"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, July 3, 2009

Michael Mann Week: Collateral

After the commercial failure and mixed critical reaction to the vastly underrated Ali (2001), Michael Mann returned to familiar territory — the urban crime thriller — with Collateral (2004). Coming off three grandiose epics in a row, the veteran filmmaker shifted gears with this lean, no-nonsense film that harkens back to early films in his career like Thief (1981). One has to wonder if the pressure was on Mann to make a more audience-friendly film after his last two failed to produce at the box office. Like the late Stanley Kubrick (of whom he is sometimes compared to), Mann has tried repeatedly to breakthrough to a mainstream audience. It would make sense then that he would cast Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise as one of the main protagonists. If there were any actor on the planet that could guarantee a sure-fire hit at the box office it would be Cruise (although, it didn’t work out for Kubrick when he cast the actor in Eyes Wide Shut). However, Mann throws a potential spanner in the works by casting the actor as an amoral hit man. Would this scare off a mainstream audience?

Collateral is about three lonely professionals who are brought together over the course of one night. Max (Jamie Foxx) has been a cab driver in Los Angeles for twelve years. He is anal-retentive about his cab as evident by the way he meticulously cleans the inside and out of it. Mann shows the fragmented details of the noisy garage full of hustle and bustle where Max is working on his cab: people fixing car engines and cabbies arguing. The director also includes close-ups of engines, license plates, a steering wheel, a front bumper and a tail light. As soon as Max closes the door of the cab all the cacophony of the garage is gone. He is alone with his thoughts just like Jeffrey Wigand at the beginning of The Insider (1999). They are both in their own soundless bubbles, however, for Wigand it is a prison while for Max it is his own private oasis as signified by the postcard of a tropical island that he affixes to the visor in his car. Like Frank in Thief, this postcard represents his dreams. Max looks at his postcard while a couple argues in the back of his cab. It is his escape from the pressures of the day.

His first fare is a beautiful assistant District Attorney by the name of Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith). She gives him directions but he has a better route and they make a bet: if her way is shorter then the fare is free. She is bemused by his wager and as they drive through the city, Mann includes shots of the freeway at night bathed in warm light with classic soul music playing on the soundtrack, creating a warm and inviting mood as they get to know each other. The dialogue between these two people flows naturally as they talk about their respective jobs. Max charms her by figuring out what she does and talking about his dream of opening his own limousine service: “Island Limos. It’s gonna be like an island on wheels. A cool groove like a club experience. When you get to the airport you’re not gonna wanna get out of my limo.” Max guesses that Annie is a lawyer by what she is wearing. She opens up and tells him about her insecurities with her high-pressure profession.

We find out that Max is a good judge of character and that Annie likes what she does but has her reservations, fears, doubts and feels comfortable enough to tell him. He says that she needs a vacation and gives her his postcard so that she has somewhere to escape to when things get too hectic. She gives him her business card opening up the possibility and the hint of romance. They have made a connection. Despite a premise that is steeped in the crime genre, Mann manages to keep things fresh and interesting by starting things off with an intimate conversation between two lonely souls who have met by chance.

After dropping off Annie, Max picks up his next customer and the tone of the film changes. Vincent (Cruise) is all business and tells the cabby that he is a salesman in town to visit with five clients. When Max tells him it will only take seven minutes to get to his destination, Vincent is willing to time him but the cabby is not going to offer him a free ride like he did with Annie. Vincent talks about how he hates L.A. and how it is “sprawled out, disconnected.” He recounts a story about how a man died on the subway and his body rode on it for six hours with nobody noticing. Their small talk is reminiscent of the conversation Max had with Annie and they even talk about some of the same things, like Max’s proposed limo service but he does not go into the same kind of detail with Vincent because he does not feel as comfortable with him.

When they arrive at Vincent’s stop, he offers Max $600 to drive him to five other destinations around the city. It seems too good to be true and this scene plays out in the cab bathed in eerie green light, forewarning danger as Max will regret his decision to accept Vincent’s proposal in a few minutes. During the first stop a man crashes onto the roof of Max’s cab. The charade is over and Vincent is forced to play his hand. He is actually a hit man hired to kill five key witnesses in an indictment against a Latin American drug cartel. He proceeds to intimidate and force the shocked cabby at gunpoint into helping him.

