November 25, 2004
Michael Mann, ,
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bruce McGill, Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, Peter Berg, Barry Shabaka Henley, Jessica Ferrarone, Angelo Tiffe, Daniel Lujan, Irma P. Hall, Emilio Rivera, Debi Mazar, ,
After the commercial failure and mixed critical reaction of the vastly underrated Ali (2001), Michael Mann returns to familiar territory—the urban crime thriller—with Collateral (2004). After making three grandiose epics in a row, he shifts gears with this lean, no-nonsense movie that harkens back to early films in his career like, Thief (1981). One has to wonder if the pressure was on Mann to crank out a more audience friendly movie after his last two failed to produce at the box office. It would make sense then that he would cast Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise as one of the main protagonists. If there were any actor on the planet that could guarantee a sure-fire hit at the box office it would be Cruise. However, Mann throws a potential spanner in the works by casting the actor as an amoral hitman. Would this scare off a mainstream audience?
Vincent (Cruise) arrives in Los Angeles with only ten hours to kill five key witnesses in an indictment against a Latin American drug cartel. He hires cab driver Max (Foxx) to drive him around the city over the course of the night, telling him that he’s a salesman. However, after the first victim crashes onto the roof of Max’s cab, the charade is over and Vincent forces the shocked cabby into helping him. As the body count increases, the cops, the FBI and representatives from the cartel come after Vincent and Max who realize that they will have to form an uneasy alliance if they want to stay alive.
Right away, Mann establishes a multi-ethnic Los Angeles that is rarely seen in Hollywood movies. In the first ten minutes alone, several different languages are spoken. Not since Blade Runner (1982) has such an ethnically and economically diverse vision of this city been depicted on film. Mann takes us on a tour of many different neighborhoods, from West Hollywood to Koreatown. In many respects, the city itself is a character and Mann constantly reminds us of this with several establishing overhead shots that show the topography of Los Angeles.
Despite a premise that is steeped in the crime genre, Mann manages to constantly keep things fresh and interesting. Early on in the film Max picks up a beautiful Assistant District Attorney by the name of Annie Farrell (Pinkett-Smith). The dialogue between these two people flows naturally as they talk about their respective jobs. Max tells her about his dream of opening his own limousine service while she tells him about her insecurities with her high-pressure profession. It is an intimate discussion between two lonely souls who have met by chance.
The pacing of Collateral is perfect. Mann knows how to expertly ratchet up the tension, like when two cops pull over Max’s cab (because of the damage incurred from the first victim) and Vincent threatens to kill them unless Max can get rid of them. The suspense increases until it is almost unbearable and then relief comes flooding in once the encounter is resolved. Mann constantly keeps the audience on their toes by segueing from short, intense action sequences to quiet interludes that shed light on Vincent and Max’s characters.
Tom Cruise is excellent as the all-business contract killer, Vincent. Like many of Mann’s protagonists, he is a man is a consummate professional with an economical use of words. He portrays Vincent as a cold-hearted killer who has no problem justifying what he does—after all it is part of the job—nothing more, nothing less. Cruise treads a fine line between menace and slick charm. Every so often he hints at something else going on behind Vincent’s eyes—a whole inner life that we only catch a glimpse of. This is something he has done to a limited degree in Interview with a Vampire (1994) and Magnolia (1999) but not quite with the same intensity or in such detail as with this role.
The risk with casting someone like Cruise is that he carries a lot of baggage with him. His face and voice are so recognizable that it is hard for him to disappear into a role. It doesn’t take him long to shed his megastar persona and become Vincent in Collateral. By the time he kills two thugs trying to rob Max with ruthless efficiency, there is no question that Cruise has become this character.
Jamie Foxx provides the humanistic counterbalance to Cruise’s amoral existentialist. Max cares what about what happens to the people Vincent kills and is horrified by his actions. Known more as a comedian, Foxx has shown in recent years, with Any Given Sunday (1999) and Ali, that he has the capacity for dramatic roles. His performance in Collateral is his most natural. He abandons all of his usual shtick and creates a full-realized character. Max is no tired cabby cliché as illustrated in a scene where he and Vincent visit his mother in the hospital. Max is a man of inaction and it is the presence of Vincent who acts as a catalyst that transforms him into a proactive character. He is obviously the audience surrogate but Mann does not hit the audience over the head with this fact.
The film’s most impressive action set piece is a memorably choreographed shoot-out at a night club as Vincent demonstrates just how efficient a killing machine he really is, shooting, knifing and breaking bones of anyone who gets in the way of his intended target. Mann amplifies every deafening gunshot and every snap of bone for jarring, realistic effect. It is a fantastically orchestrated chaos on par with Mann’s other great action sequence, the famous bank heist sequence in Heat (1995).
Over 80% of Collateral was shot utilizing a state-of-the-art digital camera. The look of Collateral should be familiar to anyone who saw Mann’s short-lived television series, Robbery Homicide Division, which was also shot on digital video. As L.A. Takedown (1989) was a dry run stylistically for Heat (1995), so too was RHD for Collateral. With this new camera, Mann is able to bring out all kinds of depth and colour during night-time scenes that wasn’t possible before. He has made one of the best-looking films shot digitally in recent memory.
Collateral is top notch genre film with Michael Mann’s distinctive stylistic and thematic pre-occupations. He has succeeded in taking an unusual pairing, that of Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, and created a memorable drama between two very different men who are brought into conflict over the course of one life-altering night. Mann proves, yet again, that he is the undisputed master of the urban crime film with this smart, exciting and engaging thriller.