Neil McCauley, a career criminal, hires Waingro to help him rob $1.6 million in bearer bonds from an armored car. During the heist, Waingro impulsively kills a guard, infuriating McCauley. When his crew, Chris Shiherlis, Michael Cheritto and Trejo, attempt to kill Waingro, he escapes.
McCauley's fence, Nate, suggests he sell the stolen bonds back to their original owner, money launderer Roger Van Zant. Van Zant agrees, but instructs his men to ambush McCauley at the meeting. McCauley survives the ambush and vows revenge against Van Zant.
LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, working with Sergeant Drucker and Detectives Sammy Casals, Mike Bosko, and Danny Schwartz, investigate the heist and identify McCauley's crew as the perpetrators. They discover their next target to be a precious metals depository. The unit stakes out the depository and observe the crime in progress, but inadvertently alert McCauley to their presence. McCauley abandons the burglary. Hanna, dissatisfied with the lack of evidence, lets McCauley's crew escape.
Despite the increased police surveillance, McCauley's crew agrees to one last brazen bank robbery worth $12 million to secure their financial futures. Waingro approaches Van Zant with information about eliminating McCauley's crew. McCauley starts a relationship with Eady, a designer he meets in a cafe. Hanna moves into a hotel after learning his wife Justine is having an affair.
Hanna pulls over McCauley on the freeway and invites him to coffee. Face-to-face, the aging professionals bond over their personal problems. Hanna's concern for his depressed stepdaughter Lauren and his string of failed marriages due to work, and McCauley's solitary life of a career criminal which, forbidding attachment and requiring mobility, makes his romantic relationships tenuous. Both men reaffirm their commitment to their work and to using lethal force if necessary to stop the other.
After coffee, Hanna discovers that McCauley's crew have evaded their surveillance. When Trejo withdraws from the robbery, McCauley recruits ex-convict Donald Breedan into the crew. Hanna's unit receives a confidential tip and interrupt McCauley's crew in the middle of their bank robbery. In the ensuing gunfight, several police officers, including Bosko, are killed, while McCauley's crew loses Breedan and Cheritto. Shiherlis is wounded, but escapes with McCauley.
McCauley leaves Shiherlis with a doctor to treat his wounds. He breaks into Trejo's house to find Trejo near death. Trejo reveals that Waingro alerted Van Zant to their bank robbery, who subsequently informed the police. McCauley finishes off Trejo at his own request, then kills Van Zant at his home. McCauley approaches Eady, who has accepted his criminal activities, with a plan to flee to New Zealand.
Hanna orders police surveillance on Waingro and leaks his location to criminal channels, suspecting McCauley will attempt to kill him before leaving town. Shiherlis' estranged wife Charlene is detained in a police safehouse, where Drucker threatens her with criminal charges if she doesn't betray Shiherlis to police. Charlene agrees, but when Shiherlis shows up in disguise, she surreptitiously warns him, allowing Shiherlis to slip through the dragnet.
Hanna finds Lauren unconscious in his hotel room from a suicide attempt and rushes her to the hospital. McCauley and Eady drive to the airport when he receives word of Waingro's location at a nearby hotel. Initially dismissive, McCauley decides to risk his freedom for revenge. He infiltrates the hotel, pulling a fire alarm to distract security and confronts Waingro before killing him. Moments away from escape, he notices Hanna approaching through the crowds and is forced to abandon Eady for his freedom.
Hanna chases McCauley into a field outside the LAX freight terminal. In the cat-and-mouse shootout, McCauley is exposed, and Hanna mortally wounds him. Near death, McCauley offers his hand to Hanna, who takes it, and reverently watches his adversary die.
De Niro was the first cast member to get the film script, showing it to Pacino who also wanted to be a part of the film. De Niro believed Heat was a "very good story, had a particular feel to it, a reality and authenticity." Xander Berkeley had played Waingro in L.A. Takedown, an earlier rendition of Mann's script for Heat. He was cast in a minor role in Heat. In 2016, Pacino revealed that his character was under the influence of cocaine throughout the whole film.
In order to prepare the actors for the roles of McCauley's crew, Mann took Kilmer, Sizemore and De Niro to Folsom State Prison to interview actual career criminals. While researching her role, Ashley Judd met several former prostitutes who became housewives.
Heat is based on the true story of a real Neil McCauley, a calculating criminal and ex-Alcatraz inmate who was tracked down by Detective Chuck Adamson in 1964. Neil McCauley was raised in Wisconsin where his father worked as steam fitter to provide his family with a middle-class life. The normalcy of Neil's youth faded following the adoption of another child and his father's death in 1928. At 14, he quit school to find work to support his mother and five siblings. The McCauleys soon relocated to Chicago. In Chicago, McCauley began his criminal career after his mother began drinking heavily. By the time he was 20, he had already done three stints in county jail for larceny.
