When it comes to crime films, both domestically and abroad, there have been plenty of top notch films scattered throughout the last three decades. The Long Good Friday, A Better Tomorrow, Infernal Affairs, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, Thief and plenty others have dotted the landscape. Most recently The Departed won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and plenty others have been nominated as well. The genre is rich in quality films from both sides, so picking one film from each side is difficult.
And I admit, it’s easily my favorite genre of film to view. I grew up on watching crime thrillers like Scarface, et al, and I know it’s tough to narrow the field down for this feature. I decided to pick two very good films against each other. Michael Mann’s classic HEAT will go against a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake.
Director: Michael Mann
Notable Cast Members: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Danny Trejo
Synopsis: Neil McCauley (De Niro) and his crew are one of the most prolific crime teams in L.A. When a daring armored car heist ends with a high body count, Vince Hanna (Al Pacino) of the L.A.P.D’s Robbery/Homicide division is assigned to solve the crime and bring about McCauley’s capture. McCauley does not want to go back and is determined to either walk away from everything and retire or die trying.
Featuring one of the best casts of the 1990s, HEAT is a cat and mouse game between the detective and the criminal. Presenting both their personal and professional lives, HEAT follows both sides until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. Featuring the first scene in which the two greatest actors of the last 50 years get to play off one another, HEAT is Michael Mann’s epic masterpiece.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Notable Cast Members: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon
Synopsis: XXXX (Daniel Craig) is a medium level drug dealer looking to make one last big deal before he exits the business for good. Assigned by his boss to track down the daughter of a friend, XXXX finds a web of deceit and betrayal lined up for him.
Head to Head Comparison :
On first glance, this isn’t a fair matchup based on the names on the marquee alone. Daniel Craig may be the new Bond, Colm Meaney may have carved out a career in niche supporting roles and Miller may be the actress who seems poised to become the next big star, but the sheer star value alone of HEAT is hard to beat. When you combine the two best actors of the last 40 years in Pacino and De Niro, another one of the top actors from that same generation in Voight and some of the better character actors in Trejo and Sizemore plus the enigmatic Kilmer and you have the potential for one of the stellar casts of its era.
When evaluating everything on an even playing field, though, the comparison gets much more even. Pacino and De Niro are well past their primes and HEAT was the last great performance from either of them. Voight is in a supporting role and isn’t on the screen long enough to make a huge impact, and the combination of Kilmer & Sizemore as De Niro’s running mates makes for an interesting combination. It’s more of a great script leading to a great movie as opposed to being a performance-driven piece. This is a cast filled with plenty of good, but not great, performances from veteran hands.
Layer Cake, on the other hand, has Daniel Craig in a career-making performance that would help him earn the prime spot in Casino Royale as well as Sienna Miller in a role in which she just oozes sex appeal. The film relies much more on Craig to carry the proceedings and he does it brilliantly. While no one else really stands out, this hurts the film in that it forces Craig to try and turn the film into a brilliant epic on his own for large portions. Meaney is quite game for his role as well, helping take off the typecasting he received from his roles in two Star Trek television shows.
While it would be easy to give the edge to HEAT based on talent alone, it has to go to Layer Cake. Why? Because it has Craig at the top of his game, as opposed to a higher profile cast in good but not spectacular performances. Most of the cast of HEAT had their peak performances elsewhere, as this film deserves mention but isn’t the first three or four films one thinks of for performances from Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, whereas Layer Cake has a riveting performance by its lead and several top notch ones from its supporting crew.
Both films have similar themes of men trying to leave the crime world and not succeeding in the end. The key is how they get there. HEAT is more of a traditional cat and mouse game between Pacino and De Niro whereas Layer Cake is less cat and more mouse. The former is more about the chase whereas the latter focuses more on the character. It makes an interesting dynamic when comparing the two, but in the end HEAT takes the slight edge. It’s more epic in nature and is a much more complex story, whereas Layer Cake is much skinnier in its depth. At the end of the film, we have a much deeper understanding of the characters and the story in HEAT than we do from Layer Cake. Edge to HEAT.
