Man, they’re so close. They’re just about to pull off the heist of a lifetime, almost in the clear, when the cops get there.
This is easily, to my mind, the greatest shootout ever depicted on film – and for that matter, what am I doing using a diminutive word like “shootout”? Shootout? This is a firefight, it’s Black Hawk Down transposed onto a busy city street, with the same havoc, confusion, collateral damage, and casualties of a savage military battle. It feels real.
One of my pet gripes for many years now concerns the way that Hollywood usually depicts gun violence. Don’t get me wrong, this is no manifesto against using violence in drama, violence has its place, it’s part of life and often an essential part of compelling storytelling, just ask Shakespeare. My beef is that TV and movies are always making it look like sidearms are fairly innocuous in their effects, and worse, that rifles of terrifying power can be used without really doing all that much damage. Automatic weapons fire is sprayed all over the place, and nobody gets hit. People take shelter behind car doors, refrigerator doors, flimsy up-turned wooden tables, and are thus made safe from the bullets that whiz all around them. If anybody does get hit, heck, they’re OK, it’s just in the shoulder or the leg, and after a few moans and winces they’re up again, still able to function and back in the fight.
Now and then, usually after seeing some ludicrous exchange of ineffective gunfire in some show the previous night, I’d ask somebody in the office, my assistant, say, or a student, how fast they thought a bullet fired from an assault rifle would actually be travelling. It’s not that none of them knew the right answer – why should they have any accurate knowledge about a thing like that? – it’s that none of them had even the merest intuitive sense of it. Their under-estimates were astonishing: maybe a couple of hundred miles per hour? Maybe a hundred? One person guessed ninety miles an hour – ninety.
That’s the speed of a major league fastball. A mere human arm can hurl a projectile faster than 90 miles per hour.
Nearly everyone was inclined to think I was bullshitting them when I’d respond that no, a bullet leaves a common civilian-owned assault weapon like an AR-15 at a muzzle velocity of something approaching 3,200 feet per second, maybe a little more, supposing a standard 20-inch barrel. That’s closing in on 2,200 miles per hour, about Mach 3 at sea level. A round spun out of a rifled barrel at that velocity flies true, and hits with enormous kinetic energy. Even if you’re wearing Kevlar, on impact it will hurt like almighty Hell, like you were just hit with a nine-pound sledge hammer, and it’ll knock you flat on your ass, maybe crack your ribs.
So no, a car door or a kitchen table won’t stop it. Depending on the type, a cinder block won’t stop it. Slam your front door in the face of a guy armed with an assault rifle, and he’ll simply blast you out of your slippers straight through the flimsy wood. Take a round to the shoulder, and it probably shatters your collar bone on the way in, and leaves a big nasty hole in your shoulder blade on the way out, so no, you aren’t getting back up and rejoining the fray, you’re lying there in unbearable agony, bleeding out, with that whole side of your body ruined for life, supposing you live. It only hit you in the leg? Yeah, well, at a minimum it just tore out fist-sized chunk of flesh, and if you’re lucky it didn’t shatter your thigh bone or sever the femoral artery, an injury you’ll survive only if there’s a combat medic handy with the presence of mind to tie it off immediately with a tourniquet.
Look, kids: a modern firearm like an AR-15 or AK-47 is horrifyingly accurate, and sickeningly damaging. In the right hands, or even an amateur’s hands, one can be used by a single shooter to kill dozens wholesale – we saw that in Orlando. We saw that at Sandy Hook. In Viet Nam, soldiers were shot despite hiding behind tree trunks. If you’ve ever seen the film of the ATF storming the compound of the Branch Davidians at Waco, you may have registered that federal agents were being gunned down from the inside by bullets ripping right through the exterior walls.
People need to understand this, far better than they obviously do, and it might help if Hollywood showed them the destructive power that military-grade weapons actually possess. Maybe then they wouldn’t think that owning one for “home defence” was no big deal. Maybe they’d shrink from the possibility that if they ever fired one, and missed the intended target, the bullet might sail another 200 yards and blow some grandmother’s brains out as she sat watching America’s Got Talent. Maybe they’d develop some thoroughly rational fear of these devastating infantry weapons, and question why anybody actually had any need, or right, to have such a thing in the living room.
Maybe I’m dreaming my little dreamy liberal dreams, as I’m wont to do, but I’d love to run the educational experiment, and one reason I’m so enamoured of the firefight in Heat is that director Michael Mann, for once, pulled no punches. The bank heist scene and its aftermath, masterfully shot, indeed demonstrates just what an assault rifle will do.
It all starts with Robert De Niro’s crew infiltrating the lobby of a big, posh-looking bank branch. These guys are no rank amateurs, and this is no witless smash and grab. They’re efficient, organized, and ruthless, violent, but no more violent than they have to be. We want to hurt no one, De Niro yells at the supine civilians. We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Your money is insured by the Federal Government. You aren’t going to lose a dime. By this point in the film, the viewer knows that if you put their backs to the wall, every member of this crew will drill hot lead into anything that walks or crawls, and this adds to the inherent tension. No quarter will be given or accepted, it comes to that, but such is plainly nobody’s wish. They don’t want it to go that way. Sitting there watching, you don’t want it to go that way. Maybe this will go according to plan? Please, God, this goes according to plan.
A pulsing, rhythmic piece of music by Brian Eno, titled Force Marker, does its bit to heighten the suspense.
The crew executes its mission with flawless precision. They’ve got no time for tills and tellers, no time for safe deposit boxes, they go straight for the vault, and are exiting the bank with enormous duffel bags full of currency, making for the getaway car, when Al Pacino’s team of cops arrives.
Each contingent is about as well armed as a Company of the 1st Marines. As soon as he spots the cops, Val Kilmer, on De Niro’s crew, starts laying down a hail of suppressing fire. The first of Pacino’s men to go down, a character we’ve come to know at this point, is dropped in his tracks within seconds, despite his Kevlar vest. Bad luck. He caught one in his exposed throat. Guns are blazing every which way. As the battle grows in intensity, it begins to look like nobody is going to get out of it alive; the getaway car is halted when the driver is killed, cops start dropping like flies as the running firefight, now prosecuted on foot, gets ever more desperate, and Kilmer et. al. are emptying clips at a furious rate. A phalanx of cop cars is shredded, the bullets tearing straight through them, and crouching street cops in uniform are soaking up rounds right, left, and centre, despite the meagre protection afforded by their vehicles. A nice touch: the exchange of fire mimics what those of us who’ve watched real life firefights on the Military Channel have witnessed many times. The bad guys are firing on full auto, hosing the whole area, not quite in an undisciplined way, but obviously indifferent to whoever might be caught in the crossfire. The good guys, Pacino and his men, are firing in semi-auto, squeezing off single, carefully-aimed shots. Nobody who dreads missing the proper target uses full auto. The kick-back spoils your aim.
The sound in this scene is amazing, and I’ve read that Mann decided to ditch the results of the usual Foley work, and stick with the audio they recorded live, the echoing booms of the gunfire in the concrete canyon sounding far more effective.
Both sides are bloodied terribly in this firefight. Characters that you’ve probably come to like and root for, cops and robbers alike, are mowed down as if they never mattered. The sense of loss is almost overwhelming. This guy is dead. That guy is dead. They’re not coming back. Their story arcs are finished. All around is devastation.
That’s what assault weapons can do.
Note: since I wrote this, this article appeared in the NY Times in wake of the Virginia attack on congressmen: