The coffee shop scene in Michael Mann’s brilliant 1995 crime thriller Heat will forever be remembered in film history as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared screen time together. However, the more times you watch the picture and watch that scene, you realize it’s important for other reasons.
I described Heat as a crime thriller. More than that, it’s a movie about work and family. Specifically, it’s about people who are excellent at their chosen fields of profession and how it hinders their ability at a stable family life. You see it in Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, who is terrific at catching criminals and bad at holding a marriage together. You see it in De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, who is a master thief who must sacrifice any meaningful relationships to do his job. You see it with McCauley’s crew, most notably Val Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis who gets away at the end, but must leave his wife and young child forever in order to escape.
This all comes to a head in that coffee shop scene where Vincent and Neil casually discuss the situation they find themselves in. Vincent knows that Neil is looking to pull off one last huge score and he’s determined to not let it happen. Neil feels the same way – nothing will get in the way of him doing his job. The pair make it clear that they enjoy their careers – one tasked to stop criminals and the other being the criminal – and that they, frankly, really aren’t good at anything else. Neil and Vincent know their strengths. They’re going to keep doing what they do and lets the chips fall where they may. They both know and have known for some time that everything else besides their work must fall to the wayside, including their families and significant others.
Heat is a film about cops and robbers, but one like no other that delves deep into their psyches. We see example after example after how their thought process hurts their personal lives. At the end of the day, though, it’s something they’ve learned to accept. And the coffee shop scene illustrates that point with great dialogue that develops the richly written characters of Pacino and De Niro further.
Putting these two actors together, two of the best in American history, is reason enough for it to make movie history. It’s the amazing screenplay and willingness of director Mann to take Heat to a higher level of art than practically any “crime thriller”, though, that makes the scene Movie Perfection. And, of course, Pacino and De Niro are absolutely incredible in it.