Both films are inspired by other sources. Mann penned L.A Takedown for television and then expanded it for the film version while Layer Cake was based off a book of the same name. So neither can be classified as inherently original, as both have prior source material to play with, but it does give them fertile material to work with. And neither tackle subject matter that hasn’t been done elsewhere, as well, so to say that both films aren’t derivative from other films is false. Both owe a lot to films from the past, as there isn’t much to the crime genre that hasn’t been done. And everything in the films comes from other films, but it’s how they do them that matters in this case.
And both take a lot of the conventions from their continent’s view of the genre. Layer Cake has a lot of voiceovers, as well as several key flashbacks, and follows the protagonist for the most part. It’s a mainly one sided affair that is symbolic of the British version of the crime film. HEAT goes back and forth from both sides of the fence in telling its story and is a very American way of doing a crime film that has since been done just as well in other films, most notably The Departed.
The main difference in the two, and why the edge goes to HEAT, is that its strength lies from how it uses the formula and not the formula itself. Layer Cake is a terrific film, don’t kid yourself, but its strength comes from how effectively it uses the formula. HEAT has the formula aspect to it, but its strength lies in how it refines it and develops it.
Layer Cake, if only because it’s hard to vote against a film that uses one of the great rock songs of our time.
Genre Moment :
Every crime film has the moment in which either the protagonist or the antagonist, or both, dies in a hail of gunfire. It’s a standard of the genre for a major character to meet their end by violent means in the end, as no criminal retires to the lap of luxury built on their ill-begotten gains. Tommy dies in Goodfellas, Montoya is shot to death in Miami Vice, Costello meets the same fate in The Departed as do plenty of other notorious icons of cinema both foreign and domestic. And going into HEAT and Layer Cake, there’s the assumption that it isn’t going to end pleasantly.
Neil and XXXX are both going to die. Both don’t plan on it, as they have their plans on leaving the crime world for some sort of retirement, but no one in a crime lives happily ever after. Even those who survive the proceedings rarely have a happily ever after, it seems, so when it comes to the grand finale a crime film can either fall apart or have some sort of closure. Layer Cake has the edge in this discussion, because of its conclusion to the matters at hand
XXXX is shot in the closing moments, left to die in the arms of his woman from a minor character completely forgotten about. Neil’s death in a shootout with Vincent Hanna is the stuff westerns are made of, and is perhaps more enjoyable, but it’s heroic and Neil goes out in a hail of gunfire. XXXX dies in the same sudden way he came into his existence in the crime world, and somehow is more suiting.
Long Term Effect :
While the only long term effect from Layer Cake has been to secure the position of the world’s foremost secret agent to Daniel Craig, HEAT has had a bit of a legacy since it’s uninspiring run in theatres. It’s perhaps best known for being the last great dramatic performances of both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, as well as their only film appearing together at the same time. HEAT is an epic crime film that has acquired an audience on DVD/VHS release much bigger than the one it had in theatres. Layer Cake has had the same experience to a smaller degree, being more of a curiosity for fans of the genre and for those who loved Casino Royale. HEAT even received a loaded Two Disc Special Edition DVD over two years ago.
HEAT has endured and aged gracefully, while Layer Cake will probably end up continuing to be the footnote on Craig’s career that being one of the best to play James Bond will likely leave it at that point. Edge to HEAT.
Layer Cake is a fun movie to watch that one can motor through relatively quickly with its breezy running time of slightly over 90 minutes. HEAT is an epic crime film that runs nearly three hours, meaning you can almost watch Layer Cake twice before finishing up Mann’s classic the first time around. However, the British wave of crime films has come and went and none have stuck in the imagination. Even the one that began the invasion, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, didn’t leave much of an impact on the scene. HEAT was referenced in a Dane Cook joke, amongst other things, and remains a film by which other crime thrillers are judged. Layer Cake is a breezy film, one you can sit down to watch when doing something else and not miss much. HEAT is absorbing to the point where you sit and watch. That’s the sign of a film being truly entertaining and thus the edge goes to HEAT.
The Winner: With a slim 4-3 victory, HEAT wins this round of Foreign or Domestic.