Director: Michael Mann. Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill, Javier Bardem, Debi Mazar, Jason Statham. Screenplay: Stuart Beattie.

Collateral is so cool my teeth started chattering. I got actual, physical chills, not just because the movie is nifty-cool, though it is certainly that, but because it is metal-cool, brrrr-cool, glass-panes-at-midnight cool. Cold-cock cool. Which is another way of saying it's by Michael Mann, who makes the bluest movies since Kieslowski's and continually finds ways to make familiar locales seem sleekly new, to make highly interior scenarios explode into credible action, to make misused or under-employed actors feel new, resurgent. He's some kind of magician, and as with the differently but comparably gifted Clint Eastwood, you tend to forgive the stuff that doesn't work in his movies because what does work is so expertly calibrated. Certainly, Mann's track record is more flawless than Clint's; there's no Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sagging in the middle of his résumé. Plus, what I might otherwise call the gaffes or limits in a movie like Collateral feel as obsessively, compulsively personal as the rest of the material. Mann delivers his movies straight from his brain, his eyes, and his guts, all of which seem formidably interconnected. One has the feeling that for a filmmaker this committed, we couldn't get the great stuff without the minor trappings of rhetorical excess and thematic circularity he tends to proffer, so I say bring 'em on. This is one heck of a movie, from any angle, and believe me Collateral covers most of them.

Two seconds into the movie, I was already on my knees in praise (okay, now I'm exaggerating a little), because it takes a Mann to pluck that mandolin shit right out of the soundtrack of the DreamWorks logo. Then, the first thing that happens in the movie proper is that Tom Cruise—behind his jet-black sunglasses and beneath a head of gray-white hair that you can't avoid calling a "shock"—does the ol' suitcase switcheroo with Jason Statham, the Transporter himself. Mann has enough wit and street-cred to cast this way, and enough balls to drop Statham after this single beat, despite his familiarity to fans of the genre. No opening credits equals no points for guessing who will pop up in this movie, or for how long, and with just a few quick decisions like that, Mann has already outfitted Collateral to be a surprising ride, picking up characters and tossing 'em back out at unpredictable moments that still maintain a precise rhythm. Even Cruise himself, though his is the first face we see in the movie, disappears for a good fifteen minutes afterward, as we get to know Jamie Foxx's Max Derocher, an LA cab-driver and aspiring enterpreneur who dreams of owning an elite-transport limo business once he's pocketed enough wage from his cabbie gig. Most of what we learn about Max emerges from his conversation with Annie Farrell, a no-nonsense prosecutor played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who is delineated just as cleanly and clearly in this opening act as Max is. You have to think these actors, both Mann vets from the undervalued Ali, are relieved to do acute character work in a fully-oiled, full-horsepower movie that has cast them for their skills and not their market-niche appeal. They also, like Cruise, have great hairstyles. Foxx's razor-sharp browline tells us everything necessary about Max's fondness for order; Pinkett Smith's long and impeccably straightened hair(piece) instantly implies Annie's tart blend of professionalism and harsh self-discipline. Details, delicious details.

Another trademark of Mann's pictures, the totally adult interplay between very smart men and very smart women, infuses this expertly written and played scene. Given, however, Mann's fastidious care with every character and his bone-deep refusal of conventional narrative, we still can't guess if these are important characters, or when or how often we'll meet either of them again. Even throwaway scenes in Collateral have the polish and depth that most films reserve for key exposition, which is why Mann's movie hums with so much life, even when the narrative eventually dissipates. Despite what turns out to be a comparably unambitious movie, at least by Mann standards, it's electrifying: a suspense movie that is suspenseful in even the most basic ways.

It isn't long before the basic spine of the movie becomes clear. Cruise's character, Vincent, is a contract assassin with a five-hit list just like Uma Thurman's and an equal commitment to checking it twice. (Everyone on it has sure been naughty.) Vincent has hired Max for the evening to ferry him from target to target. Max, of course, doesn't realize this right away, and he isn't meant to. By the time all the pieces of this lurid puzzle are there to be put together, Max is already a semi-accomplice, and Vincent's readiness to kill anyone who needs killing, including interfering or weak-kneed accomplices, makes Max a kind of hostage in his own cab. Stuart Beattie's screenplay finds admirable ways of making this seemingly schematic narrative productive of a few solid surprises, and its sadistic logic is never (as in, say, Se7en) the focus of the picture. Meanwhile, a host of actors, from the principals down to The Terminal's Barry Shabaka Henley and a slithering Javier Bardem, do a gangbusters job of filling out the creased suits and rotted ethics of this underworld gallery. You're having a rare movie moment when the least convincing performance comes from the usually impressive Mark Ruffalo, cast here as an LAPD detective. It's hard to think of another movie, certainly one from a major American studio, whose every character possesses a steel-trap intelligence. As in Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider, everyone is trying to outwit everyone, and though the film's discourse about professional dignity grows a little repetitive—the point is already eloquently made by showing, long before people start telling and telling—I still got off on a film that finds drama in a full cast of people doing their jobs so expertly that no one's able to drop the ball for a moment.

