There’s something fundamentally strange about Heat 2. It’s a sequel, as the name suggests, to writer-director Michael Mann’s 1995 classic cops-and-robbers movie Heat. But it’s a novel.
And let’s face it, novelizations, the products of media corporations looking to open up more avenues to exploit their product, are notoriously bad. They are one rung above Mills & Boon in the publishing/literary hierarchy, virtually glossier versions of fan fiction.
Review: Heat 2 – Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner (HarperCollins)
The strangeness of Heat 2 is perhaps best summed up by the combination of the names of the actors with the mentions of the characters in the book’s blurb, even though there are no actors in a novel. We are reading a literary sequel to a movie. this is rare
But let’s be clear: Heat 2, written by Mann and crime novelist Meg Gardiner, is not a novelization. It is a rich and closely plotted original work set in the world of the film’s story.
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Electric and ethereal brutality
Like Heat, the novel’s narrative unfolds in the labyrinthine spaces of post-industrial global capitalism: in the cracks and detritus of modernity, in non-places.
This is a world where high-tech consumer products meet covert military weapons on the market. Where shopping malls proliferate like airports, with private armies, and where the Internet is just one part of a logistics infrastructure that always greases the wheels of capitalism.
Legal or illegal, it doesn’t matter, suggests the novel. Only the players change. They seek investments and profits wherever they come from, supported by security systems and communications and information flows. Mann and Gardiner are clearly in awe of the ethereal, electric brutality of this thing, this so-called “free trade” hyper-object.
We follow protagonist Chris Shiherlis (played by Val Kilmer in the film) after his escape from Los Angeles the day after the film ends. Tucked away in the “day rush dream” of “Criminal Disneyland”, Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s free zone city, Chris transforms into a different kind of criminal.
His activities range from the paramilitary-style heists of Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro in the film) and his crew to a dark web-savvy, high-tech global trade guy firmly outside “the combat zones of the cities”. America.” Partnered with local businesswoman Ana Liu, he works to develop and expand his trade in illegal strategic systems.
Many of the characters from the film recur here, and the actors can virtually be credited for much of the writing. Robbery-homicide detective Vincent Hanna, for example, was memorably embodied in Al Pacino’s film. In Heat 2, Hanna it is Pacino, and we can hear Pacino’s intonation and delivery in every dialogue.
If anything, Hanna from Heat 2 is even more deranged than the movie version, living in an amphetamine-fueled electrical haze, knocking people off rooftops and yelling at suspects in classic Pacino fashion.
Ironic humor and global action
The immersive and detailed world of the film (Mann shot Heat on 95 Los Angeles locations, fully embracing neon Los Angeles in all its sprawling glory) is recreated in the novel. But his criminal underworld of stoics and sadists is offset in places by wry humor. In this age of sequels and remakes, of relentless merchandising of cinematic universes, there is some humor even in the banal simplicity of the title: Heat 2.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the novel is its seamless plot of multiple stories. The narrative spans the globe from 1988 to 2000, crossing North and South America, Singapore, and Indonesia.
The action proper begins in Chicago in 1988, where Mann launched his film career with the masterpiece, Thief, following McCauley and the team in parallel with Hanna, as he searches for the novel’s main antagonist: Otis Wardell, a home invader. , rapist and every bad guy. We follow the organization and execution of a daring cartel heist south of the border, then follow Shiherlis as he builds a life for himself in a new, non-American world.
But it all comes back to Los Angeles: for Mann, one suspects, always does. The story culminates in the year 2000 in Los Angeles, and it all comes together in a splendidly operatic way. It’s a dazzling action crescendo backed by a narrative architecture that’s simple, yet immensely satisfying.
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Why a novel?
So the big question: why a novel and not a movie? There may be financial reasons for this: It’s difficult and expensive to make a movie, even for someone as tried and true as Mann, but the limitations are built into the material itself.
It would have been a farce to entrust these roles to other actors following the canonical status of Heat. And how could you make a movie about characters set several years earlier using the same actors? It probably could have been done with some makeup a couple of years after the release of Heat, but by 2022? Forget it. And using CGI to make actors look younger never quite works.
The most important medium-specific aspect of any narrative is, of course, its style. Style is what turns the presentation of information into art: the expressive dimension of a work fundamental to its aesthetic qualities.
There have been some exceptionally written and stylistically idiosyncratic popular novels that have been perfectly translated into film. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon is a great example, made by Mann as Manhunter in 1986. Harris’s neon-lit, pop prose fits effortlessly into Mann’s high modernist aesthetic, so reading the novel and watching the movie become eerily similar experiences.
Something similar is at play in Heat 2. The Mann/Gardiner style perfectly translates the Heat style into a radically different medium. This is no small thing.
We read prose that weaves vivid, accurate description with expressionistic, existential passages. We are amazed, as in the film, by the crudely drawn genre characters, by the melancholy and romantic images of solitary figures struggling to survive in a sparkling but meaningless universe of complex and overlapping forces.
In the novel, as in the film, the sunsets “burn nuclear red”, the nights are “crystal clear, moonlit, the stars cast like careless diamonds”, and Hanna describes herself thus:
Chasing a sequence of unknowns to its origins in dark and wild places or the concrete anonymity of the urban landscape, that action is what made it go.
But the color never obscures the clarity of the narrative or takes away from it.
At the same time, Mann/Gardiner does things in the novel that just wouldn’t work on film. Character backstories are presented in the novel as memories, bits of information, in a way that would seem overly expository in a movie. It works, for example, when we learn in the novel that McCauley read Camus in Folsom prison. But this detail would be pretentious and annoying in a movie.
Mann has always been an author interested in what it means to be American. He studied in London and has approached the question throughout his career with an internationalist sensibility in multiple films and genres, from his kinetic adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans (by the godfather of American action novels, James Fenimore Cooper), to the film biography of American boxing icon Muhammad Ali.
This continues in Heat 2, with the literary medium giving him more opportunities to explicitly think and theorize about this Americanness.
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How good is it?
Would he be lonely as a novel outside of his relationship with Heat? Possibly not. But then, it’s probably not meant to be: it’s called Heat 2, after all.
And the most boring part, the only boring part, is the prologue, a six-page summary of the movie’s plot that reads like a colorless synopsis. I guess it has to be here for people who haven’t seen the movie, but why would they be reading Heat 2?
Is this as good a novel as Heat is a movie? Probably not. Heat regularly appears on critics’ top 50 lists and enjoys enduring popularity. Heat 2 is excellent, written in lightning prose with flashes of brilliance, but it probably wouldn’t make anyone’s top 50 list.
That said, its near-perfect continuation of the world of its predecessor’s story makes reading it an incredibly pleasurable experience. And many of the touches that define Mann as an auteur – a hyper-realistic sense of place, an interest in the brutality and efficiency of global capitalism, a sense of character through superficial detail – are present in Heat 2.
And it’s written more effectively than most mass-market crime novels, with crisp action combined with vivid description in detail, understated in execution.
Indeed, from the frenetic opening to the brilliantly ironic final line, Heat 2 is a superb novel. I highly recommend watching, I mean reading it today!