Night Vision
by Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Michael Mann, U.S., DreamWorks

Michael Mann is one of the most passionate artists working in American film today. To the cynical eye, the fervor of the synth-operatic heights of his work skirts comedy—remember Ben Stiller’s mock-ups of The Last of the Mohicans? Mann’s particular style is a miraculous gamble; operating within conventional pulp/pop genre constructs (film noir, thriller, biopic), his films completely circumnavigate the distance that comes with homage. His best stuff functions as a tricky high-wire act, counter-balancing dogged adherence to realism with a dedication to epic themes and lumbering masculine codes. So the weary workaday cops-and-robbers of Heat—a film whose hefty running time is embroidered with tangential personal subplots—co-exist comfortably with the movie’s brooding, melodramatic machismo.

Herein lies Mann’s unique alchemy; playing out earnest, puffed-up ideas and hyper-lucid imagery in a worked-over, realistic milieu, or through the flattened vowels of a Chi-town lumpen-hero like Manhunter’s Dennis Farina, he lets the pomp out of these big themes, and pulls them down into the streets. In contemporary Hollywood product, shopworn words like “honor” and “loyalty” turn up as frequently as “freedom” and “liberty” in a George W. Bush campaign speech, and with similar impact. They’re hollow hand-me-down buzzwords, strictly representational, without a jot of moral or intellectual conviction behind them. But Mann backs those tired concepts with a force and sincerity that’s disarming; in a masterpiece like The Insider, he single-handedly resuscitates old stand-bys like honor and loyalty in a way that makes them not just big ideas, but great ones. So when, in Mann’s new film Collateral, Tom Cruise’s Miles Davis-loving hired killer pulls a hit on a jazz club hornsman, then respectfully stoops—like Hawkeye honoring the dead deer in Mohicans—over his victim’s body, it’s that rarest of rarities in the Mann filmography: a flat-out silly moment. Mann’s sincerity is intact, but his movie just can’t put the idea across.

Collateral begins with every indication of Mann in top form; the movie rolls onto the screen like a Pacific breeze, bringing in a tinkly, laid-back piano lounge vibe. L.A. cab-driver Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a prosecutor for the Department of Justice; they start conversation with a bet over the most efficient route for her ride. Max wins; he’s a world apart from Annie’s neat professionalism in his sweatshirt and his 12-year low-level employment rut, but his expertise and attentiveness appeals to her. He talks with over-rehearsed fondness about a future business venture, and she listens. The flirtation that develops between them—even the rhythm of the actor’s delivery—plays like classic noir, but the scene’s as fresh as the night air, and attuned to nothing but the here-and-now. Max provides Annie a moment of relaxation, so she gives him her card and an invitation to call; Pinkett-Smith and Foxx’s easy interplay catches the discreet sexiness in those little pockets of intimacy and connection—say, a warm taxicab interior—that pop up in the big, dark, empty city, and their ride together hits every point that Claire Denis’ Friday Night muffed. When Mann’s rolling like this, he’s a film lover’s dream, building scenes that are mini-marvels of seamless complexity, and the first 20 minutes of Collateral are prime stuff for his greatest hits reel.

Max’s next fare, however, veers the movie onto a very different course. Introducing himself as an out-of-town businessman, Vincent (Cruise, with a crisp sharkskin suit and a gray rinse in his hair) asks to be driven to five stops during the course of the night, ending with an early morning drop-off at LAX. He rents Max and his cab, fanning out six hundred-dollar bills. Cruise’s appearance slowly re-tunes the movie’s blue-note groove into an ominous Casio boogie, and a crash of violence at Vincent’s first “business” stop reveals his correspondingly sinister modus operandi. A bullet-perforated body smacks onto the roof of the cab, and Max abruptly learns that Vincent is a killer on a lethal nocturnal mission, hired to eliminate five key players due to appear in an upcoming federal jury hearing. And so Max turns from hireling to hostage, and Collateral’s fine-tuned thriller motor gets purring.

