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Mann of Action

 

Collateral

Michael Mann, USA, 2004

Rating: 4.1

 

 

Posted: August 9, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Now that he's largely shaken free of the style-over-substance label he unfairly picked up after Miami Vice, veteran director Michael Mann has developed an interesting habit of employing high-profile stunt-casting when he chooses to helm a straightforward crime thriller. For 1995's Heat, he pitted Robert DeNiro against Al Pacino, the first time the two stars actually played opposite each other, if only for one small scene (The Godfather Part II didn't count, since DeNiro played Vito Corleone, father to Pacino's Michael, as a much younger man). Nine years later, for another crime-themed action vehicle, he's cast Tom Cruise as a ruthless hit man -- a white-haired hit man, no less.

It could be that such casting is a way of dressing up his latter-day thrillers in "Event"-status duds, the better to sidestep the perception that he's regressed back into mere "genre" work after enjoying a wave of critical attention (and even Oscar talk) for 1999's The Insider and 2001's biopic Ali. But if Mann is worried that critics and audiences might think he's slipping back into the sleek, stylized mode that was once his overriding signature, he's not giving himself enough credit. Just as Heat didn't need the overpowering mega-wattage of its headliners to live up to 1992's well-received adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, Mann's new film, Collateral, offers sufficient rewards that it doesn't need to play up its casting -- Jerry Maguire playing against type! -- to convince viewers he's made a film worth seeing.

The good news is that that particular bit of casting doesn't do the film any harm. Cruise proves, even more so than in Magnolia, that he can convincingly play on the grimier side of the street. As Vincent, the Type-A assassin who forces soft-spoken cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around Los Angeles on a busy night of killing, Cruise gives a capable performance that's notable for its lack of showiness. In contrast to Magnolia or The Last Samurai, there's no sense that Cruise is trying to dazzle or impress the audience with his range. His Vincent never stoops to press the easy buttons, never comes unhinged in a fit of laughing mania or bubbling-over rage the way so many amoral movie villains do. To Cruise's credit, he knows it's not his movie, and he relaxes into his role with an easy confidence.

No, Collateral isn't a showcase for Cruise but rather for Foxx, who plays the hapless Max with a quiet, working-class dignity. Max is a part-time cabbie who takes pride in his job, at ease enough with his station in life that he can banter and even flirt with an attractive prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) who climbs into his cab. But Max isn't quite as on top of things as he lets the prosecutor believe; although he claims to be biding time, getting things just right for the limo business he hopes to start, he's been a cabbie for twelve years -- enough time to convince Vincent that Max is a dreamer, not a doer. The psychological interplay between the two characters, as their relationship mutates over the course of the night, is one of Collateral's pleasant surprises.

That relationship, and Mann's slick presentation -- aided immensely by Dion Beebe's up-close-and-personal cinematography -- help paper over some of the film's plot contrivances. The very idea that an assassin with a number of federal witnesses to dispatch would attempt to do them all in one night -- so close to the start of the trial at which they're supposed to testify -- strains credulity. That he might hire a cab driver to ferry him around all night (which, as Max points out, is against regulations), the better to create a convenient scapegoat for his work, is slightly less hard to swallow, but still a stretch. Surely, such a killer wouldn't stack the deck against himself like that. (And why are such important witnesses so easy for Vincent to get to?)

Likewise, Vincent's insistence that Max take time out of their night to visit his ailing mother (Irma P. Hall) in the hospital is questionable. Sure, she's been calling Max all night, and it'd look suspicious if he didn't respond, but if you're planning to kill the guy at the end of the night anyway, what should it matter? (Ah, but then we wouldn't get Vincent's valuable insight into a couple of emotional chinks in Max's emotional armor.) And then there's the scene in which Vincent sends Max into a nightclub to impersonate him before his drug-cartel employer (an ingratiating Javier Bardem); the sudden confidence Max displays while procuring information Vincent needs is a leap of faith audiences will either take or they won't.

So, yes, Collateral is a high-concept thriller -- cabbie has to take killer to his victims -- with a convenient coincidence or two (guess which prosecutor Max and Vincent eventually have to come across?). But its look, sound and atmospherics are so well-executed, and its performances (including an almost-unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo as a police detective who begins to piece things together) so deftly handled, that they make it that much easier to overlook the standard-issue plot snags such thrillers inevitably accumulate (not to mention a somewhat abrupt ending that does laudably resist obvious scares and too-pat wrap-ups). No, Collateral isn't The Insider or Ali. It's not even Thief, Mann's 1981 directorial debut. But it's a polished, intelligent piece of entertainment in its own right, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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