- Movie Rating -

Heat (1987)

| March 13, 1987

I once heard an interview with Roger Ebert about how the “Siskel and Ebert” show got started.  He said that initially, both critics walked into the studio with 3×5 cards containing talk points – a method that proved to be a disaster – the show seemed stiff and formal.  At one point, the producer Thea Flaum got the bright idea to thrown out the index cards and just let the critics speak from the heart.  A bit of magic was born because off the script, the critics to think and be themselves.

It seems an odd segue but I thought about this during the Burt Reynolds’ action thriller Heat in which Burt Reynolds plays a former soldier of fortune waning out his talents in Las Vegas, fighting off a gambling addiction and becoming friendly with a mousey outsider who wants to be more of a man.  This is one of those movies in which the set up is so interesting that you wish it would throw out the script and just let the actors speak, let them speak from the heart – ad lib a little so that we get a sense of their humanity, their individuality.  Like Siskel and Ebert, they’d be more interesting off-script.

This is not to be.  Heat is a potentially good movie about two interesting people but the script won’t leave them alone.  What humanity exists is buried in a machine-made plot with set-ups and shoot-outs borrowed from westerns, cop shows and limp, dumbbell action movies with more noise than common sense.  It even ends with one of those warehouse gun fights that are organized like a video game.

What distresses me is that in between is a story that I really cared about.  Reynolds is a body guard in Vegas, world-weary and struggling with his addiction.  One day he meets a wealthy young man (Peter McNichol) who asks Reynolds to teach him how to be a tough guy, not that he wants to knock anyone around but he wants to be more assertive when dealing with local bullies.  I liked their interaction when the movie settles down long enough for them to act like human beings.  In a restaurant, Reynolds offers some alarming advice: “The ear is great.  It comes right off if you give it a yank.  Most people don’t know that.  It’s surprisingly easy to do; it’s only held on by a little cartilage, and when you show a guy his ear, it grabs his attention”.  I did not know this.

I liked that scene.  I liked the interaction between these two men.  I liked the few moments when the movie deals with the very nature of being a tough guy and the line between one’s humanity and one’s survival.  The problem is that the movie takes forever to get to those scenes and when they happen they are all-too-brief.

The script is by William Goldman who I suspect wrote a much more focused human story that may have later been pulled from his hands so that it could be reorganized to fit the basest of audience expectations.  Whatever good characters stuff exists in the movie is them devolved into a shoot-out or a fight.  I wish there could have been a clearer head producing this movie.  I wish they would have had the confidence and the wisdom to throw away the cards, throw away the script, throw away the expectations of the audience and really let these two actors build characters.  They’re interesting, but they’re stuck in a movie the refuses to let them be.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama