Crime Scenes
Gavin Smith Talks to Michael Mann About Heat 2

Unusually exhaustive research, immersive reconnaissance, exacting, granular attention to detail. These form the bedrock of Michael Mann’s screenwriting. As he puts it in a Zoom interview from his production office in Rome, “It’s not something you make up sitting in a room.” When it comes to his crime films, miniseries, and episodic television shows—perhaps none more so than Heat—Mann’s intensive no-stone-unturned preparation is unavoidably a mirror image of the way his criminals plan their scores. The irony isn’t lost on him: “When I came to understand the nature of the Juarez Cartel and the business backgrounds and the complexity of trying to fight the drug war in Mexico, a couple of people who are very highly placed in federal law enforcement said if I ever wanted to, I had a future in international operations like this. But they were half kidding.”

A spry 79-year-old, Mann is now underway on his next project, Ferrari, currently shooting in Italy. He’s been busy lately: executive producing and directing the first episode of Tokyo Vice, which dropped on HBO Max this April (“the arena is a moment in time when the yakuza were becoming Goldman Sachs with guns,” he quips). He’s also just published his first novel, co-written with crime fiction author Meg Gardiner. For those of you who can’t get enough of his 1995 film Heat, widely and reasonably regarded as his masterpiece, well, now there’s Heat 2, a gritty, vivid, 468-page second helping that delivers the goods and also goes to surprising new places.

Heat 2 is both a sequel and a prequel to Heat and is divided into six parts. In a double forward movement—from 1995 into the future and from 1988 to the present—its twin narratives, which share the same primary dramatis personae, finally intersect in 2000. Per Mann’s modus operandi, the novel is the fruit of in-depth, wide-ranging research over a number of years, with the formulation of backstories for new characters the order of the day. As for his collaborator, “I had to take Meg and drop her into the deep end of the pool of Heat, meaning all of the deep background that preceded the movie and in which the movie is this one slice. And who these people were. I know how they talk. I know how they sound, I’m from Chicago and I know the mentality. Then I also brought her to L.A. and kind of embedded her with police and some of the young girls and women who are trafficked in that whole Figueroa scene,” referring to L.A.’s notorious “Fig Track,” a sex worker hotspot. Much as in Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the backstories of Mann’s main characters and even key events came ready-made. “Knowing you want to be in the past,” Mann acknowledges, “that part’s easy because I had so much data and material and ideas and bio on all these characters. All our material about what’s happening in 1988 is based on lengthy discussions and transcriptions and work that I had done to build a complete background for Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna and where they came from.”

The novel’s narrative scope is essentially centrifugal. After an initial six-page prologue summarizing the events depicted in Heat, the novel picks up where the film left off in the immediate aftermath of the fateful 1995 bank heist. Here Robbery Homicide Detective Vincent Hanna (played in the film by Al Pacino) is on the trail of the only member of the robbery crew still at large, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer), who meanwhile is spirited out of the country. The story then shifts to Chicago seven years earlier, and from that starting point moves steadily south beyond the U.S. border to Mexico, and then on to Paraguay, then west to Singapore and the Philippines at the opposite end of the Pacific Rim. Then it reverses direction for a centripetal final act, as the novel’s storylines converge in Los Angeles five years on from Heat for a riveting not-quite finale.

On one level, Heat 2 is the story of three alpha males who, while pursuing their own agendas, are each destined to cross paths and lock horns with a formidable and ruthless fourth. After Shiherlis encounters his future wife Charlene (Ashley Judd) in Las Vegas in 1988, he joins Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Chicago to carry out a bank vault heist (reminiscent of the thermal lance sequence in Mann’s 1981 feature debut Thief). Simultaneously, Hanna, then a detective with Chicago’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, is pursuing the crew behind a series of sadistic home invasions, led by the animalistic Otis Wardell. This shrewd functional psychopath is the fourth term in the novel’s equation. Nursing a somewhat irrational grudge, Wardell tracks McCauley and his crew to the Mexican border, where they are preparing to steal a drug cartel’s cash shipment. Twelve years later, now a prime mover in sex trafficking and prostitution centered on South Los Angeles’s Fig Track, Wardell once again becomes Hanna’s quarry and effectively serves as a kind of missing link between the dead armed robber and the cop who killed him.

