Released after a decade of directorial experiments and sideways glances toward wider expanses, Michael Mann’s Collateral’s spry, athletic take on stringy two-character cinema feels like an indie move coiled up in digital fiber optics. Dismissing the punctured historical adventure The Last of the Mohicans, the punctured crime thriller Heat, the punctured social treatise The Insider, and the (well you get it) sports biopic Ali, Collateral might be called a punctured action film. But bequeathing it with a genre (even a slantwise one) feels like sacrilege, a way to explain, and thus uncoil the mystique of, a venomously wound-up beast. Obviously, every film confines itself somehow, but Collateral is etched out of a B-movie spirit that does something more important than defy expectations or wrinkle the narrative (although it does both of those things): it throbs. Real good.
Simmering the narrative way down to a ballet of tightly controlled impulses just daring to burst out, Mann’s film slides from cool-blue to stone-cold on the drop of a dime. A two-hander by nature, the film begins with a slimy Vincent (Tom Cruise) exchanging briefcases and then, in fear, swivels toward Max (Jamie Foxx), a workaday cab driver who insists, more for himself than for others, that his twelve-year sentence in a yellow box is merely a temporary getaway to accrue funding for his day-dream limo service. The laws of cinema dictate that these two are about to meet on the steely, side-winding streets of an LA that doubles as a prison of possibility, and triples as a long night of the soul.
Vincent is a hitman, it turns out, and Max is being hit with a wake-up call vicariously through Vincent’s punched-up life; we don’t know that Cruise’s character is an actualization of Vincent’s dreams, but he certainly seems like a master of his own domain, which is more than can be said for the timid, ever-anxious Max. Vincent clearly tempting Max like a specter in control of his own actions, Max seems so desperately disfigured by the dreams he’s waited twelve years to pursue. Fastidiously cleansing his cab, his hair trimmed in a line like a shark, this cabbie clearly knows his stuff, but he drives away the time in a kind of zombified harmony with the aimless drifters and daydreamers of the LA world.
Vincent is his gargoyle-angel, a perverted mutation of Max’s desire to control himself and succeed in a cutthroat world. He’s also Max’s shadow, a vigorously vital demon whose self-success is conditioned on his ruthless amorality and inability to consider other outlets for success that don’t conform to his no-questions-asked murdering. When Vincent cheekily refers to Max as “one of those guys that do, not talk”, he’s projecting, but he’s also hiding that he can’t really look past his own single-minded “do, for the right cost” amorality. “You attract people, you’re going to get people killed who didn’t need to be”, another line spoken by Vincent to Max, puts blame on Max for “doing’ (for trying to escape Vincent’s clutches), the very thing Vincent so often demands. It suggests that Vincent can’t be bothered to consider himself, and the un-ironed kinks in his own philosophy, part of his own problem.
Which is part of the irony. Vincent preaches at the altar of improvisational healing to Max, telling him he ought to know how to adapt when the situation arises and realize that his cab, a boat through the River Styx with Vincent his Charon in this film, is trapping him rather than freeing him to provide the funding for his pipe-dream venture. But when Max adapts into venom in Vincent’s arm, Vincent reprimands him. And Vincent is only functionally adaptable, malleable within his prefigured rule sets that never err from his way of life; his improvisation is iron-clad, a trap itself, and one that is curiously oblivious to the possibility of genuinely refracting his view beyond the gun-barrel-grey channels of murder-for-hire. Naturally, Collateral still conforms to Mann’s de rigueur dialectic of “men on a mission” wherein the mission is simultaneously the way men activate themselves in the capitalist world – through obedience to a forward-thrust completion of a task – and a haunting black cloud that can reveal what life-by-task-completion can become at its most foul. So if the film eventually stimulates Max to actualize his mission, it’s only by felling a phantom version of what he aspires to be. In Mann’s world, what doesn’t kill you…well, it kills someone.
Which sounds knotty, but the film never gets lost in its own head. Sure, Mann isn’t exactly galvanizing new ideas about the Western world or mankind, and he’s still unfortunately trapped in a contingent appreciation of the modern male’s drive to succeed despite his films’ simultaneous cross-examination of that drive. But the ideas here exist; they’re found not in the dialogue, but in the ice-cold metal clang a bullet makes when it hits flesh, or the early-goings of his provocative experimentation in digital cinematography as a jewel through which to refract, but never encapsulate, the disillusioned energy of a city of jaded souls. Like LA’s inhabitants (at least in this film), Collateral doesn’t always know where it’s going, and at the end it’s simply bumbling through the motions of its existence as a renewed action thriller, but it’s got a pulse, and it knows how to use it.
