When a master of any particular genre returns to it, it’s usually to the satisfaction of the fans of that maestro or the genre. Thankfully, such was the case with the 2004 film, Collateral. With director Michael Mann returning to Los Angeles with another crime thriller, using a fine script by writer Stuart Beattie, it’s the fans of both the director and the category of film that reaped the benefits. As well, Mann-aficionados will appreciate him coming back to this familiar tuft without attempting what is now the movie studios’ brain dead pastime of re-making successful original work. Luckily, this was not a regurgitation of his great 1995 ensemble crime saga, Heat.
Collateral brings a more intimate, confrontational drama to bear, played out across the nocturnal expanse of the ethnically diverse L.A. landscape. Whereas Heat had two groups, nonpareil criminals and an elite police group, directly facing off, here law enforcement is on the sidelines. Always a step behind and waiting to pick up the pieces of this two-man conflict. Even when one sharp LAPD street detective starts puzzling it together, the director unleashed an unanticipated volte-face that quickly told the audience he was not about to repeat himself.
The wonderful clash of opposites and contrasts offered up in Stuart Beattie’s script is the film’s strength. The screenplay is played out in one January night, across the backdrop of empty streets among a city of lights. Michael Mann paints, in his textured visual style, the confrontation of one, out-of-town hired killer and the hometown cabbie that is ‘recruited’ to drive his passenger on a night to close some “real estate” deals. For the most part, it is an interior cat and mouse tale played out along the various sections of this sprawling city. All the while, delivering its complex, almost existential dialog between the two principals mostly within the confines of a claustrophobic taxicab.
Throughout, both director and screenwriter drive the story with the antithesis of the lead characters. The movie belongs to Tom Cruise, in a rare villain role, and Jamie Foxx, in an early break-through performance before the movie Ray eclipsed everything. However, I don’t want to shortchange the very good cast that is in support of these two — populated by a cadre of Mann’s regulars and newcomers. Among them, actors Jada Pinkett-Smith and Javier Bardem (in an earlier, more subtle villain role that preceded his more flamboyant turn in No Country For Old Men) are standouts. As well, the always dependable Barry Shabaka Henley and Mark Ruffalo make substantial and notable contributions when their characters are on-screen.
Cruise’s contract killer, Vincent, brings all of the things Tom-the-hero is known for. Though, in this case, his traits are swung over to the dark side. Where he’s been motivated to save the day in other films, here he’s the highly skilled, disciplined hired assassin making good on those his cartel employers want dead. He’s way more intriguing in the role than say Jason Statham ever was in the 2011 remake of The Mechnanic (you’ll note Statham had an early cameo in this film’s opening airport scene). Cruise’s typically American smart-alecky charm is now applied in a great, subverted manner. And, that produces a sinuous and sociopathic effect whenever he’s in a scene.
You have to admit, from Top Gun to the The Last Samurai, the actor is at his best when he’s a bit nuts on-screen. Well, as long as it’s restricted within his films, that is. Since its release, I think many now realize his was a performance that should have at least garnered him an acting award nod (while Jaime did and he did not). Here, he’s the out-of-town traveler on business; a master of calculated improvisation within his grim profession. Vincent is unphased by trouble from whatever direction it comes. Yet, he has a keen eye for exploiting weakness.
“Now we’re gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.”
He’s a true Darwinian creature. And the fact that he’s no fan of LaLa Land, either, only adds to the mayhem he brings. His character is about as caring as an anti-personnel mine. The problem he’ll face on this night, though, will be in choosing someone like Max for his chauffeur.
Foxx’s Max Durocher is just about everything Vincent isn’t. He’s a ‘people person’ to a degree, who drives the cleanest cab anywhere in the city (perhaps, even in the country). Max suffers, though, from the very bad combination of being a perfectionist and the complete opposite of a risk-taker. He’s a safe, stay-at-home kind of guy. A conjunction that breeds not a ‘has been‘, but a ‘never will be‘ type of personality. Jaime, who can be one of those chameleon-like performers, with the right direction, brings the underachiever Max a too recognizable life with viewers.
