Someone who looks so severely at L.A. as often as Michael Mann does must love it in some unusual way. Like Heat
before it, his new film Collateral
tells a sor
ry tale about the people and the city of angels, indicting cold-blooded professionalism through an equally cold-blooded mood piece. Neither as sprawling nor operatic as Heat
, the L.A. of Collateral
is one deadened to stagnancy by its inhabitants’ obdurate industry. The habits of Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver, are introduced in the opening minutes and routine of the taxicab’s comings-and-goings is like a never-ending enclosed circle of activity, investing the city with motion and action and noise and people but never going anywhere. Likewise, arriving airplanes are often captured in the corners of the frame in Collateral
, descending into the basin never to leave again. Nothing is expulsed from the L.A. except the dead, and the life of the workers of the city just gets worse.
Max has the night beat, circling a nocturnal but always active Los Angeles. His life is his job, and not so deep within this thriller is a thin but scathing portrait of urban professionalism. One only has to take a long look at the slick night shots of the city, the glossy and near neon-black downtown and the industrial sprawl working at all hours, and one extrapolates Mann’s enduring criticism of alienated modernity to a city full of people dedicated to their jobs and nothing else.
The professionalism can be seen in Max’s ingrained pride the shape he keeps his cab in and his deep knowledge of street routes, and can likewise be seen thr
ough his first important passenger of the night, a beautiful lawyer (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is charmed not only Max’s respect for his profession but his vision for future business success. But Max is not the only professional in L.A., and the danger of those unending inbound flights is that they inevitably will bring something rotten to the city, and they do in the form of Vincent (Tom Cruise). Vincent needs to make several stops that night and then return to LAX and leave as soon as possible-the man hates L.A. and cannot seem to see its kindred professionalism as his rightful hunting grounds-so he negotiates to hire Max’s car for the night. Vincent chats him up at first, finding out just how good a cabbie Max is, and then he teaches Max what hard-hearted workmanship really is. Vincent is a hired killer. Ex-military and highly trained, Vincent is in town at the dead of night to permanently silence several witnesses in an upcoming trial, and he is using Max to help him get around. Like any normal human being Max reacts hysterically when Vincent drops a dead man onto his cab, and this is the first step in a surprisingly character-driven and ambiguous separation that labels Vincent as an unsympathetic professional and Max as a empathetic, distinctly human worker bee.
One of the most attractive things about Michael Mann’s oeuvre is how deeply and completely he uses genre while picking stories imbedded with the urban pathos he so favors. And so Collateral
-in its sl
ight absurdity of situation and coincidence, in Cruise’s shock of steel-grey hair and unwavering assurance, in Max and Vincent’s loose moral banter-has all the silly conventions of genre film and Mann does nothing to subvert this material. Indeed, he is very much in his element, constantly retooling the brooding male burdens that have obsessed his entire career. One could see this straight-minded stick-to-itiveness as the reason Mann is often labeled a mainstream studio director; in essence a skilled craftsman within the system. Stuart Beattie’s script for Collateral
is unambitious and often unimaginative-Mark Ruffalo is arbitrarily in the film as a detective who breaks with the ethical code of his job and goes out of his jurisdiction to catch Vincent-but Mann’s astute vision and precise staging keeps the tension in the film constant and engaging, and at the same time offering a scathing, if highly conventionalized, portrait of a city.
Shot in high-definition digital, Mann visualizes Collateral
stagnating in the cold modernism of the 1990s; even the music sounds stuck on mid-nineties rock grooves and Vincent seems anachronistically surprised at the pervasiveness of Koreans populating the city. With the digital aid of the cameras the film captures the high-gloss of black night, showing the flip side to Heat
’s cold blue daytime 90s modernism in night’s obsidian gloss of anonymous buildings and the unnatural light of the city, revealing smoking industrial plants and backlighting palm trees.
There is a beauty to the city at night in this slick perspective, revealed years and years after people like Mann and William Friedkin showed the world what an atrocious place the city was in harsh daylight. But its beauty is a stylization in the sense that Cruise looks great in his cold pro getup, coasting the black streets on a mission delive
ring bullets as silver as his frozen pompadour. The line connecting the sense of cool inbred Mann’s immoral male protagonists to the slick beauty of L.A. at night casts a foul, neo-noir association between this killer and these dark buildings and the city’s nightlife.