One of the hits later on in Collateral is also the film’s most impressive action set piece – a memorably choreographed shoot-out at a night club. Vincent demonstrates just how efficient a killing machine he really is, shooting, knifing and breaking bones of anyone who gets in the way of his intended target. This sequence was shot in a Korean nightclub called Fever with 700 extras over nine days. Mann amplifies every deafening gunshot and every snap of bone for jarring, realistic effect. It is a fantastically orchestrated chaos on par with Mann’s other great action sequence, the famous bank heist in Heat (1995) as everyone converges on the club: the FBI investigating Felix, representatives from the cartel, the L.A. police department, the target’s bodyguards, and, of course, Max and Vincent.

Tom Cruise expertly transforms himself into one of Mann’s quintessential protagonists. Like Frank in Thief and Neil McCauley in Heat, Vincent is a consummate professional with an economical use of words. Cruise portrays Vincent as a cold-hearted killer who has no problem justifying what he does — after all it is part of the job — nothing more, nothing less. As the actor remarked in an interview, “He is an iconic killer, and he knows for himself that what he’s doing is correct, and wants to approach this in a professional manner—but then there’s things that he doesn’t even realize are happening to him, subtly.” Cruise treads a fine line between calculated menace and slick charm. Every so often he hints at something else going on behind Vincent’s eyes — a whole inner life that we only catch glimpses of. This is something he has done to a limited degree in Interview with a Vampire (1994) and Magnolia (1999) but not quite with the same intensity or in such detail as with this role.

The risk in casting someone like Cruise is that he carries a lot of baggage with him. His face and voice are so recognizable that it is hard for him to disappear into a role. Mann was conscious of this when he cast Cruise: “Tom is one of the most recognizable people on the planet. And so you have to make him Vincent. I use everything—the bones, the colors, the patterns, the rhythms of the character to end up with what you see. Everything goes into the performance. And then the clothes just fit. It all becomes seamless.” It does not take Cruise long to shed his megastar persona and become Vincent. By the time he kills two thugs trying to rob Max with ruthless efficiency, there is no question that Cruise has become this character. The choice of the non-descript grey suit was an important aspect of Vincent’s character. Mann said in an interview: “It’s not really a disguise, but it’s anonymous. If somebody actually witnesses him and the police ask for a description, what are people going to say? A middle-aged, middle-height guy wearing a middle grey suit and white shirt. It describes anybody and nobody in terms of Vincent’s trade craft.”

In contrast, Jamie Foxx provides the humanistic counterbalance to Cruise’s amoral existentialist. He is obviously the audience surrogate but Mann does not hit the audience over the head with this fact. Max cares about what happens to the people Vincent kills and is horrified by his actions. Known more as a comedian, Foxx has shown in recent years, with Any Given Sunday (1999) and Ali, that he has the capacity for dramatic roles. His performance in Collateral is his most natural one to date. He abandons all of his usual shtick and creates a full-realized character that avoids the usual tired cabby clich├ęs. Inactivity is perhaps Max’s defining trait. He keeps telling anyone that will listen of his desire to open his own business and yet he has made little progress in the twelve years he’s driven a taxi. This comes to the surface when he and Vincent visit Max’s mother in the hospital. This is a pivotal scene where the presence of Vincent acts as a catalyst that transforms Max into a proactive character.

Yet, there is emptiness to the lives of Annie, Max and Vincent. Mann constantly captures them in the vast empty spaces of deserted streets, back alleys and subway cars with his expansive widescreen aspect ratio. As Vincent constantly reminds Max, “Nobody notices.” These characters are alienated by a cold and uncaring city. With the exception of Max’s mother, none of these characters have any significant friends or family. What they do for a living is what defines them.

The idea for Collateral came to screenwriter Stuart Beattie during a cab ride from Kingsford Smith Airport to his home in suburban Sydney, Australia. During the ride he remembers thinking, “I could be a homicidal maniac. You never get in a car with a stranger, never pick up a hitcher, but a cab driver defies those rules. Taxis are mini-islands floating around the city with two people in a confined space. It was rife for drama.” Beattie studied at Oregon State University and wrote the first draft of The Last Domino. It “sat in a drawer” for years while he went on to write Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). His script made the rounds in Hollywood before he gave it to producer Julie Richardson. She liked the screenplay and tried to develop it at HBO with Frank Darabont in 1999. They eventually passed on it and later that year, DreamWorks executive Marc Haimes renamed the script Collateral and brought the project to Walter Parkes, co-head of the studio with Russell Crowe interested in playing the role of Vincent. Beattie remembers that Crowe “really got the heat on it. After three years of the script going around Hollywood, once Russell got involved, it was alive again.” Other directors, like Mimi Leder and Janusz Kaminski, expressed an interest in making the movie.

