Collateral Movie Review
Michael Mann is a masterful director, capable of finessing scenery-chewing actors into subtly spectacular performances, and creating thick mood and atmosphere through his stylish filmmaking acumen. He can create a seat-gripping real-world thriller from something as outwardly tedious as corporate whistle-blowing ("The Insider"). He can turn a heist movie into a meaty, character-driven tour de force ("Heat") and he can make a superb Hannibal Lecter movie without Anthony Hopkins (1986's "Manhunter").
In "Collateral" he works his intelligent, polished magic on a B-movie noir script that would likely have become a catch-phrase-fraught action-explosion flick in the hands of most big-budget directors -- a film about a battle of wits engaged when a Los Angeles cabbie (Jamie Foxx, who knows he's losing that battle) is forced to chauffer a silver-haired, high-priced assassin (Tom Cruise, who knows he's winning) around town on a ruthless, one-night streak of witness murders designed to derail a big federal trial.
Mann doesn't waste time laying out who's on trial or what they're charged with -- those things aren't relevant to the killer or his unwitting accomplice. "Collateral" is about conversations and head games, about what people say and do not say with their language, their looks and their demeanor. Half the movie takes place in Foxx's cab, where the two men are constantly sizing each other up -- and while neither actor gives a standout performance, they both have an inherent ability to tinge their characters with unexpected depth, which make this the better half.
But after the circumstances of the first hit inadvertently expose Foxx to the true nature of his supposed "businessman" passenger, from that point on, whenever Cruise exits the car on his appointed rounds the movie's IQ goes down, often in little ways that were entirely preventable. Example: He drags Foxx (who has already tried to escape a few times) along on a hit in a jazz club at closing time, then next takes him to a hospital to casually visit a patient. Have you ever heard of a hospital with visiting hours that run later than jazz clubs stay open?
A nit-pick to be sure, but I expect more from Michael Mann -- and as the story unfolds, larger contrivances emerge. The fact that Cruise keeps detailed target dossiers on a top-of-the-line tablet PC is merely a plot device, a transparent set-up for said computer to get smashed, forcing the hired gun to alter his plans in a way that tests Foxx's steel and tips off the feds, eventually leading to one of Mann's trademarked, cinematically symphonic shootouts.
"Collateral" is also the kind of movie in which a lone cop (Mark Ruffalo) has an inexplicably accurate wild-hare hunch that the feds are misreading the clues about what's really going on, and it's the kind of movie in which characters walk away from a spectacular roll-over car crash with mere scratches on their noses, then engage in an ante-upping foot chase.
But if all this reveals "Collateral" to have just an average Hollywood action-suspense movie at its core, it is a masterfully made average action-suspense movie. Mann shoots every scene with a striking visual élan that evokes an underlying tone of gritty urban-nighttime beauty without calling attention to itself. He lingers on pensive faces for quiet moments of tension and composes his dialogue scenes in an unconventional cinematic freestyle that isolates each character, bringing out nuances of their quickly revolving doubt, fear, contemplation, hesitation and conviction. He also builds on the pressure-cooker ambiance with the creative, and often sparing, use of sound.
So while the plot is sometimes undermined by queries both marginal (Cruise comes out of the federal prosecutor's building in his first scene, but there's no follow-up on whether an insider gave him the witness list) and more consequential (a late-night subway-train shootout goes virtually unnoticed by passengers and completely unnoticed by the driver), Mann still pulls "Collateral" together with such consummate grace and panache that he raises it above its shortcomings.
This may not be a great film, but it is a sharper, more artistic, and deeply satisfying kind of popcorn flick.