As with his notable first turn with Mann in Ali, he seems most comfortable when he’s in with a strong director and script (as my colleague J.D. contends). Some of best work has occurred under this filmmaker , in fact — Ali, Collateral, and Miami Vice were Mann-directed, along with The Kingdom, which was executive produced by him.
His character in this film is just happy to get by, filling his customers heads (as well as his own) with his future endeavors. He is nonetheless striving to be the best among those that never take a chance — lying to himself about why he’s still driving a cab after twelve years of getting ready for his big career move. He’s the opposite of the Alpha Male, “meat-eater super assassin” who’s sitting in his cab’s rear seat. Foxx was a revelation in the film, at the time. The only thing Max has in common with his passenger is that he’s going to experience the worst night of his life, too. And the fun in this confrontation (and for us) is that Michael Mann will bring it to a head in only the way he knows best.
This director’s style is today a well-known attribute: exquisite plotting, cinematography, peerless music selection, and craft. I agree with film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper on their point, when they reviewed it on the TV show [paraphrasing] no one films the Los Angeles cityscape better than he. Though, I must admit now Nicolas Winding Refn expanded that list in 2011 with the exemplary Drive. Collateral‘s use of night photography was especially effective, as seen through Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron’s high-def digital video camera. Its use was refined to a greater degree with 2006’s Miami Vice (see my good friend J.D.’s wonderful review of that misunderstood movie). The use of digital video brought an eerie clarity to the nighttime proceedings. The spectral views of the various neighborhoods and aerial shots only added to the beautiful contrast already in this film. As did Refn’s Drive, the film blended particularly well with a mesmerizing music soundtrack.
Add to this, Mann’s penchant for deftly displaying the dark tradecraft of violence. He is one of the few that can deliver a fine action sequence without losing his or the audience’s way. And, his staging in the Club Fever clip is another one to behold and enjoy. If for no others, those like me who appreciate these kinds of things. No surprise, given the director’s long-time preference of using real experts as technical advisers and actors in such segments — and it shows with the gun craft and skill showcased throughout the film.
Michael Mann remains highly proficient in his ability to visualize professionals on-screen, on either side of the law. Quite simply, Collateral is another of the filmmaker’s great, suspenseful thrillers. Now that some years have passed since its initial release, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the film has stood the test of time, much like his masterwork, 1995’s Heat, which in my opinion was one of the best films of the 90s. Like that feature, his use of the city of Los Angeles as a character and his stage succeeded to great effect. While he brought the story’s cold, brutal acts of violence in startling detail, the real effects of them, in this Mann-Beattie collaboration, in truth impacted primarily upon the two lead characters tied by fate. While only one is supposed to end up as collateral, neither was granted immunity in the story.
The 2010 Blu-ray Disc release brought all the features from the original 2-disc set DVD, notably a beautiful anamorphic picture, full-length commentary by Mann, a deleted scene, featurettes, notes and trailers, along with its new hi-def goodness of the film print (though the less said about the BD’s horribly redone cover artwork, the better). The newer HD disc highlighted director Michael Mann’s return to the familiar ground of crime moviemaking (after completing Ali and The Insider). And while he came back to a familiar genre and locale, I daresay no one does it better than the Chicagoan filmmaker in the place I was born. If this was his closing bookend to the L.A. crime drama, as some have suggested, here’s my favorite bit of trivia regarding the two films he’s successfully lensed in the southland:
Heat begins on a subway and ends at the airport, while Collateral begins at the airport and ends on a subway.
Perhaps, this was a fitting touch of symmetry by this director? God, I hope not — I want him back shooting another crime flick in my hometown.
Note: this was a reprise and an update of an old review I first did on the film in 2005.