But along with peril, Cruise’s appearance ushers philosophical ambitions into Collateral, much to the movie’s detriment. As throughout Mann’s filmography, an idea of work and vocational expertise permeates the film: here it’s in Foxx’s humble confidence at his navigational abilities, in Pinkett-Smith’s professional anxiety that “People are gonna find out I don’t know what I’m doing,” and in Cruise’s focused “I do this for a living” presence. It’s not clear what all of this is getting at, but these strung-out, workaholic characters disseminate smoothly into the movie’s A.M. atmosphere. Far more specific and less successful is Vincent and Max’s psychological face-off; as the night rolls along and the two men tersely commiserate, Vincent starts to draw out his passive chauffeur with verbal jabs that prick at Max’s lethargy and lack of assertiveness. But Vincent’s provocations often bring him dangerously close to sounding like a refugee from a lousy romantic comedy, one of those loose-living best-buddies that smother their introvert friends with lines like “You can’t even call that girl!”

Vincent proves himself a philosophical assassin, paraphrasing Harry Lime’s Ferris wheel speech from The Third Man; “there are six billion people on this planet,” he argues, so what’s a few lives between friends? Max combats Vincent’s influence, but the killer’s seductive persona seeps past Max’s defenses, cueing a none-too-subtle transmigration of personalities; when he’s pushed into fronting as Vincent, the cabbie instinctively reaches for his kidnapper’s mantra of improvisation at the threat of danger, cribbing lines right from Vincent’s playbook. Narrowing his eyes and attenuating his speech to the steady delivery of Cruise’s take-charge cool, Foxx is almost good enough in the scene to make you forget the trite ideas he’s serving.

Fresh off of killing the hook on the Twista/ Kanye West joint “Slow Jamz,” this In Living Color alumnus has only begun unveiling the full range of his talent. His characterization is without a trace of the tense over-eagerness to hit an emotional punchline that often hobbles crossover comedians; Mann’s camera—largely restrained to the inside of the cab—creates snug, intimate spaces for the actors to occupy, and Foxx effortlessly controls his section of the screen. Difficult as this is for me to admit, being a longtime Tom Cruise apologist, but Collateral’s greatest failure is probably Cruise’s novelty bad-guy casting. It’s essential to the movie’s success that Vincent ooze a certain snake oil salesman charm, and find a symmetry of lowlife and bigger-than-life. Cruise just can’t. In The Last of the Mohicans, Mann was blessed to be working with a set of references—Hudson River painting and Hawthorne—whose iconography comfortably matched his big, savage Romanticism, and Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor with a preternatural gift for sizing his performances to scale. (Observe how he tailors himself into the epic Gangs of New York, while DiCaprio goes uncomfortably adrift.) And while Cruise easily plays big, it’s a big that’s more Macy’s Parade float than monumental; his screen presence lacks the gravity that’s necessary for Vincent’s menace. One needs only think to nasty, neurotic heavies like Eli Wallach’s Dancer in The Line-Up or Lee Marvin in Point Blank to see the insufficiency in Cruise’s precise, action figure carriage.

Worse is the film’s negligible police procedural material with a restless-seeming Mark Ruffalo, scenes that wouldn’t be out of place on any number of lookalike network true-crime shows. More successful are the film’s least-articulated qualities, and the atmospheric portrait of a city that emerges from the stylish runoff on the edges of Collateral’s narrative. “Enjoy L.A.” is one of the movie’s first lines, and as it’s knowingly spoken to a hired contract killer, the words are spiked with a lethal ambivalence. Cruise’s hit man hates the city’s rambling disconnect, it’s the “fifth largest economy in the world and nobody knows each other.” “That’s us—lost in space,” the killer says to Max, and the film’s expressive DV cinematography seems to endorse his observation, transforming the City of Angels into a vast firmament of bleary, out-of-focus lights in colorful constellations, of lazing overhead jets, stygian industry, overpasses thick with a magma-like flow of taillights, and night-lit buildings made ethereal by their sharp, coppery glow.

So Mann’s gifts as a stylist remain unimpeachable, and his gift for crystalline layout is fully intact; Collateral joins Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, and Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs in the small pantheon of films to effectively realize the dramatic terrain of a car interior. Mann even builds one knockout of a scene around the complete, anarchic breakdown of spatial logic, a four-way gun battle in a Korean nightclub that’s a rave-up melee of bloodletting. But what’s finally far eerier than the violence or psychological implications of Collateral is the film’s uncanny sense of aesthetic double déjà vu. At times Mann’s film resembles nothing so much as live-action screen stills from Grand Theft Auto, a video game franchise that—particularly in its Miami Vice-aping “Vice City” installment—borrows liberally from a visual vernacular that Mann practically invented. It’s a sobering comparison, and one that illustrates just how hollow his visuals could become without Mann’s emotional foundation.