After Ali, Mann spent two years developing The Aviator (2004) but ultimately decided not to direct instead taking on the role of producer because he wanted to do a “story that took place in L.A., at night.” He soon agreed to direct Collateral but Crowe had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. The director was attracted to the compressed time frame in the script, much like the structure of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the film that made him want to be a filmmaker in the first place. “I was making an entire motion picture out of only the third act. This is the denouement: the finale is at the beginning of the movie and that’s it. Dr. Strangelove’s the same, in that it begins with the ending. Sterling Hayden launches, that’s it, they’re gone. Two acts probably built it up to that.”

When Mann came aboard he contributed an uncredited rewrite changing the offscreen bad guys to a narco cartel based in Latin America who is trying to avoid indictment by a federal grand jury. He also changed the setting from New York City to Los Angeles. Mann said that he “changed the culture, the locale, the characters’ back stories and what they talk about, but I didn’t change the narrative structure or the engineering under the surface.” Parkes remembers, “Michael talked about wanting to shoot in Los Angeles in ways that it’s never been shot before—a multilingual, multiethnic city at night, a very particular evocation.”

Actor Tom Cruise had wanted to work with Mann ever since he first saw Thief. Cruise said, “I have seen all of Mann’s movies. It’s something you want to look at and study, because he designs his pictures from the ground up and really has tremendous command of the medium and the story telling.” When Mann sent Cruise the script, the actor remembers, “he sent different stills, almost an art motif of things he was thinking about, and what he wanted to explore.” When they first met, the director offered the role of Max to the actor but it was Cruise who suggested that he play Vincent. He was attracted to the role of Vincent because it was so different from anything else he had done. He was drawn to the character as “how someone becomes an antisocial person.” However, Cruise was not entirely convinced that he could play a villain but Mann remembers telling him “that Al Pacino, De Niro, McQueen had all done it and it was his turn now. He’s 42, so if he didn’t do it now, when would he?” Mann was interested in working Cruise because he wanted to see the actor try a role he had not played before. He elaborated in an interview: “There’s dimensions to Tom that I hadn’t seen on the screen. It became an exploration to bring some of that out, some of the steel that’s in there. Some of the toughness, the certainty and the very good kind of avid, proactive vibe towards a goal, and darker resonances within that.”

Collateral gave Mann another chance to shoot in Los Angeles. He was attracted to its “industrial landscape. I like the feelings of ennui and alienation the vacant landscape suggests.” The director has lived in L.A. since 1971. He once remarked in an interview, “There’s a certain romance of the city at night that I confess I’m completely vulnerable to.” Right away, Mann establishes a multi-ethnic Los Angeles that is rarely seen in Hollywood movies, even his own Heat. In the first ten minutes alone, several different languages are spoken. Mann takes us on a tour of many different neighborhoods, from the high-rise corporate culture of the downtown core to the exotic culture clash of trendy Koreatown. He discovered the multi-ethnic, multi-class aspect of the city while riding around with a detective in an unmarked police car researching for Heat. In many respects, the city itself is a character and Mann constantly reminds us of this with several establishing overhead shots that show off the topography of L.A. Mann takes every opportunity to immerse us completely in the sights and sounds of the city that he knows all too well. Not since Blade Runner (1982) has such an ethnically and economically diverse vision of this city been depicted on film.

Over 80% of Collateral was shot utilizing the state-of-the-art Viper FilmStream digital camera. Mann was the first director to road-test the Viper, the first cinema camera to store images as data directly to a hard drive. In an interview, Mann said that, “with digital, we were able to do seventeen to eighteen 20-minute takes—three-to-four page scenes done en masse.” It allowed Mann to film longer takes because his camera could store 55 minutes on a tape. The entire shoot only took 65 days. A sharp contrast to Heat’s epic 107 day shoot. The look of Mann’s film should be familiar to anyone who saw his short-lived (and little seen) television series, Robbery Homicide Division, which was also shot on digital video. As L.A. Takedown was a dry run, stylistically, for Heat, so too was RHD for Collateral. With this new camera, Mann is able to bring out all kinds of depth and color during night-time scenes that wasn’t possible before. Mann has said in an interview: “It enabled me to be very painterly with building the scene. It’s counterintuitive to photography in every conceivable way. Throw a light meter away, I don’t need it. It’s right there on a high def monitor. But it required knowing exactly what you want because what’s available is a much broader spectrum than a motion picture film.” However, there were certain scenes, like the disco shoot-out that were shot on film because “we were on a big interior set that had to be lit and we could move around more freely with the camera on our shoulder shooting 35mm than we could using digital.”

