Taking Scores: Heat and Grand Theft Auto V

The Cost of a Clean Getaway


"Guy told me one time, don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat, if you feel the heat around the corner. Now, if you're on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?" --Neil McCauley, Heat

Inspired by Grand Theft Auto V, I watched Michael Mann's cinematic crime masterpiece Heat again this week. The game clearly takes inspiration from Heat, nowhere more clearly than in its Blitz Play mission. The mission is closely modeled on the armored car job that opens the film, and one of the conditions for earning a gold rating on the mission is called "cliche." It requires you to outfit the members of your crew in white hockey masks, like the ones worn by Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew in the movie.

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Heat's greatness comes from its gorgeous cinematography and its brilliantly orchestrated action sequences, but it also comes from its characters. McCauley is a criminal who conducts himself according to a certain code, and although he does reprehensible things, his rigor, determination, and confidence make him an appealing character. You might find yourself hoping that he and Eady, the woman he loves, will escape to New Zealand, will be "home free," as his associate Nate puts it, and spend the rest of their days living peaceful, happy lives. But Heat is not content to let you unambiguously root for the bad guy. Al Pacino's Vincent Hanna is the razor-sharp cop who is determined to stop McCauley. Just as pulling scores is in McCauley's blood, stopping men like McCauley is in Hanna's. The two men have a lot in common, and the contrast between the two characters not only makes each individual character more fascinating; it also helps the film maintain its moral center.

As I played through GTAV, I was exhilarated by its three-protagonist structure, and by the gameplay elements that made me feel like the head of a stickup crew.

In recent years, it has become increasingly common for popular media to focus on people who do awful things, not as villains who take second billing to the protagonist, but as central characters. The Shield's Vic Mackey. Deadwood's Al Swearengen. Breaking Bad's Walter White. But in all of these cases, as in Heat, we're provided with a moral alternative to these monsters. On The Shield, Claudette and Dutch were hard-working cops who were above the corruption that Mackey and his fellow strike team members lost themselves in. On Deadwood, Seth Bullock stood in opposition to Swearengen, and on Breaking Bad, the path walked by Walt's dogged DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, difficult and painful as it may ultimately have been, was a far more moral path than the one Walt chose. None of these characters are flawless, shining paragons of virtue. They're all complex and conflicted human beings in their own ways, but they provide a counterpoint to the criminals they share the screen with.

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As I played through GTAV, I was exhilarated by its three-protagonist structure, and by the gameplay elements that made me feel like the head of a stickup crew. In particular, I enjoyed choosing crew members for a job, and knowing that less-experienced people would take a smaller cut, but also might botch things spectacularly. (This has a parallel in Heat; McCauley's crew brings on a man named Waingro for the armored car job, and he turns out to be a psychotic killer who sends things in a very bad direction.)

But because of the ways in which the game called out Heat, I was also acutely aware of how it was missing one crucial thing that makes Heat's narrative work: that moral balance. I started asking myself if Grand Theft Auto's gameplay could even support such a narrative. Could it have worked if, in addition to playing as Michael and his fellow criminals, you sometimes played as a cop who was hot on their heels, putting together the pieces from clues left at the scenes of their various heists? What if you got insight into his or her life, and the ways it was similar to and different from the lives of the criminals he or she was hunting? Perhaps, like Michael, he has a strained relationship with his children, or maybe she has a troubled marriage.

"So then if you spot me coming around that corner, you just gonna walk out on this woman? Not say goodbye?" --Vincent Hanna, Heat

Which brings me to another issue: women. Contrary to what many comments on my review have suggested, it actually doesn't bother me that none of the three playable characters in GTAV is a woman, any more than it bothers me that no member of McCauley's crew in Heat is a woman. (I do hope, though, that the series gives us a female protagonist sooner rather than later. Anyone who thinks that you simply can't create a fascinating female criminal who seems capable of the sort of violence a Grand Theft Auto protagonist needs to be capable of has probably never watched the last few seasons of The Wire, which gave us the chilling and unforgettable character Snoop.)

For all its attempts to grapple with serious issues, Rockstar can't leave behind the juvenile sense of humor that characterized the earlier, more cartoonish games in the series.

But unlike GTAV's women, Heat's women are significant characters who are respected by the narrative. McCauley repeatedly stresses to his crew the importance of being able to walk away from everyone and everything that matters to you in 30 seconds, and much of the dramatic tension in the film comes out of the question this raises in our minds: If Hanna closes in on McCauley, will he walk out on Eady, the woman he loves? Will his associate Chris let his love for his wife, Charlene, lead him into a trap set by the police? And on the other side of the law, Hanna struggles to balance his work with his marriage to Justine (played by the formidable Diane Venora, an actress more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Al Pacino).

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On the other hand, the portrayals of women in GTAV are awful. Even a few interesting supporting female characters could have done wonders for the game, but it's a disaster in this regard. We get a few interactions between Franklin and his ex-girlfriend Tanisha, who knows that Franklin will never leave behind the dangerous, morally questionable life he lives. This relationship had the potential to be poignant, but it's so underdeveloped that it barely registers.

These shortcomings are particularly frustrating because Rockstar's games don't shy away from taking on serious social issues. On the contrary, they tend to have serious thematic concerns. They often deal with the illusiveness of the American dream. (Niko comes to Liberty City with a picture of American prosperity in his head that was created by his cousin Roman, but when he arrives, he finds that the reality is quite different, and early in GTAV, Michael vents to his therapist, "I'm livin' the dream, pal, and that dream is fucked!") Rockstar's games also regularly deal with corruption in systems of power. San Andreas evoked the corruption of the LAPD and the simmering anger among Angelenos that exploded in the Rodney King riots, and through missions involving the FIB and IAA, GTAV raises concerns about the arrogance of American foreign policy and the war on terror. But for all its attempts to grapple with these serious issues, Rockstar can't leave behind the juvenile sense of humor that characterized the earlier, more cartoonish games in the series. It simultaneously expects us to take its themes seriously while putting us in a world in which everything is a childish joke. The stock market is called BAWSAQ. Computer cursors are tiny hands that give you the finger.

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The game recalls The Sopranos in its scenes between Michael and Dr. Friedlander but puts these characters, in whom we're supposed to see some darkly comic humanity, in a South Park-esque world where nothing can be taken seriously. It can't decide if it wants to be an involving crime epic or a cartoon with all the maturity of Family Guy, so it tries to be both, to be whatever you want it to be. But it can't succeed at this, any more than Heat could have succeeded if it were filled with pratfalls and fart jokes.

Maybe Grand Theft Auto could never work if it attempted to approach Heat's tone, but the game invites the comparisons. In looking to Michael Mann as an influence, Rockstar took things like mission structure and sonic texture to heart (the fantastic ambient soundtrack is composed in part by Tangerine Dream, who scored a few of Mann's early films), and Los Santos looks beautiful enough at times to recall the breathtaking cinematography of Mann's Los Angeles films like Heat and Collateral. Rockstar is peerless at creating captivating modern worlds in games. But when those worlds are so internally inconsistent, it's hard to get invested in them and nigh impossible to care about the characters. Instead of rooting for Michael and his gang to be home free in the end, instead of worrying if they'll feel the heat coming around the corner, we're left with shallow spectacle and juvenile mayhem. It's a fun time, but perhaps it could have been so much more.

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