starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo
screenplay by Stuart Beattie
directed by Michael Mann
by Walter Chaw To hear Michael Mann tell it, you'd think he'd found a new way to film Los Angeles, the most-filmed city in the world. To watch Collateral is to discover that he has. I wish that there were some meat to Collateral, because even without it, it's hands-down this year's most gorgeously-directed film. If there was ever any question to Michael Mann's genius after Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, or Heat, it must be laid to rest now--he's pushing Spielberg in terms of visual gift, trumping him in terms of maturity (and courage, of course), and he's moving into an upper echelon of cinematic directors (Stanley Kubrick, for example) who, when they're on, produce tapestries so pure that you feel as though if you tapped them they'd ring like crystal.
Max (Jamie Foxx) drives a cab and dreams of an island. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer in need of a ride. Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a federal prosecutor working late. And Felix (Javier Bardem) is a gangster played by the guy who should have played Vincent. Max can calculate the quickest routes and exact drive times in his head while Vincent is an extraordinarily efficient assassin; Mann's obsession with obsessive-compulsive behaviour drives Collateral's intricate twists and turns as about eleven hours unfold one L.A. night, dusk to dawn.
Los Angeles is a, if not the, main character here, as alive and seething as Martin Scorsese's New York of After Hours and Taxi Driver, Philip Kaufman's San Francisco of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Nicolas Roeg's Venice of Don't Look Now. Surfaces kissed by neon and the Pacific air have a sleazy, feline quality. A lot of noirs have been shot in the City of Angels, but none like this; credit co-cinematographers Dion Beebe (who pulled a similar trick with the East Village in Jane Campion's In the Cut) and Paul Cameron, working mostly in an impressive HiDef video format--and credit Mann. He returns to the highbrow crime drama for the first time since Heat, a great film that now plays like a slower, more sluggish dry run at Collateral.
The visuals and the editing are both so fine that they serve to distract almost completely from the sloppy conventions of the film's story. It's a tired premise leading to a finale that strains credulity and calls into question Vincent's efficiency: If he's going to kill the person he's going to kill, why doesn't he just do it when first presented with the opportunity? The metamorphosis of Max's character from eternal footman to man of action seems strained as well (as does Collateral's own transformation from surreal to literal), but these are undoubtedly small complaints when factored against the rapture of the text.
Mann is at peak form here, a textural master apparently predisposed to projects that skew towards the operatic and the simplistic. (Possibly because such stories tend to lend themselves to broader visualizations.) Collateral is gorgeous filmmaking, with a violent centerpiece in a crowded nightclub something that's destined to be studied in film schools. This is an audaciously empty-headed picture--Mann fiddling around with making a poem out of a sledgehammer. And in its focus on professionalism (Max and Vincent each equivocate their lives as duty to their jobs), Collateral works as almost autobiographical for this perfectionist, consummate director. It feels personal, in other words, a science-fiction film in a lot of respects featuring a pair of aliens in a strange, hostile land. It's an essay on dislocation--and in our dislocated world, it taps the vein like a liquid apocalypse. Originally published: August 6, 2004.