Collateral was Mann’s most critically well-received film since The Insider and the most commercially profitable since Heat. Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader praised Mann’s storytelling abilities. “Mann’s success with well-worn genre tropes goes hand in hand with his actor – and character-driven approach to storytelling, which provides a solid grounding for the picaresque detours and digressions of Collateral’s plot.” Manohla Dargis in The New York Times described the movie as “very much the product of a distinct vision, one as eager to push technological limits ... as to upend the usual studio white-hero/black-villain formula.” Mark Olsen in Sight and Sound lauded Mann’s use of DV and compared him to Kubrick. “If Kubrick could prefigure the colours and framing of the still-emerging digital aesthetic, Mann is perhaps the perfect filmmaker to take the technology forward.”

In his review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel wrote, “But at his best, Mann wears his hipness easily. It works particularly well in Collateral, which has a nice minimalist quality about it – just these two increasingly edgy guys, their car and the people they encounter.” Michael Atkinson provided one of the rare, dissenting voices with his review for The Village Voice: “Several yowling soundtrack singles are more obtrusive than emphatic, and he is susceptible to the Industry’s de rigueur editing hyperactivity ... Collateral is a slim drink of thin beer, remarkable only as evidence that Mann might have a modern masterpiece in him if he were cut loose and allowed to roam around in his own obsessions.”

Collateral is a fitting addition to Michael Mann’s distinctive filmography. It continues his thematic pre-occupations of isolated protagonists who have little time for personal relationships. It is also deals with another Mann obsession: transformation. In order to have any chance of surviving the night with Vincent, Max must change from being a passive character to one that takes an active role in determining his own fate. It is the exploration of such weighty themes, coupled with Mann’s distinctive style that elevates Collateral from its generic conventions.


  1. J.D.,

    An excellent discussion, but I was surprised that you didn't mention the key scene when Vincent forces Max to act like him before the mob boss. Foxx transforms so well, with so much nuance in his hesitations, it seemed to me the start of his stardom.

    I also like Cruise in this role. He's so delightfully focused, so nihilistically deadly, it almost makes up for Mission Impossible III.

  2. FilmDr:

    Ah, yes! That is a really good scene. I thought about mentioning but didn't want to ramble on too long as the post was already fairly large in size but you are right about Foxx's performance in that scene. He does an excellent job.

    Cruise was great in this film - probably his last really good role. As for the MI films, I still like the first one. I thought the De Palma brought a lot of engaging style to the film.

  3. I think you bring up a really great point at the end, the fact that Max is forced to transform. This is a different thematic approach to the material than he'd taken with Heat that has a bit of fatalistic 'criminals will be criminals, good guys will be good guys' edge to it. If you look at the pressure on Donald to transform himself from a criminal to a passive citizen in Heat and his inability to do so, it sort of works counter to Max's transformation into a much more aggressive person. Interesting stuff, great article!

  4. My post is up here. Great readings, JD!

  5. Joshua:

    Yeah, I think that Max's transformation from passive observer to someone who is more proactive is very interesting and something different for Mann. Most of his protagonists are very proactive.

    You raise a good point about Donald in HEAT. I think that Mann seems to be saying in that film that these guys can't escape from who they are. As you said, a fatalistic streak which is what Vincent represents in COLLATERAL. He's not going to change even despite the occasional cracks that appear in his armor.

    Thanks for the compliments!

    Joseph B.:

    Thanks for the link. I will check it out.

  6. Great film,a gem of direction,cinematography,editing,acting,soundtrack!

    I saw it three times in theaters...the film is very haunting on the big screen.

    I love the darkened office scene and also the bitter,somewhat sad ending..."nobody notices"...the last shots from the film are very memorable,haunting,and i love the use of Antonio Pinto's "Requiem" on this last scene.

  7. Guillaume:

    Yes, Vincent's demise is rather fitting considering what he said earlier in the film about how the man who died anonymously on the subway. For all of his talk and expertise, his death will go largely unrecognized.

  8. It's fun, and just amazing to sit back and follow. Check out my review here: http://dtmmr.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/collateral-2004/ Nice Review!