The Chicago strand of Heat 2 harks directly back to “The Home Invaders,” a 1985 episode of Miami Vice, directed by Abel Ferrara and written by former Chicago cop Chuck Adamson, one of Mann’s primary sources when he was developing Thief. (That film, in turn, was very loosely based on The Home Invaders, an autobiographical book by professional house burglar Frank Hohimer.) Moreover, the methods employed by Dollarhyde, Manhunter’s serial killer, are a pathological offshoot of this type of crime. In other words, Wardell seems to embody unfinished business for Mann. Amongst the new characters introduced in Heat 2, Wardell is the most indelible and it’s hard not to start mentally casting actors to play him, particularly since Mann admits, “I can’t help thinking what kind of motion picture [the novel] would make. I’m not interested in doing it as a series. I’m interested in doing it as a large motion picture. Meaning a very large narrative.”

The Heat extended universe also, of course, includes Mann’s little-seen 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown. While the screenplay for Heat was being developed well before L.A. Takedown, Mann couldn’t figure out how to resolve it. “So I decided to abridge some of it,” he elaborates, “and do it as a pilot for a television series that kind of scavenged or cannibalized parts of the Heat screenplay. I would have expanded it—I was very attracted to doing complex tableaus of multiple characters and stories that interreact and probably it would have evolved into something like Robbery Homicide Division.” (Mann’s singularly nocturnal but short-lived 2003 crime procedural which was cancelled after 13 episodes. Tom Sizemore, like Dennis Farina in Crime Story, brought weighty conviction and a certain magnetism to his lead role, but fatally lacked the sex appeal that was a major contributor to Miami Vice’s success.)

As a TV movie made on a brisk schedule, L.A. Takedown seems like a rough sketch for what would become Heat. All the principal characters are in place, and much of the dialogue lifted from the Heat screenplay is reproduced verbatim in the subsequent film. It even retains the subplot dealing with the serial killer Waingro, here played by Xander Berkeley, the only cast member to turn up in Heat, although he’s demoted to a one-scene role as the man Hanna’s wife Justine picks up and beds.

The Heat universe even extends back to encompass Mann’s professional origins in 1970s episodic television. At one point in the novel Hanna recalls one of his old cases, in which a little girl was shot by a freeway sniper and wound up in a coma. That’s the exact storyline of Mann’s script for “Thanksgiving,” a 1976 episode of Police Story, a series based on standalone stories drawn from actual cases—in other words ground zero for Mann’s preoccupation with research. (James Woods played the sniper, by the way.) Bearing in mind Mann’s predilection for reusing actors (ex-cop Farina, appearing in five of his films and TV series is undoubtedly his acteur fétiche), is it possible that in some sense Thief, Crime Story, Robbery Homicide Division, the film version of Miami Vice, and Blackhat all belong in a single space/time continuum with Heat as the center of gravity?


As it turns out, the characters of McCauley and Hanna don’t loom quite as large in the novel as they did in Heat. If the original movie was a prismatic multi-character affair, Heat 2 is ultimately more or less centered on Shiherlis and his personal journey from trusted lieutenant in the 1988 sections to becoming master of his own destiny in those set in 1995–96. Although Shiherlis’s life in exile is blighted by his futile longing to reunite with his wife and son, it also becomes an arena for self-actualization.

It’s through Shiherlis’s consciousness that Mann introduces the reader to his extensively researched brave new world of cutting-edge global criminal activity. Patched up and transported across the border to Mexico, he embarks on his life’s second act in the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, a free-trade zone located in a tri-border area often referred to as the Triple Frontier and described in the novel as a “criminal Disneyland.” Mann is in his element in this semi-lawless anything-goes realm, where “a machine gun battle of multiple languages: Arabic, Mandarin, and Taiwanese dialects, indigenous Guarani and Spanish” fight it out. He rattles off a shopping list of illegal enterprises—“cigarette-smuggling, arms-trading, money-laundering, cocaine-trafficking, gray market pharmaceutical-manufacturing and counterfeit-software business”—over which feuding crime families jockey for advantage and dominance (or maybe just market share). This high-stakes internecine rivalry, not to mention a nearby Hezbollah training camp, make Ciudad del Este, per Mann, “the murder capital of South America.”

This new landscape is an eye-opener for Shiherlis, who resolves to “command himself and be capable of anything.” Through the connections of fixer/middleman Nate (Jon Voight played him in Heat), Shiherlis gains an entry-level position on the security team employed by the Liu family, one of the two dominant Taiwanese criminal organizations in Ciudad del Este. From this vantage point he realizes that “he’s walking through a small door into CinemaScope, exile has transformed into revelation.” He’s amazed by the “operational complexity” of the Lius’ setup, and by virtue of his well-honed skill set, savvy, discipline, and acute “threat assessment” capability, he soon becomes a valuable asset to and begins to rise in the Liu hierarchy.