This manifold competence, nearing manifold brilliance, is a fitting description of Mann's crew, too. James Newton Howard, lately enlisted into the lockstep regime of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, has a little more freedom here to design a more heterogeneous score, appropriating from jazz, from his own favored motifs of high strings and dramatic percussion, and from Mann's signature fondness for synth-rock and Headbanger's Ball stuff. Whatever band Chris Cornell is currently fronting floods the soundtrack during one transition, and though Mann is basically repeating old tricks from his Miami Vice days, Collateral consistently manages to reward the ear as much as it does the eye. And to that end, cinematographer Dion Beebe, who beat the odds of a thousand precedents to find a brand new and haunting New York City for last fall's In the Cut, proves to be a whiz (along with co-cinematographer Paul Cameron) at drawing bright, primary colors and surprisingly crisp contrasts out of digital-video technology.

Mann always invites his DP’s to take full advantage of his prefered mile-wide screen ratios, and so Beebe and Cameron generate endless, never-redundant visual riffs on the complex power dynamics and psychic isolations of the characters. Inheriting the grand Mann visual tradition from the peerage of Dante Spinotti and Emmanuel Lubezki, Beebe and Cameron shoot in emphatic angles, even in and around the taxicab itself, without sliding into the pure postmodern aestheticism of what Peter Suschitzky does with and for the cars of Cronenberg's Crash (which was ideal for that film but too easily imitated, and it wouldn’t work here). Visually, we are held in some middle-zone between street realism and glossed fantasy, which is happily where the rest of the movie is, too, from the terse, mannered acting to the strongly emotive editing to the preternaturally good tailoring of Cruise's suits. (Thank costumer Jeffrey Kurland, who put in the last word on contemporary masculine elegance in Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven.) The stylized realism that evolves from all this cleverly synchronized labor isn't far from Hitchcock territory, which in turn raises the volume on the Hitchcockian reverberations of the film's own psychology: how much is Vincent a freestanding character, and how much is he a lean, stunningly self-controlled projection of the mover and shaker Max dreams of being, and also of the amoral carnivore this rare L.A. lamb will have to become in order to get there?

It seems like I have nothing but nice things to say about Collateral, and my friend and I were certainly glued to our seats throughout, no less when the movie's finale shifted from the intricate phallic rivalries and unexpected humor of the main plot to the more conventional action set-pieces of the end. So why isn't Collateral an outright, out-of-the-park smash? One reason is the erratic script, which ingeniously contrives a few self-contained vignettes with Max's mother and a small pack of sidewalk hooligans, but never aces the police-chase subplot. Nothing in that second-tier storyline reaches the intensity or depth of either the bigger or smaller plot-strands, and the film’s conclusion amplifies our sense that Collateral would have survived just fine by chucking the detective element altogether. And yes, some of Vincent's more on-the-nose monologues, where he diagnoses Max as yet another emasculated emblem of the frustrated American dream, simply reiterate formulaic ideas we've heard in plenty of other places. Bardem's big soliloquy, an indigestible riff on Santa Claus and Black Peter, suggests that Beattie should mostly stick to those two-hander dialogue scenes at which he excels. True, none of this fatally impinges much on one's enjoyment of or admiration for the picture. Maybe the only problem is that, given the urgent moral and political battlegrounds of The Insider and the boldly sprawling, mood-driven social canvas of Ali, the dog-eat-dog tenets of Collateral feel a little like small potatoes—a subtle form of guilt by association that's hard to avoid in such a distinctive, self-conscious, and impressive filmography as Mann's.

But you know, before we get ahead of ourselves, it's important to add that Collateral seems fully aware of its own anecdotal nature. Even as it sketches in backstories, implies possible futures, and gestures toward thematic extrapolations, the film never tries to exceed the modest reach of its ideas. Though executed with enough panache for two films, even the stylistics are downscaled from the more epic registers of Mann's last four features. Collateral is a pistol-shot of a good movie for the moment. It isn't designed as an art-object for the ages, an attitude which some viewers will take as an outright virtue. Even for poor snobs like me, who hold out for movies that really go for broke, the integrated pleasures of a movie like Collateral are a manna of a different kind. No matter how many great movies 2004 winds up producing, it has been an astonishingly fertile year for the lost art of the really good movie, by which I mean the genre exercises, character portraits, dignified commercial ventures, and piquant experiments that used to be the lifeblood of this artform. Collateral has what the Kill Bill films have, what the Dawn of the Dead remake has, what The Clearing has, what Good bye, Lenin! has, what the Shrek and Harry Potter sequels have: smarts, style, solid structure, an uncynical regard for its audience, a refreshing seriousness about technique that still leaves room for humor, irony, and accessibility. These movies must all feel like privileges to participate in; they are certainly privileges to watch and to write about. Maybe our movie theaters are the only place in the world where this statement presently holds true, but in faith, my friend, this is turning out to be a very good year. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Jamie Foxx
Best Film Editing: Jim Miller & Paul Rubell

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Jamie Foxx

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Future Film Festival Digital Award
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography (Dion Beebe & Paul Cameron)
National Board of Review: Best Director
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Cinematography
Satellite Awards: Best Film Editing; Best Sound

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