Stylistically, there’s a miscalculation or two; the wrong Chris Cornell band (Cornell incidentally seems to have amassed a few of those) is out and about sound-tracking a moment or two too overtly. But the mood is so supple that this vigorously alive movie wraps you up in its fingers anyway. It’s cool-blue, but fraught with anxiety desperately tramped down, so slick and reptilian it doesn’t even need to be trigger-happy to get by on pure cold-blooded charisma. A jazz club interlude literalizes the improvisational thematizing too heavily (for that matter, there’s one too many monologues near the end-game), but the digressions are all part of the magnetically charged but alluring, elusive tempo. Not impoverished for purpose, this mise-en-scene movie is a showcase in attitude and conviction as genuine cinematic principles in the erotics of art; the tale might dive into the portentous, but the telling? Forget about it. Thematic redolence aside, this Mann prefers men of action, and this Mann is still on the go. As one character grimly retorts, a minute away from death, “lay it on me”.
Part of the appeal is that the film rouses itself to improvise the way its characters are supposed to. Strutting from a rave-up first-climax to a modern industrial chic after-image conclusion doused in the tones of slasher movie, the film as an aesthetic tour of LA life in all its facets with Vincent and Max simply passing through. The film always seems to be foraging for tones, rekindling its spark on a moment-to-moment basis rather than being blighted by shuttling toward a premeditated sense of conclusivity. What feel like scampers are mutably charged into the film’s harmonic register of delectably energized freestanding sequences.
The paint-stripping, harshly luminous visual tones from Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron energize the compact intensity, but they also find the two cinematographers sharing custody of LA life by filtering it through its own preferential tones: amplified energy and live-wire presence undercut by the sense that it’s all a little hollow. If LA, Mann’s adopted home, is a city for people who are always on the move yet fragmented by anomie and listlessness, the style of the film, electro-charged but boldly drowsy, like a fierce midnight hang-out on both cocaine and marijuana, is the perfect accompaniment. This film slithers, but the undercurrent never deigns to the realm of over-complication or hurtling narrative mania; the bursts of adrenaline jolt you awake from the leisurely poetics of everyday life.
So this reined-in film is not dumbed-down; it’s streamlined Mann, but the wrinkles are in the moments. Pointedly, like the film, sequences are fleeting mutant shards humble enough to make room for the next, creating a slippery movie where the bursts are meaningful precisely because they are so tenuously within our grasp, here one minute and gone the next. It’s a cold-case but thankfully never a head-case of a film, sweating like a clenched-fist but swerving like a smooth operator, moving at a brisk clip but taking the time to savor little slices of mood like the day-time passing by exclusively in radio (this is the sort of city that just wastes away waiting for the night) or a stride down an escalator as a slip into hell. An alley cat beat and a countenance of equal portions low-to-the-ground realism and sleek, hyper-modern halitosis, Collateral is pickled in vinegar.
It’s also not genre-trapped; much like Mann’s other films, Collateral promises genre as an invasion into the social status quo, whether it was Thief’s mission statement of city as impressionistic asking price for discovering the soul or Manhunter’s primordial stew of twitchy cinematography and baroque fixings. Despite the digital aesthetic, it’s a vacation to classical cinema, a world where form and style rule as portals to understanding humanity, and excessive over-churning of narrative is a benighted soul to dismiss soundly. If Collateral finds Mann returning to his wiriest narrative fixtures, he hangs both stylistic acrobatics and moral qualms on them; the film doesn’t vie for Big Theme supremacy but a more comfortable quiet density in its etched-out lesser register that still packs a punch.
If it all begins with a parched, black-clad Dreamworks logo in disguise and up to no good, the film fulfills it. Character sketches are fascinatingly chopped and diced into pieces. Foxx is a nervous bird, Cruise a vulture that actually manages to make frosted tips into a statement of essence rather than idiocy, and both men are divine in their roles. The film throws out Clarence Darrow references because Mann doesn’t care if you get them or not: his characters do. It’s the kind of film where someone whispers “just when I thought you were a cool guy” right up until the anxious pang strikes, the pang that was actually cool’s drinking buddy all along. It’s blue, but this is ice and water, an insurgent into the throngs of tepid filmic underachievers and boisterous overachievers, that most rarest of concoctions: a flick, the sort of film that is, specifically, “damn good”. Chilly as it is, it feels like warming up to a fire of a cinema not reborn, but a cinema still thriving and throbbing. Which, in this case, might be even better. Another quote, delivered by a hit-list target about Miles Davis, boils the film down to its essence “Now, he may have looked like he was chilling, but…”