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Now and Then – The Dark Knight and Heat

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      Now: The Dark Knight (2008)
         Then: Heat (1995)
 
Crimefighters and Criminals
 
        Cops and Crooks

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is being praised as a bold and bruising re-invention of the comic book movie. Critics are comparing it to classics like The Empire Strikes Back , The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and to a movie Nolan openly credits as a huge inspiration for The Dark Knight: Michael Mann’s 1995 cops-versus-crooks epic, Heat . Just looking at the bruise-blue posters for both films, you can see a certain resemblance, but the similarities are a lot richer, and deeper, than a simple matter of tone and color.

1. Daylight Robbery
The Dark Knight and Heat both start with bold crimes backed by competent crooks. In The Dark Knight, The Joker (Heath Ledger) and his crew take down a mob-backed bank; in Heat, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his gang knock over an armored car to steal bearer bonds. (In a nice nod, William Fichtner plays the bank’s manager in The Dark Knight — and he plays the owner of the bearer bonds in Heat.) The robberies in both films are slam-bang action sequences, sure, but they’re also carefully crafted to introduce the bad guys as scary-smart professionals with diabolical plans and the will to execute them.

2. Urban Renewal
Both The Dark Knight and Heat take place in big, bad cities — Gotham and Los Angeles. And in each, the city’s a character; we go from the slums to the penthouses, the jail cells to the skyscrapers. Nolan shot a lot of The Dark Knight in Chicago, and you get a great sense of Gotham as a real place, just as Heat captures the sprawl and sweep of L.A. Both films also rely extensively on real locations — not sets — and that gritty, granular sense of reality is a big part of why both films work so well.

3. Action and Anticipation
In both The Dark Knight and Heat, the story’s set up as a head-to-head showdown between two fairly matched opponents. The Dark Knight sets Ledger’s Joker against Christian Bale’s Batman; in Heat, De Niro’s professional criminal Neil McCauley faces Pacino’s driven detective Vincent Hannah. While the conflict is set up from the get-go, it’s interesting to note that both films delay having their antagonists actually talk until late in the game. It’s a fairly old gimmick, but it works like a charm: Delaying the face-off between two characters who’ve been circling each other for the whole film means we’re even hungrier for it when it does go down.

4. Two Sides of the Same Coin
The Dark Knight pits The Joker against Batman; Heat pits super-crook McCaulay against super-cop Hannah. And in both films, we’re constantly reminded of the differences — and the similarities — between the two. The Joker tells Batman “They think you’re a freak … like me!” In Heat, Hannah commiserates with McCauley: “I don’t know how to do anything else … I don’t much want to, either.” McCauley agrees with him… and still tells Hannah he’ll kill him if need be: “… you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.” In the end, both films benefit by giving their complicated heroes competent opponents; isn’t a hard-fought struggle more fun to watch than a one-sided blowout?

The Verdict
There are also difference between the two films, and they matter; The Dark Knight brings a third force into its showdown between Batman and The Joker, while Heat paints a sprawling picture through the brilliant use of a huge supporting cast. But the biggest similarity between The Dark Knight and Heat isn’t in the plot, the look or in the feel, but in the ambitions of both films. Nolan and Mann revitalized and reinvigorated easily-dismissed genres through fierce passion and hard work. The Dark Knight‘s a fantastic action film with real conflict and drama; Heat‘s a real-world crime story with mythic struggles and incredible action. If you did pit the one film against the other, I think the guaranteed winner would be… the audience.

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