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Collateral (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 06 August 2004
Michael Mann returns to the streets of L.A., which he depicted so well in “Heat,” with this very suspenseful thriller pitting an intelligent hit man against a sharp-witted cab driver. It takes place in one night from just before sundown to sunrise, and runs the gamut emotionally: it’s occasionally funny, frequently shocking, and almost always taut with tension. It reaches a climax at a Korean night club—and then sustains that climax for almost another half hour, winding up on a nearly-deserted commuter train.

Mann’s earliest films, such as “Thief,” were pretentious and annoying, so clear was his devout belief that he was bringing Art to the realm of the crime movie. But from “The Last of the Mohicans” onward, his movies have been well above average (“Ali” being the weakest of the lot, and that was good, too). He’s always fancied himself a visual stylist, but until “Mohicans” the visuals tended to be too mannered and pompous—it’s rare for a major movie to fail on so many levels as Mann’s “The Keep” did.

This time, working from a script credited to Stuart Beattie (other writers participated, but not enough to share billing), Mann delivers on his potential. The script is unusually well-plotted, with coincidences ingeniously woven into the fabric so well they seem inevitable and not contrived at all. The dialogue is well above average, vividly characterizing the leads.

Max (Jamie Foxx) is a skilled cabbie in Los Angeles with an encyclopedic knowledge of the streets and a firm grasp on drive times; they vary according to traffic, of course, but he instantly figures that in. He impresses his first fare of the evening, attractive Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a U.S. attorney in town for a major case. She’s impressed by Max’s ease at the wheel, and that he takes momentary “vacations” by glancing at a photo of a tropic island which he keeps attached to his visor. And he’s impressed, too, though a bit uncomfortable about it—he’s clearly mostly a loner. He tells her that his job is only temporary—but adds that he’s been doing it ten years. Somewhat surprising both of them, Annie gives Max her business card.

At the office building downtown where she gets out, Max picks up his next fare, Vincent (Tom Cruise), whom we have already seen doing a quick briefcase exchange at a busy airport. Vincent is also impressed when Max tells him he knows the drive time to Vincent’s destination, but he’s cynically amused at Max’s dream idea of opening a luxurious limousine service. He calls Max a “doer”—but we can see that he thinks of the driver as a dreamer instead.
He wants Max to take him to five destinations in the L.A. area, then deliver him back to the airport by 6 am. A cool customer with an iron gray suit (no tie) that matches his hair and scant beard, Vincent offers Max a wad of dough for his services for the night, and Max hesitantly agrees. That is until a dead body hits the top of his cab, falling from the apartment room window above. Vincent turns up immediately—and it’s obvious he killed the guy, whose body they stuff into Max’s trunk. When Max makes noises about revealing all to the cops who pull them over briefly, Vincent cautions him, “Don’t let me get cornered—you don’t have the trunk space.”

Vincent still insists that Max drive him to his destinations; Max is sure he’ll be Vincent’s last victim, but since Vincent has a big gun, he has little choice but to go on with Vincent’s itinerary. Max continues to try to find a way out of his predicament, Vincent continues to toy with Max. He amuses himself by forcing Max to stand up to his bullying dispatcher; Vincent, a sociopath, would never let such obstacles stand in his way. And whatever his end plan for Max, he’s going to force Max into getting by them, too.

The problem with this plan is that it works too well: Max does learn how to stand on his own feet, how to improvise, how to express confidence (even if he doesn’t feel it), and he uses these lessons against his sardonic passenger.

Two cinematographers, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, are credited; it’s impossible to tell who’s responsible for what, as the film has a smoothly unified look. About 80% of it was shot on high-definition video and transferred to film. The L.A. we see is the L.A. I lieve in—rarely has a film so precisely captured the feel and look of a Los Angeles night. There’s sometimes a very thin fog in the downtown area that makes the night air slightly luminescent—this is the first movie I’ve seen that captures that distinctly Los Angeles visual mood. It ranges across town, from darkness to neon, past residents (including a couple of coyotes), from a cheap apartment to a jazz club, where Vincent talks to Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley, excellent) about Miles Davis. The cab circles back to that office building for the climax.

LAPD detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) arrives at the body-less scene of the first murder; further murders lead him to suspect what’s really going on. He heard from an Oakland cop about a cabbie who, one night, killed three people and then himself—only the Oakland cop didn’t think it was suicide. Fanning doggedly tracks Max and Vincent; gang thugs are also in pursuit. These various elements are brought together through excellent plotting—no element seems contrived or forced, even when all the various parties show up at that Korean night club.

Cruise has rarely played a villain; only in “Interview with the Vampire” was he as dark-souled as he is here—and Lestat, of course, was a vampire. On the other hand, it’s not easy for Cruise to express warmth on screen—he can do it (“Jerry Maguire”), but he’s not often required to. Certainly not here. We know essentially nothing about Vincent’s background; at one point he tells Max some sad tales of his childhood, but it’s almost immediately clear that this is just a performance to amuse himself. After all, most of the night he’s just riding in a cab; the murders are brief interludes. Vincent has few genuine human feelings other than ambition and pride; he wants to view the world as being as cold and indifferent as he is. But because it’s not, he consistently underestimates Max who, though a dreamer, understands people better than Vincent.

Cruise is excellent, surely deserving of an Oscar nomination here. I mean, if Denzel Washington can get an Oscar for playing a vicious thug of a cop, surely Cruise can for playing a steel-gray hit man. He’s rarely been so controlled, so precise; he’s almost awesome to watch—you find yourself trying to catch glimpses of the “real” Tom Cruise, but there aren’t any. Often, when actors who ordinarily play heroes play villains, they still seek audience affection through tried-and-tested personal traits. Not Cruise—he no more seeks audience sympathy than Robert Mitchum did in “Night of the Hunter.” Cruise wants us to respect Vincent, but not to like him. This is a brave performance, and a brilliant one.

Jamie Foxx is equally good as Max, the dreamer of a cabbie whose life has been all pretense, no results. We learn he even lied to his mother (Irma P. Hall) when Vincent insists the two of them visit her in the hospital. But we also see, in the dismissive way she treats him, a least a hint of why Max is the way he is. It’s nothing as crude as an explanation, just a slight suggestion; the movie is much too sophisticated to be blunt. Foxx completely abandons his comic style, playing his role absolutely straight, and very effectively.

James Newton Howard composed the original music, and the movie is laced with well-chosen songs, from cool jazz to ear-shattering rock. But the songs and music never override the visuals and the performances; this is a very unified movie, all elements working toward the telling of this story, which is essentially simple and which Mann tells with urgency and controlled anxiety. He even controls confusion: in the gun battle in the Korean nightclub, we keep losing and regaining our bearings—but this isn’t a flaw, it’s just what Mann wants. We emerge from the chaos into the first time that Max takes control; he’s realized that Max is a hollow killer who has no intention of letting him go, whom he cannot reach with any argument.

The sound mix is excellent, almost as intricate as that of the current “Manchurian Candidate.” Gunshots are very loud, very crisp, a lot like real gunfire. When gunshots aren’t punctuating the action, shattering glass is (as he often has before, Mann employs reflections and the separation created by glass frequently throughout), even car crashes. But this isn’t really an action movie—it’s a suspense thriller punctuated by hard-driving action scenes and sudden, shocking violence.

Almost from the first scene, “Collateral” doesn’t just engage the viewer, it seizes the audience’s attention; it’s as good as a picture like this can be, with excellent performances, beautiful production values and a cleanly-told suspenseful story.

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