In 1961, McCauley was transferred from Alcatraz to McNeil, as mentioned in the film, and he was released in 1962. Upon his release, he immediately began planning new heists. With ex-cons Michael Parille and William Pinkerton they used bolt cutters and drills to burglarize a manufacturing company of diamond drill bits, a scene which is closely recreated in the film. Detective Chuck Adamson, upon whom Al Pacino's character is largely based, began keeping tabs on McCauley’s crew around this time, knowing that he had become active again. The two even met for coffee once, just as portrayed in the film. Their dialogue in the script was almost exactly word for word the conversation that McCauley and Adamson had. The next time the two would meet, guns would be drawn, just as the movie portrays.
On March 25, 1964, McCauley and members of his regular crew followed an armored car that delivered money to a Chicago grocery store. Once the drop was made, three of the robbers entered the store. They threatened the clerks and stole money bags worth $10,000 before they sped off amid a hail of police gunfire.
McCauley's crew was unaware that Adamson and eight other detectives had blocked off all potential exits, and when the getaway car turned down an alley and the bandits saw the blockade, they realized they were trapped. All four suspects exited the vehicle and began firing. Two of his crew, men named Breaden and Parille, were slain in an alley while a third man, Polesti (on whom Chris Shiherlis is very loosely based), shot his way out and escaped. McCauley was shot to death on the lawn of a nearby home. He was 50 years old and the prime suspect in several burglaries. Polesti was caught days later and sent to prison. As of 2011 Polesti was still alive.
Adamson went on to a successful career as a television and film producer, and died in 2008 at age 71. Michael Mann's 2009 film Public Enemies stated in its end credits "In memory of Chuck Adamson". As an additional inspiration for Hanna, in an 1995 interview Mann cited an unnamed man working internationally against drug cartels. Additionally, the character of Nate, played by Jon Voight, is closely based on real-life former career criminal and fence turned writer Edward Bunker, who served as a consultant to Mann on the film.
In 1979, Mann wrote a 180-page draft of Heat. He re-wrote it after making Thief in 1981 hoping to find a director to make it and mentioning it publicly in a promotional interview for his 1983 film The Keep. In the late 1980s, he offered the film to his friend, film director Walter Hill, who turned him down. Following the success of Miami Vice and Crime Story, Mann was to produce a new crime television show for NBC. He turned the script that would become Heat into a 90-minute pilot for a television series featuring the Los Angeles Police Department Robbery–Homicide division, featuring Scott Plank in the role of Hanna and Alex McArthur playing the character of Neil McCauley, renamed to Patrick McLaren. The pilot was shot in only nineteen days, atypical for Mann. The script was abridged down to almost a third of its original length, omitting many subplots that made it into Heat. The network was unhappy with Plank as the lead actor, and asked Mann to recast Hanna's role. Mann declined and the show was cancelled and the pilot aired on August 27, 1989 as a television film entitled L.A. Takedown. which was later released on VHS and DVD in Europe.
In April 1994, Mann was reported to have abandoned his earlier plan to shoot a biopic of James Dean in favor of directing Heat, producing it with Art Linson. The film was marketed as the first on-screen appearance of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together in the same scene – both actors starred in The Godfather Part II, but owing to the nature of their roles, they were never seen in the same scene. Pacino and De Niro were Mann's first choices for the roles of Hanna and McCauley, respectively, and they both immediately agreed to act.
Mann assigned Janice Polley, a former collaborator on The Last of the Mohicans, as the film's location manager. Scouting locations lasted from August to December 1994. Mann requested locations which did not appear on film before, in which Polley was successful – fewer than 10 of the 85 filming locations were previously used. The most challenging shooting location proved to be Los Angeles International Airport, with the film crew almost missing out due to a threat to the airport by the Unabomber.
To make the long shootout more realistic they hired British ex-Special Air Service special forces sergeant Andy McNab as a technical weapons trainer and adviser. He designed a weapons training curriculum to train the actors for three months using live ammunition before shooting with blanks for the actual take and worked with training them for the bank robbery.
Principal photography for Heat lasted 107 days. All of the shooting was done on location, Mann deciding not to use a soundstage.
Heat was released on December 15, 1995, and opened #3 in the box office with $8,445,656 opening weekend in 1,325 theaters (behind Jumanji and Toy Story respectively). It grossed $67,436,818 in United States box offices, and $120 million in foreign box offices. Heat was ranked the #25 highest-grossing film of 1995.
Heat was released on VHS in June 1996. Due to its running time, the film had to be released on two cassettes. A DVD release followed in 1999. A two-disc special-edition DVD was released in 2005, featuring an audio commentary by Michael Mann, deleted scenes, and numerous documentaries detailing the film's production. This edition contains the original theatrical cut.
The initial Blu-ray Disc was released on November 10, 2009, featuring a high-definition film transfer, supervised by Mann. Among the disc extras were Mann's audio commentary, a one-hour documentary about the making of the film and ten minutes worth of scenes cut from the film. As well as approving the look of the transfer, Mann also recut two scenes slightly differently, referring to them as "new content changes".
