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Taking down the story behind Heat

"Taking down the story behind Heat" – the article.
See photos comparing L.A. Takedown and Heat.
Even more differences between L.A. Takedown and Heat.

By Bert Ehrmann
1995 was an “interesting” year at the movies. Actress Mira Sorvino won an Academy Award for Mighty Aphrodite (remember that one?) while Mr. Fire Birds himself Nicolas Cage picked one up for Leaving Las Vegas. 1995 was also the year the modern day masterpiece Heat premiered.

But who knew that a “Major Motion Picture” like Heat had its roots as a proposed television series in 1989 entitled L.A. Takedown?

Heat takes place in a neon lit Los Angeles where detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) tracks criminal mastermind Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew after they rob an armored car and kill the drivers. McCauley is a professional thief who weighs risk versus reward, preferring to takedown very large scores with a willingness to “just walk away” if things don’t look right.

Polar opposite career wise is Hanna; a Robbery Homicide detective used to taking on the worst the city has to throw at him and yet finding a begrudging respect for criminal McCauley. The two are more alike than they’d like to admit and under different circumstances could conceivably find themselves as friends.

The genesis of Heat began in the late 1980s when NBC commissioned a series from writer/director Michael Mann just as their perennial hit Miami Vice, which Mann produced, was coming to an end. The series they commissioned, L.A. Takedown, was essentially the story of Heat, scaled back for smaller budgets and a shorter run-time.

In the pilot episode of L.A. Takedown, detective Hanna (Scott Plank) tracks criminal Patrick McLaren (Alex MacArthur) after the violent armored car robbery in Los Angeles just like in Heat. Co-starring with Plank and MacArthur were a bunch of also little-known actors – the most well known being “Alec’s brother” Daniel Baldwin.

Worst yet for L.A. Takedown, these “B” and “C” list actors would have been working on a much smaller production budget when compared to the (reported) $60 million that went into Heat. Whereas Heat has an almost “epic” feel, L.A. Takedown feels very much like a TV movie-of-the-week.

Another problem with L.A. Takedown are the missing sub-plots. Here, the focus is squarely Hanna and McLaren; everyone else is a distant second. On the other hand, Heat has extremely good characterizations. Characters like Chris and Charlene Shiherlis (Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd respectively) are just as important as the Hanna/McCauley dynamic in Heat. And though the character of Chris appears in L.A. Takedown, he’s relegated to spouting a few lines before being shot during the bank fire-fight.

Still, even in the condensed version of L.A. Takedown, some greatness does show through. The character of Hanna is interesting and sometimes the overall ambiance of Los Angeles manages to burn through the low production values. It’s almost as if Mann took what worked in L.A. Takedown and greatly expanded on it to create Heat.

But it wasn’t meant to be and ultimately L.A. Takedown was never picked-up as a series. Instead, that fall of 1989 NBC went with series like Baywatch, Quantum Leap, Hardball and Mancuso, FBI.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If L.A. Takedown would have been picked up, I can’t imagine Heat would have ever been made.

The pilot episode of L.A. Takedown did (apparently) air on NBC in 1989 as a movie-of-the-week. As of today, L.A. Takedown is only available here in the U.S. as an import DVD from Great Britain.

L.A. Takedown wasn’t Mann’s only attempt at a TV series after the success of Miami Vice 1984. Mann would go onto produce the series Crime Story in 1986 and would create yet another series set in Los Angeles entitled Robbery Homicide Division on CBS in 2002. Crime Story lasted two seasons while Robbery Homicide Division was canceled after just 13 episodes.

Currently, Heat/L.A. Takedown creator Mann is directing a big screen adaptation of Miami Vice, due in theaters July 28 and starring Colin Farell and Jamie Foxx.