August, 2004, Thriller

After years of writing and directing T.V. crime series like "Starsky & Hutch, "Police Story"--and just before creating "Miami Vice"-- writer/director Michael Mann made his big-screen debut in 1981 with Thief. That examination of a laconic safecracker being squeezed by members of the organized crime ring that finance his felonies contained two elements found in everything Mann's done since; superb visual style, (with minute attention to detail) and an almost clinical focus on the manner in which his protagonists go about the work they do, criminal or otherwise. In a series of subsequent movies, (Manhunter, Heat, Ali, The Insider) Mann's near obsession with the mechanics of his heroes' actions, rather than their moral consequences, has made him a cult figure among movie buffs who find in his stylized but hermetically-sealed worlds a contemporary version of the 1930's hard-boiled detective fiction which spawned the film-noir genre in the hands of authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and directors such as Howard Hawks and John Huston. Mann revisits this familiar turf yet again in this study of a contract killer, (Tom Cruise) and his hapless accomplice, (Jamie Foxx) but with far less success than that found in his earlier efforts.

Cruise plays gray-haired Vincent, a fashionably dressed and cynically nihilistic hit man, who visits Los Angles to eliminate, during the course of a single evening, a handful of people in the drug trade. Hailing a passing taxi driven by Max,(Foxx) am African-American cabbie, Vincent completes his first assassination and then forces the horrified Max to chauffeur him to his other targets. Because the victims are under surveillance due to an impending criminal trial, the police quickly become involved in trying to anticipate and prevent the mayhem Vincent causes in the progress of his deadly night's work. 

Screenwriter Stuart Beattie, (Pirates of the Caribbean) knows how to write the kind of dialogue Bogart, Cagney or Edward G. Robinson would have been comfortable with 70 years ago. Cruise revisits the cynical, self-involved character he offered audiences in Magnolia; his Vincent is smart enough to be self-knowing while sufficiently arrogant to remain completely indifferent to those around him. Foxx gets a chance to move beyond the comedic roles that launched his career and displays here a talent for quiet understatement, but that gets sadly trashed in the high-octane exploits he must perform in order to bring the film's climax to its hopelessly improbable conclusion.

If there's a third, unbilled star here, it’s the City of Angels, as painted by cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron.  In images reflected on windshields, the plate-glass windows of high-rises and across oily mud puddles in the city's back alleys, Collateral provides a near-liquid portrait of the city that does justice to the works of artist Richard Estes. Their cameras slide around corners, probing hospital mortuaries, jazz clubs and after-hour hot spots that provide the audience a gritty glimpse of an urban underbelly with all the unnerving neutrality of  Mann's earlier movies. But this time, the director fails to match his seductive style with content; Vincent is so self-contained he's a cipher, rendering his emotionless slaughter meaningless and his contentious interrogations of the hijacked Max misplaced. As the beleaguered cabbie becomes more complicitious in this lethal project, the script forces Foxx to abandon the credible portrait he's built of a hard-working everyman and become something his character's obviously not--a high-risk taking, quick-thinking, straight-shooting action hero, destroying the very qualities that made his character so attractive in the film's earlier scenes.

As is usually the case, Mann peoples his story with lesser characters that gifted actors surely delight in playing; Javier Bardem, (the Spanish actor so extraordinary in Before Night Falls and The Dancer Upstairs provides a chilling turn as Vincent's employer while Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg deliver solid--if all too brief-- performances as weary members of law enforcement. But Mann needs to invest his leads with more depth than Vincent and Max possess; in the end, for all its exquisite style and dazzling ferocity, Collateral doesn't contain sufficient value to sustain the director’s previous reputation as the crime genre’s current master.   

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