Justine’s encouragement to go and do what he needs to do.

Neil, as the antagonist, is at his ‘highest point’. Everything is on track for him to get away and he gets overly confident, believing he can make the detour to deal with Wayngro. The irony however is that the movie’s theme gives away how this will end, i.e. both characters will move to the opposite of their current situation in Act Three. Vincent, who believed he ran out of time, will be able to track Neil down and deal with him. Neil, who said “There’s time,” will experience the opposite.

In this way for both characters the plot (outer journey) pays off beautifully on the movie’s theme and the characters’ choices.



Sequence H: Neil kills Wayngro – Vincent kills Neil.(17mins)

147.3 At the hotel. Neil: “Right back.” Gets room number.
149.0 Neil sees police at hotel.
150.0 Neil triggers fire alarm.
152.3 Hanna goes to the hotel.
153.0 Hotel evacuation; Neil is at Wayngro’s room. Kills him.
154.0 Neil escapes. Eady is still in the car, watching.
156.0 Hanna arrives in heli at the hotel.
157.0 Neil sees Hanna and runs. Eady watches.
158.0 Neil runs to the airport, followed by Hanna.
159.0 Hanna shoots. Neil returns fire.
160.0 Chase. Neil hides. Landing lights come up.
163.3 Hanna sees Neil’s shadow and fires three shots. Neil dies.

The third act has a unique energy. The chase is a conventional 3-act, hero’s journey story stage (The Road Back) but the elegic musical score tones it down, foreshadowing what is to come.

The movie has a traditional third act resolution, in that the characters get the payoff they deserve within their own morality. Vincent has been consistent, loyal to his beliefs – he lives. Neil has put revenge before his mantra and pays for it with his life.

No-one will be surprised to see the ending, particularly after hearing Neil’s account of his recurring dream about drowning. Still, we feel for Neil. He had an opportunity to get out and have the life we wanted him to have. The final shot with Vincent holding Neil’s hand could have been melodrama but it isn’t. It is a moving moment in which both characters achieve their ultimate humanity and a masterful coda to a terrific piece of cinema.

18 thoughts on “Structure: Heat”

  1. Excellent breakdown! You did a terrific job of distilling the long movie packed with events into relevant nuggets for us to savor.

    One of my fav films also.

    Thanks man!

  2. Nothing’s unintentional with Mann so do you have any idea why there are more than 20 references to having a cup of coffee?

    • You’ve got me with this one.

      I would guess having coffee represents the opposite of being ‘outta time’. In the first scene with Justine he can’t have coffee because he doesn’t have time.

      When the two meet, they have coffee – they take some time out to talk.

      Nah – lame explanation…

      Anyone else?

  3. I always felt like this was a beautiful update to the 1959 classic Odds Against Tomorrow with a more elaborate setup for reluctant bank robbers and the added tension of seeing the cops chase. Heat has been a fave for years.

  4. This is an awesome breakdown and analysis of a true masterpiece, the best I found in my research! Thanks so much for your work and dedication Karel!

    I have a comment about your analysis: you mention that Neil’s goal is open-ended in contrast to Hanna’s which is very clear, catching Neil and his team. The more I look into this film, the more it appears to me that Neil has a clearly defined goal. He wants a new life, away from all this with Eady.

    His ordinary world is the world of scores. Externally he’s looking for big scores. But internally he’s looking for something else: his house is near the ocean and he watches this ‘somewhere beyond the sea’ when he finish his ‘job’. Meeting Eady is his call to adventure that confronts him to his life’s discipline to leave everything in 30 seconds when the heat shows up.

    When he has coffee with Hanna at the midpoint, he shares his fear of not having enough time to do what he wants and when asked if he’s doing what he wants now, his answer is ‘Not yet’.

    At the end of Act II, he’s offered a way out of it, ‘Home Free’, and live a different life, that he discovered he longs for in Eady. There’s literally light in the tunnel but not at the end of it: he chooses to take revenge on Waingro instead and takes a path that will lead prevent him from living this other life and ultimately to his own downfall.

    In an interview, Michael Mann talks about the essence of his film: “that basic contradiction of two people who are not protagonist-antagonist, but 2 protagonists who have a deadly moral conflicts with each other but at the same time have a high regard for each other is the nucleus of the whole film”.

    Anyway, this film is such a masterpiece that I keep seeing new things each time I watch it. Thanks again for your wonderful work and website, it’s a great discovery!

    • Yup, agree. The message of the movie is that “for a man to be really great at his job, he can’t afford to have attachments.” Vincent always puts work first. (He’s been through three marriages and the current one doesn’t look too rosy). He wins. Neil develops an attachment for Eady and this proves to be his undoing – Vincent spots the girlfriend alone in the car, which tells him that Neil is nearby, and enables him to kill him. The Chris sub-plot mirrors the above. He survives, but only when he and Charlene realise they can’t maintain their relationship, and she waves him away.

      • Neil’s undoing, according to the analysis above, has to do with returning to kill Waingro despite the fact the “heat is around the corner”. Neil is meticulous and views Wayngro as a loose end that must be addressed. His meticulous nature, in this scenario, trumps his mantra of remaining unattached to anything or any idea that could result in his demise. His demise however has nothing to do with Eady. In fact, the movie suggests that had Neil fled with Eady while en route to the airport instead of returning for Wayngro, Neil likely would have escaped.

        • I agree with you. The theme is set up in the first few scenes as ‘not having enough time’.

          His mantra is about dropping everything, including unfinished business.

  5. First off i’d like to thank you Joseph Campbell for spelling it out for us! I enjoyed your analysis on Heat (1995) Segers, keep it up! On a side note I grew up rooting for the bank robbers in this one, great character development. @courtney i’ll check out Odds Against Tomorrow, i’ve never seen that movie.

  6. I don’t believe Wayngro is the inciting incident.

    The inciting incident is simply the armored car robbery at the start. The Act 1 threshhold for the main character, Vincent, comes shortly after – when a cop asks Vincent if he is taking this case himself or letting division take it, and Vincent says he will take it (since he knows this crew must be experts, and therefore he is the expert cop to track them down). Vinceent enters the story then (end of Act 1)

    All the main characters have been introduced by this point (even though the details of their own stories and subplots come after this point).

    Other films have their inciting incident and Act 1 turning point close together – Rocky for example – Apollo Creed and his crew are tking about giving the Italian Stalion a chance at the title (inciting incident) and not too long after when Rocky is asked if he will accept that invitation, he does, and thus Rocky enters the story (Act 1 turning point)

    • Surely the inciting incident for Ne Diro’s character is when he meets Eady and for Pacino it’s when he takes on the case. These are the worst possible scenarios for both of them.


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