I cannot express to you how much I love how Michael Mann’s movies look and feel, but I love it so much I can practically taste it. It’s an actual palpable thrill, my reaction to them. To call his work “stylish” is an understatement, but not in the sense that tacking a “very” or a “super” or an “ultra” before the word solves the problem. “Stylish” can be an insult. Mann’s distinctive aura is unique — there’s no mistaking a Mann film for anyone else’s. But it’s more than that, too. Mann’s movies thrill me because they make me — cynical, blasé, jaded, seen-too-many-movies me — feel like I’ve never seen a movie before. How he frames everything, from the visuals to the emotions, finds originality in clichés, energy in quietude, and surprises in the unlikeliest of places. His films make me feel like I did when I was kid discovering, for the first time, movies and where they could take us.
And Collateral is the most deliciously intoxicating Mann movie yet, slippery cool and brashly elegant, fresh and furious, like no one in the world had ever even conceived of making a movie about a hit man previously, let alone actually made one. Collateral feels like discovery. It’s been instantly inducted into my personal pantheon of crime films, right up there with GoodFellas. I see myself becoming obsessed with deconstructing it. I can’t wait to see it again.
It’s about, as you’ve heard, a hired killer, Vincent (Tom Cruise; go ahead and scoff — I did), and the cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), he holds hostage on an all-night drive around Los Angeles, the assassin marking off names one by one on a very particular hit list. You may well ask, How does a hitman keep a cab driver hostage while he goes off to kill people? Why doesn’t the cabbie just drive away? and those are legitimate questions. But trust me: It makes sense. It works. This isn’t one of those films where holding itself together requires characters behaving in really illogical ways, or in which if one person just did this one tiny obvious thing — instead of one really stupid, contrived, only-in-a-movie thing — in the beginning the story wouldn’t even have gotten started. No — credit screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) for getting it very, very right. Things snowball right off the bat in such a way that feels totally natural and normal and plausible, and it rapidly comes to seem impossible that Max will ever extricate himself — indeed, there are hints that Vincent has pulled this kind of off-the-meter stunt before, and that that cabbie did not survive the night.
Though there’s much gunfire and zooming cars and foot chases and the like, Collateral is very much a thriller of the conscience — it shares that with Mann’s The Insider — in which we begin to fear as much for Max’s soul as for his person. Max is a decent man; Vincent finds it far more effective to threaten total strangers to ensure Max’s cooperation, at one point, because Max is the kind of person who would not let an innocent (I use the word advisedly; you’ll see) be hurt if he could stop it. But how long will Max tolerate that kind of moral coercion? And in Vincent, Collateral could be called a thriller of no-conscience. Like in Mann’s Manhunter, there’s suspense to be had in not knowing what limits a psychopath sets for himself, what he’s willing to do in pursuit of his goals and what he isn’t. Vincent is unpredictable in a terrifying way that puts you right in the cab next to Max. And it isn’t movie-bad-guy fear we’re sharing with Max, comfortable, entertaining “fear” that goes along with knowing automatically that good will prevail and comeuppances will be dished out and all will be right with the world again by the end of the film. No clichés will be indulged here, and that is beyond wonderful.
As I alluded above, I was skeptical, to say the least, at the prospect of Cruise (Minority Report, Mission: Impossible 2) as a steely-eyed hired killer, but whether he merely needed a director like Mann or was inspired by the take-no-prisoners script, Cruise has never been better. He’s stiller than he’s ever been, finding an intensity in an amorality he’s never accepted before in his characters, like he’s never really been willing to take an actual risk with a character before. All the coldness and deadness that was missing from his disenchanted soldier in The Last Samurai — which needed to be there if the character was going to work dramatically at all — is here in Vincent. I hope this work in Collateral means he’s finally left behind all the little-boy-lost crap that has been the dominant aspect of his previous roles — he asks for no sympathy for Vincent, doesn’t expect it, and in one meta-moment laughs derisively at the whole concept. Maybe that means he’s going to embrace something more dangerous and far more interesting in the future.
And for all that Cruise is a welcome surprise, Foxx (Breakin’ All the Rules) is even more powerful a revelation. I’d felt like, when I was anticipating the film, that this would be the moment when we’d learn whether or not Foxx could actually act, not simply be goofy onscreen or make people laugh but make audiences care. And Foxx is — I’m so happy to report, because it’s great to see someone with previously underutilized talent get the chance to shine — astonishing, making much of Max’s small gestures and generous spirit, riding down the seeming contradictions of the character — Max’s simultaneous ambition and complacency, for instance, in his 12-year cabbie gig — so that they’re facets of a real personality rather than the simple inconsistencies of a pretend person they’d have been in the hands of a lesser actor. And I wish it was so commonplace that it didn’t need to be noted, but it’s refreshing to see a black actor in a color-blind role… and then see him make it so much his own that you can’t imagine anyone else in the part.
All of that — the suspense and the freshness and the Cruise and the Foxx — are wrapped up with Mann’s immensely satisfying piquancy. Kinda like how Collateral feels like the only crime movie ever made, it also feels like the first movie to be shot in Los Angeles. There’s a smooth and smoky feeling to the city here — it’s like the jazz that predominates on the soundtrack — hot and cool at the same time, the nighttime lights of L.A. glowing weirdly in the SoCal warmth and the early-a.m. emptiness of the streets. There’s all sorts of technical reasons why, for instance, the languid overhead helicopter shots of the lonely cab prowling the boulevards looks so edibly amazing — most of the film was shot on hi-def digital video, which renders light and color differently than film does — but I don’t understand that and I frankly don’t care too much why. All I know is when I wasn’t laughing at the film’s bitter humor or knocked back in my seat by its power, I wanted to just eat it all up, it’s that… mellowly, lusciously, subtly, tastily exceptional for which there is no word.