A Director's Definitive Edition Blu-Ray was released on May 9 2017 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, who acquired the distribution rights to the film through their part-ownership of Regency back in 2015. Sourced from a 4K remaster of the film supervised by Mann, the two disc set contains all the extras from the 2009 Blu-ray, along with two filmmakers panels from 2015 and 2016 discussing the movie with the filmmakers.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 86% of 78 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 7.8/10. The film's critical consensus reads, "Though Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share but a handful of screen minutes together, Heat is an engrossing crime drama that draws compelling performances from its stars -- and confirms Michael Mann's mastery of the genre." Metacritic gives the film a score of 76 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert gave the film 3½ stars out of 4, writing: "It's not just an action picture. Above all, the dialogue is complex enough to allow the characters to say what they're thinking: They are eloquent, insightful, fanciful, poetic when necessary. They're not trapped with cliches. Of the many imprisonments possible in our world, one of the worst must be to be inarticulate — to be unable to tell another person what you really feel." Simon Cote of The Austin Chronicle called the film "one of the most intelligent crime-thrillers to come along in years", and said Pacino and De Niro's scenes together were "poignant and gripping".
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called the film a "sleek, accomplished piece of work, meticulously controlled and completely involving. The dark end of the street doesn't get much more inviting than this." Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, "Stunningly made and incisively acted by a large and terrific cast, Michael Mann's ambitious study of the relativity of good and evil stands apart from other films of its type by virtue of its extraordinarily rich characterizations and its thoughtful, deeply melancholy take on modern life." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave it a B− rating, saying that "Mann's action scenes [...] have an existential, you-are-there jitteriness," but called the heist-planning and Hanna's investigation scenes "dry, talky."
The film was nominated for the American Film Institute's "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" list.
The explicit nature of several of the film's scenes was cited as the model of a spate of robberies since its release. This included armored car robberies in South Africa, Colombia, Denmark, and Norway and most famously the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, in which Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu robbed the North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America and, similarly to the film, were confronted by the LAPD as they left the bank. This shootout is considered one of the longest and bloodiest events of its type in American police history. Both robbers were killed, and eleven police officers and seven civilians were injured during the shootout. Heat was widely referenced during the coverage of the shootout.
For his film The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan drew inspiration in his portrayal of Gotham City from Heat in order "to tell a very large, city story or the story of a city".
Heat was one of the inspirations behind the video game Grand Theft Auto V, notably the mission "Blitz Play" where the crew blocks and then knocks over an armored car in order to rob it.
In March 2016, Mann announced that he is developing a Heat prequel novel as part of launching his company Michael Mann Books.
On December 19, 1995, Warner Bros. Records released a soundtrack album on cassette and CD to accompany the film, entitled Heat: Music from the Motion Picture. The album was produced by Matthias Gohl. It contains a 29-minute selection of the film score composed by Elliot Goldenthal, as well as songs by other artists such as U2 and Brian Eno (collaborating as Passengers), Terje Rypdal, Moby, and Lisa Gerrard. Heat used an abridged instrumental rendition of the Joy Division song "New Dawn Fades" by Moby, which also features in the same form on the soundtrack album. Mann reused the Einstürzende Neubauten track "Armenia" in his 1999 film The Insider. The film ends with Moby's "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters", a different version of which was included at the end of the soundtrack album.
Mann and Goldenthal decided on an atmospheric situation for the film soundtrack. Goldenthal used a setup consisting of multiple guitars, which he termed "guitar orchestra", and thought it brought the film score closer to a European style. The soundtrack was noted for lack of a central theme. Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks.com criticized the omission from the album of much music heard in the film due to the film's length, but praised the album as a decent listening experience, and Goldenthal's score as "psychologically engaging and intellectually challenging", believing it to be one of Goldenthal's best. AllMusic called it a "soundtrack for the mind [...] full of twists and turns". Musicfromthemovies.com thought of the album as uncharacteristic for Goldenthal's style, calling the atmosphere "absolutely electrifying".
A video game based on the film was announced at E3 2006, under development by Gearbox Software for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. During E3 2009, it was revealed that Gearbox did not have the license of the film to make the game, as this was being optioned to be sold. Michael Mann, director of the film, was reported to be involved with the game. In a 2009 interview Randy Pitchford, President, CEO, and co-founder of Gearbox Software, said that development of the game had been halted and the IP could potentially be available to another developer saying:
"In a nutshell, we're nowhere. We have passionate game makers that would love to do it. We've got filmmakers that think it's a great idea that would love to see it done. We have publishing partners that would love to publish it. But we have no time. That's the limiting factor. Because of the situation, we're not keeping the IP locked down anymore. So if somebody else were in a spot where they could do it, and everybody was comfortable with that, then conceivably that could happen."