As Max’s cab steadily and fatefully rolls from stop to stop the humanism in him gradually juxtaposes its lack in Vincent; night itself is used by the later to make clean, efficient kills and by the former so he can relax and meditate away from the stress of his chosen career. Vincent’s cold inhumanity, taken to grotesque heights by the end of the movie when the Mann gives him the cinematic characteristic of a movie monster or horror-film serial killer, is suppose to the be ultimate in alienated professionalism, and the horrible thing is just how well Vincent fits into the L.A. landscape. Constantly asserting that the cab job is part time until he gets things going, but then admitting to driving the taxi for twelve years, Max himself is constantly in danger of slipping into the urban inhumanity as well, and his confrontation with Vincent is like a living nightmare of the ethics and morals of a professional life in a city. The two men’s brief, thinly written characters are invested with an ethical ambiguity that helps push their interaction above petty thrills.
Like the best of all Tom Cruise movies, this one is in part a critique of Cruise’s mythos. A cold, respected professional who, like clockwork, does the one thing he is good at and places himself on efficient repeat, Vincent is left alone in the city that he has so much power over but so little human connection to. This is no isolated criticism; Mann himself is dealing with same themes as a director, keeping his film steadily in the realms of convention but at the same time challenging the convention by investing it with purpose and meaning-the artist as human. Creepily, Vincent himself attempts to assert his own humanism by appreciating jazz, but the appreciation is a self-serving and mechanical one. The killer enjoying a trumpeter’s improvisation and drawing a line to the way he improvises an assassination is more a misguided appreciation of well-trained workmanship that can adapt and respond to variables than identifying anything human in the flow of the music.
The badass epitome of Mann’s hybrid genre film and lustrous picture of urban alienation are two climactic action scenes so perfectly staged that the line between the film following conventions-as they are both action sc
enes required by the narrative and the genre to complete the plot and satisfy the audience-and direct illustrations of Mann’s latent themes is blurred into obscurity, the result rendered magnificent to behold. In one, a victim on Vincent’s list has set himself in the middle of a Korean dance club dubbed “Frenzy,” and the depersonalized chaos of the sequence is manifest in the killing spree that follows it while a faceless and careless crowd dances on. Vincent blazes through body guards and FEDs, killing a number as bones break and gunshots rings out and with the crowd of youths continuing to grind away to the music one feels lost in a hip, cold world full of people who work themselves stupid and unwind by just blending into the regressive activity and agitation of the soulless masses in a non-work environment.
The second sequence is simultaneously the best homage and most impressive update of Orson Welles’ classic house of mirrors climax in The Lady from Shanghai
, here transposed to the top of a L.A. sky rise whose power has been cut by Vincent to spook his target. Up there the lights of the city reflect and refract through the gigantic office windows and play tricks of light and illusion on the manifold layers of glass and mirror that adorn the modern office. Vincent, stalking his victim, is bewil
dered and fooled by the sight, trapped and lost in the center of the silent, unforgiving urban center. In this moment, among others, Mann directs the viewer to the idea that Vincent, seemingly at home in this cold world, really is an extreme and is home no place, not even the urban atrocity that is Los Angeles. Beyond the blossoming humanism in Max, it is in the environment of the city itself that reveals its rejection of such a heartless professional prick as Vincent.
That Mann manages to keep tension churning furiously throughout Collateral
’s surprisingly long running time is a measure of his skills with genre. But it is the way he also weds the genre to the cold-blooded conflict of inhuman professional destitution between a L.A.- friendly sociopath killer and a flicker-portrait of a cabbie’s emerging humanity is a marvel of cinematic fulfillment. The work is at once brash and obvious as well as highly stylized, but also subtle and creepy and incredibly precise in its superlative hybrid construction. On the scale of a high-epic cinematic opera like Heat
it is a minor work, but Collateral
is the work of a master and the master has produced something great, and most importantly something that raises him above mere “moviemaking.”