We all swooned at Collateral's twinkling skyscrapers and fluorescent freeways, but Heat is Michael Mann's most gushing LA love letter - a grimy genre flick glossed up to the status of grand urban opera.

The director is often accused of trowelling on style-slap at the expense of soul and substance but that grump doesn't apply here. Heat isn't only his peerless lesson in how to make clusters of concrete and glass look beautiful, it's also an eloquent study of loyalty, commitment and good guy/ bad guy duality.

Based on real-life characters relayed to Mann by Chicago cop buddies, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is the fastidious chief of an armed robbery crew being stalked by Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), an off-the-peg Brilliant Cop On The Edge (chronic cynicism, crumbling marriage, self-destructive teenage daughter). When a surgically planned strike on an armoured car turns messy, a member of McCauley's crew breaks rank, his indiscretion opening up enough of a chink in their armour to be exploited.

Mann pitches McCauley and Hanna into a fairly standard high stakes cat-and-mouse thriller - - a big-budget rework of his late '80s TV movie, LA Takedown. But it's the focus on the two men's ever-converging relationship that supplies a sheen of class. Mann is fascinated by the similarities between the two, almost to the point of playing them as a queasy kind of partnership: both are killers, fiercely devoted to their cause, middle-aged, feeling the first flickers of burnout...

Crucially, the extremity of their work also gives them an ideal excuse for emotional reserve. Hanna's home life suffers as he struggles to square the hyperreal terrors of his day-job with domestic drudgery, while McCauley's involvement with pretty librarian Eady (Amy Brenneman) is increasingly at odds with the mantra he lays on his crew (""Never get involved in something you can't walk out on in 30 seconds flat when you feel the heat around the corner"").

Having constructed such a solid, human story core, Mann lashes on the style, using daytime LA as a grand canvas for dizzying widescreen sweeps and deadeye shot symmetry. By contrast, nighttime LA is a shimmering wonderland: all iridescent copper-tone and flaring neon. But he also cranks the action when required, and the LOUD centrepiece firefight is more potent and muscular than anything seen in schlockier pics.

Heat is the undisputed leader of a sadly dwindling pack: A-list action films with balls and brain.

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