Mann Enough: Collateral
By Fernando F. Croce

To pick up from last article's discussion on genre, we have Michael Mann's Collateral. Even as a riff, it's obviously the work of a major filmmaker -- or rather, it would be obvious if so much of our critical establishment were not blinkered against the action film, a prejudice that allows tastemakers to exalt American Beauty, The Hours and Girl with a Pearl Earring while allowing Ronin, Time and Tide and Undisputed to slip through the cracks. It's easy to see why: Action gets such a bum rap from all the routinely soulless car chases and explosions that clutter pandering thriller after pandering thriller that, when a pure one comes along, critics are too jaded to notice or care. Still, action on film has its own beauty: a John Woo shootout can pack the same aesthetic charge and mystery as a Tarkovsky tracking shot.

Mann understands the beauty of action transformed by limpidity of style. His last two films, The Insider and Ali, despite their considerable visual felicities and thematic resonance, are somewhat fattened with an Oscar-baiting, cramping respectability. I much prefer his earlier thrillers -- Thief, his film maudit The Keep, his brilliantly cinematic TV work (including Miami Vice and Crime Story), Manhunter (still the best film made from Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter franchise), The Last of the Mohicans and, supremely, Heat, by any standards one of the great American films of the 1990s. Unlike fellow techno-pulpsters Ridley and Tony Scott, William Friedkin and Michael Bay, Mann pierces through the Hollywood actioner's posturing macho shtick to plunge into a type of voluptuous formalism. Again, beauty.

Mann's sleek mastery is ample from the opening shots of Collateral, as Tom Cruise, decked in silky suit and salt- and-pepper shag and stubble, materializes in the Los Angeles International Airport. Cut to a flurry of L.A. snapshots, from which Jamie Foxx emerges toiling in his "temporary" (twelve years and counting) cabbie job, estimating the traveling time to the nanosecond while flirting it up with a lawyer passenger (Jada Pinkett Smith) about his tropical paradise pipedream. The two plot strands intersect as Cruise jumps in the backseat and flashes six Benjamins for a nightlong fare. By the time a perforated corpse comes crashing down on the roof of the taxi, it's clear that Cruise's five-stop tour, pushed ahead at gunpoint, is no executive route but a hired killer's hit list.

Like last year's underrated Phone Booth, Collateral transcends its gimmicky roots. The driver-passenger dynamics provided by screenwriter Stuart Beattie simultaneously compress Mann's storytelling and craft a framework for the director's customary, proto-Hawksian examination of professional grace under pressure. Mann's surveying of his lone wolves, whether safecrackers, cops, thieves or athletes, dissects their search for grace in a way that shows how meretricious Paul Schrader's indulgence toward his narcissistic, fake-samurai brooders is. The relationship between a snazzy assassin knocking off blocks in a drug-ring pyramid and a sweaty cabbie scrambling to survive the night is etched in with no clear frontiers between one's metallic nihilism and the other's jittery humanism -- the movie's barometer lies in the grays bonding the professionals trying to do their job the best they can in a corrupt world, a notion extending to the undercover agent (Mark Ruffalo) and the FBI closing in on them.

Beattie's dialogue strains to turn Cruise's contract assassin into an ubermensch given to Nietzchian philosophizing on man's place in the universe, and the last quarter or so of the film, freed from the compact spaces of the taxicab, deteriorates into conventional cat-and-mouse chasing around. Luckily, mise-en-scène is all -- with the help of cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron (in a semi-DV style that's almost enough to make me reconsider my long-standing campaign against digital video), Mann does wonders with saturated neon light, the bulge of a windshield, faces blurred by smudgy plexiglass, glowing yellows, blues and greens. When Cruise and Foxx take a detour into a jazz dive for Barry Shakala Henley's great Miles Davis anecdote, the scene implodes without even one voice being raised; during Foxx's rendezvous with kingpin Javier Bardem in a mural-tattooed Latino nightclub, the screen burns with sinuous deep-focus and slithering camera movements.

Planted firmly in urban thriller territory and boasting cunning steering of Cruise's essentially blank superstardom, Collateral nevertheless is arguably one of the most abstract mainstream American movies ever made. The use of nocturnal topography, urban dislocation caught from determinist helicopter shots and the stringy borders separating law and underworld doesn't quite match the highs of Heat, but the mercurial handling constantly fuses surface excitement and formalistic reflection. The finale's ominous repose, like the one concluding Manhunter, is a purifying coda, tinged by the clashing lines of landscape, technology and the human form -- the knotting of which, as in so much of Mann's cinema, bursts pulp into art.

Reviewed August 17, 2004.

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