Michael Mann returns to the thriller genre that
served him so well in Manhunter and Heat with
his latest outing, Collateral. The film might not be as
artistically or thematically successful as his earlier efforts,
but it does provide an entertaining escape from an overabundance
of comic book adaptations and the sweltering summer heat.
Early in the film, Vincent, the film’s cool-eyed contract
killer, sees a group of unwise street thugs steal his briefcase
from a waiting taxi, and in deliberate, almost robotic fashion,
he brutally guns them down in a Los Angeles alleyway as he retrieves
his precious tote. Mann cast superstar Tom Cruise,
clearly the film’s biggest draw, in the role of Vincent, a
hired assassin and killing machine who reminds us throughout the
film that killing people is “what I do for a living.”
He has no remorse, no conscience. Cruise has never played a bad
guy like this. Cast against his usual heroic type, with his salt-and-pepper
hair and steely, unshaved face, Cruise looks like nothing we’ve
ever seen from him before. It’s a little off-putting at first,
but Cruise is so believable in the role that after a while the new
look just seems to fit.
Dressed in an immaculately tailored suit that smells European,
Cruise, who has been hired to kill five people in one night by the
head of a Mexican drug cartel, glides across the screen with an
arrogant elegance as he travels from hit to hit. As the film goes
on, we begin to wonder what Vincent did before he became an assassin
for hire. Was he a CIA operative? A military sniper? Or just a homicidal
sociopath? While we learn a little about Vincent’s family
background, we never fully understand the motivation for his chosen
profession. Max, played with an earnest sweetness by former stand-up
comedian Jamie Foxx, tries several times to uncover
Vincent’s dark secrets, with little success. Max, a 12-year
veteran cab driver, has been hired by Vincent to deliver him to
various “meetings” across the city. After the first
dead body crashes onto Max’s cab while he innocently waits
for his patron, he faces a disturbing moral dilemma. How can he
drive the killer to his next victim? When a pitiful escape attempt
fails, Max is bound to do the awful deed.
Foxx is utterly convincing as a man caught by unfortunate chance,
by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His soft-spoken cabbie,
a man with big dreams and lazy ambition makes a fine everyman hero,
an average guy confronted by terrible circumstance. Gradually, however,
Max abandons his passive guy-next-door attitude and becomes a smart,
aggressive hero. Cruise and Foxx have terrific chemistry together.
The dynamic pairing of these two total opposites bound by one night
of tragedy outlines the film’s most successful element. They
are fun to watch. The film is filled, thankfully, with an excellent,
tension-relieving sense of humor. While Collateral cannot
be classed alongside the superb Harrison Ford-Tommy Lee
Jones thriller The Fugitive, it does provide a
lot of wit-inspired laughter, as that film did so well.
Collateral was shot entirely in Los Angeles. As the most
nuanced directors know how to do, Mann lets the rhythms of the city
seep into our veins. L.A. is as much a character in the film as
Vincent or Max. Perhaps more than any other modern director, Mann
knows Los Angeles. He knows how to portray the urban city ruled
by its isolating, lonely dependence on automobiles. As the hypnotic
lights of the city glow behind Max’s passing taxi, Mann reminds
us that L.A. is a city of contrasting landscapes and lost dreams.
Unfortunately, Mann chose to shoot the film on digital high definition
video, and much of the film looks like a TV show. There is a noticeable
lack of depth in many of the shots, particularly the close-ups.
They have that flat, unattractive look of ’80s television.
While some less critical members of the audience might not notice
this aesthetic breach, for a major Hollywood film with a budget
approaching 9 figures ($60 mil.), the experiment is a disappointment.
Dante Spinotti, Mann’s brilliant cinematographer
of choice on Heat and The Insider, has been replaced
by two cinematographers who are forced to work with technology that
is still inferior to the crisp, cinematic beauty of film. Mann says
he chose the hi-def look because, “film doesn’t record
what our eyes see at night.” While this might be true and
while the landscape shots are at times transfixing, most of the
close-ups and interior shots look like they were taken out of a
bad British TV cop show.
James Newton Howard, one of Hollywood’s
finest composers, provides a rich variety of music through much
of the film, but reaches a ridiculous climax after Max and Vincent
encounter a pair of passing coyotes on an empty L.A. street. The
music cue is oddly inappropriate and completely detracts from the
quiet power of witnessing the fearless wild animals make their way
across an urban landscape. The moment is clearly symbolic, but the
throbbing music dilutes its effect.
Comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s ’70s
classic, Taxi Driver, are inevitable. But Mann doesn’t
come close to achieving the moody dramatic power of Scorsese’s
seminal film. Ultimately, Australian screenwriter Stuart
Beattie’s screenplay just can’t overcome its
predictable ending. His plot is too simplistic, though it does provide
some good suspense. While the performances are terrific all around
and Mann’s gifted direction gives the film a boost, Collateral
is a flawed nail biter that lacks originality and technical superiority.
—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett