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Collateral

dir: Michael Mann
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Collateral is genuinely an excellent film. For what it is. And it may
just be an extended episode of Miami Vice. I might be projecting
substantially, but much of what I saw over the film's two hour length
kept taking me back to the era of people wearing loafers without socks
and suit jackets with pastel t-shirts. Ah, sweet, sweet memory, what
an affliction thou truly art.

If you ever catch any episodes of Miami Vice on cable you might notice
that they look incredibly dated now even more than they did then, and
that's not just because of the clothes and hairstyles. As television
it really wasn't that different from any of the other cop based dramas
that preceded it. It wasn't a million miles away from Starsky and
Hutch
or Hawaii Five O or any other cop show where two cops with very
different styles aggressively pursue criminals and maintain that thin
tissue of lies and self-interest we call the fabric of society.

It did have a strong visual style, with plenty of night scenes and
neon saturated clandestine exchanges in alley ways and night clubs,
way too much saxophone music, constant guest appearances,
surrealistically strange dialogue, bad acting and lots of drug
dealing. You could see it as the logical progression of the era; from
De Palma's Scarface; the 80s US Government's Angry Dad-like foreign
policy focus on countries like Nicaragua, Panama, Granada, Colombia
and the rise to global power of the cocaine industry, all rolled up in
the gaudy artifice of a cop show about two hard-living hard-loving
detectives fighting crime their own way.

All this flashiness with little substance that you can at least partly
blame on Miami Vice's creator Michael Mann was a major part of, if not
the spawning point for the Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer / Joel
Silver era of film making. They are linked by age and era, in that
their art form reached its apotheosis during the heady days of the mid
80s. They owned it, they defined it, and they seduced a lot of people
that should have known better. We look back and laugh, but back then…

Of course blaming Mann for much of the crap the others are responsible
for would be going too far. At most I could try to say that whilst
operating in the same milieu, perhaps Mann aspired to injecting a
little more thoughtfulness into the proceedings than the others will
ever bother with. I could of course be imagining it.

Collateral, to me, is a distillation of that era (despite some of the
technology used which plants it firmly in a contemporary setting) that
finds a way of telling a story somewhat more intelligently than many
of the other previously mentioned ‘film' makers could manage. It
features the kind of drammaturgical dyad that Mann loves in his films
(it's a fancy shmancy way of saying story has two characters that are
similar and different, it just makes me sound like an intemallectual
when I say it the other way), the best example of which is the dynamic
betwixt De Niro and Pacino in the vastly overrated Heat, or Pacino and
Russell Crowe in The Insider, or Pacino and a mirror in general day to
day life.

Our main character Max (Jamie Foxx) is a cab driver in LA. Despite
telling himself and his customers that cab driving is just a temporary
gig, he's been doing it for 12 years. He takes meticulous care of his
cab and is the consummately professional driver who always knows the
best way to get anywhere in the fastest time, to his income's
detriment.

Despite being a clever cookie, and having had a plan to start his own
business for the longest time, and the fact that he does what I
consider to be one of the shittiest jobs in this world, he can't seem
to take the next step. He's not in a rut per se; he just seems to be
in stasis, unable to get enough momentum to break out of his current
life.

It's not an entirely groundbreaking story concept, nor remotely
original. It doesn't need to be. Over the course of a particular night
we get to see what affect two people have on Max's inertia.

That's where the actual story is. The other crime / action / thriller
elements are window dressing. But for window-dressing they're done as
competently as anyone working today, with a decent amount of thematic
importance to the development of the main character.

Before the film even begins, the logo stuff that you see that usually
precedes a film is worth noting in this instance. Involving the
Dreamworks intro, as it does for most of the movies they put out, the
imagery is adapted specifically for the film. The Paramount logo also
is adapted for this film. It's a very minor detail, but the only
manner in which the intros are adapted is that they're shown in black
and white. So when people refer to the film as being ‘noir', now you
know how it was telegraphed to them.

Of course there's nothing in the film itself that qualifies as being
noir, nor does it reference any of the classic 30s – 40s movies that
it wants you to think of (which is probably a vast over-estimation of
the viewing habits of the average audience member, but hey, I'd rather
be overestimated occasionally than perpetually undervalued). Still,
there isn't a term available yet to describe what it is. ‘Neo-noir' is
a term so wrong that I can't bring myself to use it. There are however
strange elements that seem to coincide with that particular genre.
There is an existential component to much of the arguing that goes on
between our main characters, one of whom is principled but weak, and
the other who is amoral and immensely strong. The central argument is
whether our actions matter in a universe completely devoid of religion
or morality. Clearly one person says ‘Yea' and the other says ‘Nay'.

If they'd asked me I would have said the Nay, Nay Thrice Nays have it,
but I didn't make the film. It appeals to me all the same.

After dropping off a lovely prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) with whom
he develops a brief but memorable connection, Max picks up his next
customer, Vincent (Tom Cruise). Vincent is sharp, perceptive and
smooth. He's in LA on business, but doesn't like LA and doesn't like
driving. So he needs Max to drive him around the sprawling city over
the course of the night as he conducts five business meetings with
various people on behalf of his patrons.

Vincent's manner is supremely confident, and he has no difficulty
cutting through the bullshit rationalisations and fantasies that Max
has built up over the years. Max is drawn to Vincent, unconsciously,
because he sees in Vincent someone not fearful about doing what they
want to achieve their goals, who isn't prey to the same feelings of
self-doubt and fear that he is.

Of course Vincent is the last person who should be mentoring anyone
else. Despite the fact that he does have clear, devastating answers
for all of life's complications, Vincent is in actuality a
professional killer who derives immense satisfaction from a job well
done. Just what kind of effect this has on Max's personal
philosophical approach to the universe I'll leave to the viewer to
discover.

Both men work difficult jobs and are very good at what they do. Max is
an excellent, honest cabbie who can get a pick-up to their destination
in the best time possible, knowing as he does the currents and
undertows of LA's roads and freeways. Vincent is supremely efficient
and adaptable, also ruthlessly adept and proficient at killing people
in all sorts of different ways. Both men derive their sense of
identity from their jobs, therefore the manner in which they are
allowed to or prevented from carrying out their designated tasks forms
their major battleground. At one point, in a situation I won't spoil,
Vincent emphasises this by yelling at Max ‘This is what I do for a
living', as if to underline just how good he is at violence.

Cruise is quite remarkable in the role. He's really, really good in
the movie. I know, you've just shot whatever liquid you were drinking
out of your nose and perhaps even shot it out of your tear ducts like
some people I know can do. I'm serious. The feral intensity he brings
to many of the occasions where he is ‘working' is quite something to
behold. A lot of it is his facial expressions, which are utterly cold
leading up to the specific project management milestones, and then
ferocious during the actual moments when he's achieving his
objectives. Everything he brings to the physicality of the role works
well in the depiction of his character. Little touches abound that
work as well: the speed with which he changes clips for his gun, the
casual manner in which he dispatches a guy who tried to rob him, the
professional stance he takes when stalking prey, the way in which he
runs, the certainty with which he conducts himself all point to a
well-realised character. The whole other nihilist dialogue and ethical
dilemmas stuff is just the icing on the sociopathic cake.

Without Max being a character we can identify and empathise with
however, it would be an exercise in pointlessness. Max is an excellent
counterpoint to Cruise's Nietzschean ubermensch. Their dynamic is an
interesting and enjoyable one and I can say I thoroughly enjoyed their
interplay. The story on the whole holds up for me because it's the
kind of competition of moral and ethical ideas that Training Day
pretended to be and punked out on, and I genuinely felt tension and my
heart racing over its duration, which is awfully rare for me. The way
the plot forces Max to adopt, at least momentarily, the assertiveness
and confidence that Vincent exudes is truly a joy to behold.

The cinematography is excellent, truly excellent. Despite being shot
on Digital Video, which in my humble opinion usually looks like shit,
the manner in which this film is shot is pretty amazing. It's the LA
night skyline that plays an additionally crucial role in the film.
Almost every shot composed that doesn't involve an aerial shot of the
city or our characters in the cab has the skyline dividing the scene.
I even remember a scene where our characters are nowhere near a window
or a view of the city, yet the skyline appears in a mirrored surface.
It may seem pointless for them to go for that imagery so persistently,
and excessive, but it makes sense in the scheme of the film.

Two cinematographers are credited; Australia's own Dion Beebe and another
guy called Paul Cameron. I have no idea why there are two
cinematographers credited; I'm sure it's some highly entertaining
gossipy type-crap that would play big in a magazine like American
Cinematographer but would probably bore even me if I chose to research
it and write about it here. So what hope do you tulips have? All I
know is that one or both of them did a superlative job.

Early on in the film, upon being asked his opinion of LA, Vincent
states that he doesn't like the city because it's such a diffuse,
distanced sprawl where people are so isolated from each other that the
city itself exudes this alienation (uh, being the cause of it, I
guess). Los Angeles itself is one of the truest examples of a major
city created with the car in mind. Most other cities you can think of,
ones that predate the automobile by centuries almost always had a
dense urban core with suburbs spreading out sometimes organically,
mostly by design.

Forget all of that in terms of the development of Los Angeles. By the
time it was growing into the sprawling metropolis that it has become
today, its dimensions were dictated by the availability of the car,
and instead of thinking of streets or laneways, of people getting
around by foot or public transport, they were thinking in terms of
highways and freeways, with everyone jaunting about in their
jallopies.

Of course you'd set a story like this in a cab. It makes perfect
sense. Sure, the last two paragraphs were so boring that you're biting
your keyboard in frustration wondering when the fuck I'm going to shut
up, but this kind of stuff is interesting to me. Others of you, who
are canny and sneaky, may have figured out that I'm not the only
person that's pointed all that city development crap out before. Sure,
give the credit to Adrian Martin, film critic at The Age, go on then.
Well, all I can say is that I saw the film before I read his review,
and studied that kind of shit about city development last year at uni,
specifically about LA, so I stick out my tongue at you from the safety
and tyranny of distance.

I could keep rambling on about the film, but I don't think it's
necessary. And plus it's just going to confuse some people even more
who will see the film and think it's ‘eh'. I would bet a kidney (if I
still had a working one to spare) or someone else's that Cruise will
get a nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards next year, of
that I have no doubt. If Sir Smoochy Anthony Hopkins can get nominated
and win for his role as Hannibal ‘the Huggable' Lector then surely
Cruise deserves something for playing such an interesting sociopath in
this film.

If nothing else the film's essential point: if you're stuck in a rut
change your life or a homicidal maniac will come along and change it
for you, deserves to be heeded by everyone out there in La La Land
whether they watch the film and enjoy it or not.

8 times Tom Cruise plays characters with facial hair to show
that he's cool out of 10

--
‘Max: You... you killed him?
Vincent : No, I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.'- Collateral

Rating: