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Mann hunter
A film review of COLLATERAL by Camus

There 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!

The 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.

Also 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.

For 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...

Vincent 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.


USA 2004
120 mins
Michael Mann
Michael Mann
Julie Richardson
Stuart Beattie
Oliver Wood
Jim Miller
Paul Rubell
James Newton Howard
Tom Rothrock
Thomas Schobel
Zachary Koretz
Antonio Pinto
production design
David Wasco
Tom Cruise
Jamie Foxx
Jada Pinkett Smith
Mark Ruffalo
Peter Berg
review posted
2 October 2004

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