“For the first time in his life,” Mann says from Rome, “Chris achieves real self-sufficiency—becoming a complete individual. What he acquires is an understanding of the new new. He acquires insight holistically, it just comes to him without knowing the nomenclature.” Hence Shiherlis grasps that “the world is going global. National borders and jurisdictions are fading,” and comes to perceive that “the horizon promises domains he can create.” Heat 2 then charts how Shiherlis goes about this, and clinches things when he eventually takes a business trip back to Los Angeles, the scene of the crime.

From Shiherlis’s new perspective, his past as the member of an elite robbery crew seems antique: “With all their expertise, what were they? They were maybe the best. But at what, being 19th-century bandidos robbing banks?” Mann concurs. “You either evolve or you become obsolete… People are still making movies about the Italian-American mafia. Well, their market share of organized crime is so low and has been for decades that it doesn’t justify significant budget within the FBI to pursue. Starting in the ’80s and ’90s anybody who wanted to be a serious professional criminal was in the drug trade and that became transnational very early. And then the people who were involved in it—I’m thinking of the Juarez Cartel for example—were suddenly cash rich with piles of money and of course they bought themselves the best systems imaginable in terms of management consultancy, intelligence, signal interception, all of that. So, there’s a sophistication that I find quite fascinating.”

If a big part of the impetus of Heat 2 is to convey the changing dynamics of crime and transnational criminal enterprise in the 21st century, Mann has been keeping abreast of these paradigm shifts as far back as Miami Vice, and they were front and center in the 2006 film version and 2015’s Blackhat, which winds up in Hong Kong and Indonesia. A global and geopolitical perspective marks several early episodes of Miami Vice, notably the two-part “Golden Triangle,” one of the few installments of the series co-written by Mann; “Smuggler’s Blues” which takes Crockett and Tubbs to Columbia; and “Stone’s War,” which tackles the Iran-Contra scandal, dealing with covert U.S. military involvement in Nicaragua (with guest star G. Gordon Liddy as a stand-in for Lieut. Col. Oliver North). As with Crime Story, Mann’s creative input as executive producer—he never got behind the camera on Vice and directed just one episode of Crime Story—was to establish an overall vision and style and then “critique scripts that were written for me, and then often it’d be me for 48 hours doing a rewrite from the top down.”

Set in the early 1960s and unfolding in a serial format well before Twin Peaks revived it, Mann’s 1986-88 TV passion project Crime Story (co-created by Adamson) begins on the mean streets of Chicago, transitions by the end of the first season to Las Vegas and concludes its second season in Mexico with its crime kingpin laying the groundwork for a vertically integrated global operation for the import of heroin from Asia. And so, logically, after these two series wound down at the end of the 1980s, Mann produced two fact-based miniseries centered on the DEA’s international operations, Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990), set in Mexico, and Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel (1992), partly set in Colombia. These two projects represent a pivot from a focus on domestic crime to criminal organizations with global reach. But there was, of course, another piece of unfinished business: Heat.

That’s not to say that with Heat 2 Mann is kissing goodbye to old fashioned street crime: the action set-pieces in his films and in the novel confirm that it remains a crucible for the testing of characters on both sides of the law. And he foresees his publishing imprint, Michael Mann Books, developing a project about Chicago organized crime during its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s that will once again bring him back to his roots, as Crime Story did 35 years ago. “Everyone knew that there was a Chicago outfit,” he observes. “That they hung out in this particular country club, that there were bookies, that when you were 16 you knew to have a $10 bill behind your driver’s license. Chicago is an extremely well-run city but the whole of the bureaucracy had round heels. You just knew this growing up. I knew who Tony Accardo was when I was 14 years old. He was the quiet guy who was the real boss, who didn’t make any noise, and had excellent taste and never spent a day in jail. And this is a moment in time in 1957 when the Chicago outfit basically constituted four percent of the U.S. gross national product. They were so extensive in their holdings which included everything west of Chicago, five casinos in Vegas, dairies, breweries, you name it.”

And so, as far-flung as Mann’s vision of modern crime has become, and how far afield it takes him, it’s fair to say that he’s always going to be drawn back to revisit Chicago’s venerable crime neighborhood “The Patch,” where it all began.