are some directors who can make just one classic outsider
film and be hallowed in our ranks forever despite their subsequent
forays into safer, more mainstream waters. Michael Mann is
a rare exception. He manages to stay commercial within the
outsider realm, which means that he delivers consistently
rewarding movies as well as visceral ones that find a bigger
audience. You don't just have the Tooth Fairy in Manhunter act out horrific fantasies. You, as the audience, have to
be made, at least in part, to understand the character's motivations
(to a degree, I mean the monstrous Francis Dollarhyde was
a loon). He slaughters whole families in their beds, props
them up, pushes mirrors into their lifeless eyes and masturbates
in front of his captive audience. If that's the case how come
we care so much about the bastard and his gentle affair with
the blind lab assistant, Reba? That's Mann in a nutshell;
balls-out commercial and heart-in caritas. We care. And as
far as Collateral goes, we like too. And
no noticeable CGI, hurrah!
plot is Hollywood high concept-straightforward. Career stagnant
dreamer cabbie, Max (an excellent and charismatic Jamie Foxx)
is hired for a night by nihilist assassin Vincent (a fine
performance from our Thomas) whose job it is to kill five
people to stop a crime boss big cheese from going to jail.
Max, understandably, is not thrilled with his new job and
as far as he is able, he attempts to thwart Vincent and stay
alive. Plots don't come much simpler than that but the film
has depth and is visually rewarding. Mann has a great eye
for visual subtext and no close up of his is ever going to
be dull. For a film which also stars Los Angeles, surprisingly
it has layers. With a lot of the action taking place inside
a cab or featuring the cab, Mann's imagination doesn't fail
him. Inside the cab, we get singles and two shots completely
foregrounding performance. Scorsese covered the cab's more
cinematic qualities in Taxi Driver but his
stomping ground was New York. Mann's is open-plan, neon streaked
L.A. Curiously the first draft the of the script was set in
New York. Also something noteworthy in terms of style; there
is not a single shot of the rear view mirror (a major staple
in almost any movie with a car in it). That must have been
a very conscious decision. After Scorsese's use of same in Taxi Driver perhaps Mann wanted to stay well
away from comparisons.
notable was the decision to shoot this completely set-at-night
film on high definition video (Mann believed high definition
had advantages over film when it came to specific night shooting).
Twenty percent of the movie remained captured on film but
this fact took me by surprise. While I was watching the first
ten minutes I had a very definite thought about how rich film
looks and the ambience it conveys. I may have been looking
at something originated on tape and if that's the case then
I can't tell anymore, damn you, technology. But then everything
ends up on film for distribution so maybe the actual print
film gave it something back? Or am I just backtracking to
save a shred of dignity? In the end it matters little (except
maybe to Eastman Kodak and Fuji who should have seen the digital
writing on the digital wall over the last ten years anyway).
A movie's a movie despite the difference between light falling
on a high definition charged coupler device or a silver halide
grain in emulsion.
a movie about violence, Collateral starts
tenderly. In a sweet, romantic and affecting first scene,
Max's first fare of the night is Annie (a stressed out, prosecuting
attorney, played charmingly by Jada Pinkett Smith). Through
Max's grace and Annie's incredulity at being proved wrong
about a city she knows but not as well as Max does, Collateral introduces two characters with whom I could have happily spent
the rest of the movie. Of course, there would be no room for
our Thomas as an assassin. It would be more of a When
Maxie Met Aannie but I digress. The scene is played so
lightly and so deftly that either it was done in one or two
takes for each set up or to get at that level of effortlessness,
it must have been the Kubrickian slog of fifty-plus takes.
Already I'm rooting for Max but also wondering what the movie
will reveal about him. You see, I'd seen the trailer and I
knew that within minutes it would be raining men...
the 'bad guy' is played with a Teflon toughness by Tom Cruise.
With pepper grey hair and an ill fitting suit (no really,
check out the trouser hems), he arrives in L.A. and swaps
bags with a stranger. In the new bag is a list (albeit an
unnecessarily high tech one, I mean a piece of paper and a
photo would have worked) and on the list are five names. Cruise
charms and pays triple for Max's time all night until it's
time for him to head out of L.A. the next morning. All goes
according to plan until Cruise's first victim lands on top
of the cab after being shot near a window. Isn't that assassin
school lesson one? Don't shoot someone in front of a window?
Ooops. So Max puts two and two together and comes up four
more to go. And it's a good ride from then on in.
script follows logically and delivers enough surprises to
keep the two hour running time crisp and free of sags. I may
have been heavy handed about not wanting to see The
Last Samurai for reasons stated before but
this is Tom Cruise in "I want to develop my acting chops-Magnolia"
mode, not "all-American hero rewrites cultural history"
mode. And he's good. The role of Vincent suits him well (I
wonder if that's a compliment?) as his predatory physicality
and hardness of tone turns him into a credible hit-man. There
is a moment, after all the Glock-forward posturing, when Cruise
is partly incapacitated in the back of Max's overturned cab.
With no gun to hand, Cruise picks up a piece of glass and
extraordinarily ineptly tries to hit Max in anger. It's a
lovely moment as he has no strength. The blows look as if
they came from Quentin Crisp (and he's been dead for a while).
The sympathetic cop who grasps what's happening (recalling
a similar situation when a spate of murders is blamed on a
suicidal cabbie) is played by Mark Ruffalo and not only is
he credible, his mannerisms and concern are highly realistic.
As the FBI plan to kill the cabbie (who has been forced to
identify himself as the assassin), Ruffalo goes his own way
and drags Foxx out of the gunfight unharmed. It's to Cruise's
credit here that he wipes out this sympathetic character without
remorse. I mean credit in the sense of career choice. Let's
make no bones about it. Cruise kills people for expediency’s
sake or money and his victims are not bad guys. It's a welcome
change from his customary heroics and turning Japanese.
real lynch pin of Collateral is the dynamic
between hit-man and driver. Foxx pulls off his procrastinating
cabbie with aplomb and in relation to the edginess of Cruise
(together with all the assassin's charm), the partnership
is pitched at just the right frequency. There is never a moment
where you question either character although Foxx just manages
to pull off an impersonation of a tough guy when the chips
are down (and the gun muzzles are up). It was the only archly
Hollywood moment in what felt quite unlike a Hollywood movie.
big shoot out at a dance floor is breathtakingly staged (remember
Mann directed Heat so no surprise there)
and there are moments when Cruise's silver suit reminds you
of a great white shark moving through the choppy waters of
frightened people. It's a testament to Mann and his editor
that you are never confused by the geography and who's shooting
at whom. The cleverness of the final scenes (Mann having a
ball playing with spatial geography) doesn't deter from the
suspense. Although you can probably work out exactly who's
left standing at the end, Collateral loses
none of its power as it barrels along on a subway train to
what may be the inevitable conclusion.