Saturday 18 February 2012

From the archive: "Collateral"

Michael Mann's new picture Collateral turns out to be an L.A. equivalent to what Scorsese's After Hours or Bringing Out the Dead were to New York: a long, dark, paranoid, insistently kinetic night of the soul from which it's possible nobody will be getting out alive. It's the story of Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), a self-described "temporary" cabbie (he's been at it twelve years), whose evening starts well when he picks up a businesswoman (Jada Pinkett Smith) who promises to give him a call sometime when he's off-the-meter. Having dropped her off, however, Max's next fare proves more tricky. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a grey-haired hitman who asks Max to pull over for a few moments while he goes to "meet" somebody, and then promptly dumps a corpse on the driver's windscreen. Over the rest of the night, Vincent will also play the roles of avenging angel, voice of Max's conscience (insisting the cabbie buy his hospitalised mom some flowers), moral arbiter (gunning down a couple of ne'er-do-wells who've robbed the cab), Leland Palmer lookalike, and unlikely advocate of carpe diem philosophy ("One day... and it's gone"). Max? Well, Max is too busy trying to keep his body free from unnecessary bullet holes.

Coming as it does after the reverent Ali, Collateral invites reading as Mann's first foray into outright comedy, but it can also be approached as an experimental action movie. The director possibly saw Stuart (Pirates of the Caribbean) Beattie's generic script as a prime opportunity to continue his experiments in cinematic space, and how that space can best describe human relationships. Vincent, when asked whether he likes the City of Angels, looks out the window and damns the city as "too spread-out and disconnected". Distance here is not just physical, but psychological: the hitman backs away from his crimes with such utterances as "I shot him; the bullets and the fall killed him". Sometimes that distance is astronomical, as in Vincent's last-reel speech about the cosmic insignificance of humankind. Yet at other points, the gap appears to be bridgeable: the finale takes in corporate towers, mobile phones, and the best use of the L.A. subway since Speed, and works as not only a masterful suspense sequence, but as a sustained conceptual joke about (and at the expense of) Vincent's idea of the city's disconnectedness.

Mann's two-shots, his organisation of space on a scene-by-scene basis, remain just about the best in the business. When Vincent sends Max into a nightclub to meet Felix (Javier Bardem), the drug dealer who hired him, the latter pair share the same booth and, one would expect, a certain proximity within the frame. But just as these characters are at cross-purposes, so too Mann reverses the angles: the men appear as though sitting with their backs to one another. You could say that Mann's decision to shoot on high-definition digital is also one of space, taking some of the edge off the director's usual visual sheen and rendering the image as a blur, comparable to what must be passing through the harassed Max's mind. (In the press notes, Mann says the decision was one of light - digital allows one to see further into the night, apparently, the better to grasp the encroaching darkness.)

At any rate, the number of jazz-as-excuse-for-improv metaphors present in the script lends further credence to the belief, expounded by such filmmakers as Mike Figgis, that digital is the perfect host for experimentation, the space between its pixels forming the visual correlative to the gaps between notes in a blues piano solo. There's not a whole lot experimental with the casting of Cruise as a natural born predator (Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia got there first): the role tallies with the less malleable aspects of the actor's screen persona, that steely core of determination apparent whenever he appears before the camera. (In Mann's earlier Heat, Robert DeNiro's McCauley was seen buying a book on metals; with his aluminium-grey suit and highlights, Vincent may have appeared as an illustration somewhere within it.)

No, the real revelation here is Jamie Foxx, an actor considered "promising" too long for that tag to have any more meaning, no matter that he was one of the best things about Ali. The role of Max allows Foxx to cycle through different personae with each passing hour: downtrodden working man, would-be Casanova (in his scenes with Pinkett Smith), mother's boy, Tom Cruise impersonator (in his scene with Bardem) and, finally, accidental action hero - all challenges he proves up to. As befits these leading men, the film is a silver-and-black comedy, something very conventional flecked with something very unconventional, the result of Mann's alchemy. For fullest effect, see it on the biggest screen you can find (where, even then, the film is unlikely to be entirely contained) at a midnight screening or at least a late show, at the point where disorientation is starting to set in, your own eyes are clouding over, and you'll be even more susceptible to the sudden lurches and strangenesses with which Mann has stocked the plot.

(September 2004)

Collateral screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.40am.

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