‘Heat 2,’ a note-perfect book sequel to one of the greatest heist films of all time
Heat 2 is a novel that is both sequel and prequel to the movie Heat, written and directed by Michael Mann, widely considered one of the greatest heist films of all time. That’s a job at least as big as the high-powered scores taken down by the crew of thieves in the original. The book picks up the story of characters last seen in 1995, which was a whole other century. iPhones hadn’t even been invented yet.
But Mann and his co-author, the accomplished thriller writer Meg Gardiner, pull it off with the same clocktick precision and style of the screen version. It’s a brilliant ride from start to finish, and the 480 pages fly by.
The novel begins where the film ended, a few hours after LAPD Detective Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino in the movie) kills Neil McCauley (played by Robert DeNiro), the leader of the thieves who turned an L.A. city street into a war zone when Hanna interrupted their bank robbery.
Hanna chases Chris Shiherlis (played by Val Kilmer), Neil’s partner and the sole survivor of the crew, across LA. Chris is wounded and barely able to stand, but makes a run for the Mexico border, leaving his wife Charlene and their child behind.
It’s not spoiling too much to say he gets away, and that he’ll be back.
The book then jumps back in time to 1988, when Hanna had a previously unmentioned career on the Chicago police force at the same time that Neil and Chris were in town for a big job.
The real dilemma of Heat 2 is that you want to root for both the cops and the robbers. The authors have a solution, of course. Neil and Chris are not good guys by any means—they murder and steal and terrorize innocent people—but as in the movie, there are worse guys out there, and they fill the role of villains.
While Neil’s crew is pulling its scores in Chicago, Hanna chases a home-invasion crew led by Otis Wardell, a rapist and murderer. Wardell kills wealthy families in the city’s Gold Coast neighborhood to get back at an abusive mother, and also because he really enjoys that sort of thing. While evading Hanna, Wardell learns about Neil’s crew, and decides he wants a cut of their action.
The authors draw all these threads together until they hum with tension. And then, when the story in Chicago reaches a breaking point, they fling you forward in time again, to Chris and his new career as bodyguard for the Lius, a Taiwanese family of black-market entrepreneurs in Ciudad del Este, a free-trade zone in Paraguay where crime is just business by other means. Chris works his way into the family’s trust, and into the arms of the family’s brilliant daughter Ana.
And then the story shifts back to the past again, when Neil and Chris and the crew are plotting to take down a drug cartel cash house in Mexico, unaware that Wardell is right behind them.
All of these disparate plots are intense and thrilling enough to keep the reader glued to the page, even as we’re knocked around in time. As in the movie, part of the fun is seeing how the story continues, how the complications pile up and the characters manage to escape by the narrowest of margins.
But we also go deep into the motivations and biographies of the characters. The movie conveyed a lot of unspoken history through the performances of its actors and the style of its direction—Neil and Chris’ loyalty to one another, Chris’ search for the perfect rush, Hanna’s relentless need to win—without exposition or explanation.
The novel brings all that backstory to the surface. It adds more to the mystique even while it reveals the characters’ pasts.
Again, these are not good people. Hanna is a barely functional human being outside of work, racking up divorces and disappointed women like he’s earning airline miles for them. Neil and Chris are vicious predators to anyone outside their protected circle, even if they’re not rabid animals like Wardell. You would not want to hang out with any of them in real life for longer than it takes to finish a beer.
But in the world of the novel, you can spend all day in their company. You care about what happens to them. You want them to succeed, and you worry about them, despite everything. That’s hard, but the authors make it look easy.
The style and cadence of the writing calls to mind James Ellroy or the Cartel trilogy of Don Winslow: fragmented sentences and indelible images, peppered with perfectly timed observations, settings rendered vividly with one or two lines. In between the explosive action scenes, there are surprisingly complete tutorials on theft, transnational crime, and money laundering.
If there’s a letdown, it comes at the end, mainly because it seems like the story could easily go on for another hundred pages. Like the characters say, over and over, it is hard to let go of the action, even when you know it’s the smart move. But at least there’s plenty left for a sequel.