Collateral (2004): Michael Mann’s Intrguing Noir Starring Tom Cruise

Collateral represents a return to form for Michael Mann as the acknowledged master of the neo-noir genre. The film is not as ambitious, rich, or resonant as “Heat,” Mann’s best film to date, but it is certainly better than “Ali,” which didn’t have anything new to say about the celeb-prizefighter. The new movie is also more exciting than “The Insider,” Mann’s expose of the tobacco industry that was too familiar by the time it was made. “Collateral” is not flawless, but it makes for a riveting viewing throughout.

One can only imagine what a more interesting actor than Tom Cruise, say Sean Penn, could have done with the lead role, a hired killer with an existential layer. Like the other Tom (Hanks in “Road to Perdition”), Cruise departs from his established screen image of the cocky handsome guy to play an outright sociopath, in what’s clearly one of his rare villainous roles. Though delivering a proficient performance, Cruise is always Cruise, a fact that even “The Last Samurai,” the pseudo costume-epic with Cruise in Japanese regalia, couldn’t conceal.

Even so, “Collateral” reinvents the noir thriller both thematically and stylistically, in the same way that “The Bourne Supremacy” reenergized the Cold War spy thriller. Unlike Jonathan Demme’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” an impersonal work that fails to pump energy or new ideas into the paranoid thriller beyond what was achieved in the 1970s, “Collateral” is a personal film that continues to show Mann’s evolution as an auteur.

Mann is an innovative director who’s fortunate to get financial backing for his experimentation within the studio system, though both “The Insider” and “Ali” were box-office disappointments. Committed to new ways of storytelling, he’s assisted by a good, straightforward screenplay from Stuart Beattie that explores in depth two opposite characters: Vincent (Cruise), a professional hit man, and Max (Jamie Foxx), the cab driver who takes him around to his assignments.

The word straightforward should be used in caution. What I mean is that “Collateral” is a contrived road movie, whose action is propelled forward by the five stops that Vincent has to make. When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel discovers that some of its operatives are about to be indicted in L.A., it mounts an operation to liquidate the key witnesses. Since the cartel is rich and powerful, it can hire the best person for the job, a man like Vincent.

What’s remarkable about Mann is that even though his origins are in TV commercials and TV series (“Miami Vice,” “Crime Stories”) he’s a master of building lengthy suspenseful sequences, step by step, from the inside out. Mann forces his viewers to pay close attention, to look at every gesture, listen to every word, notice every pause; everything matters, nothing is superfluous, in his mise-en-scene.

Notice the first long sequence, in which Max picks up a passenger named Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith), a U.S. attorney. Both characters are black, but they’re divided along class lines. Mann shows how people of different classes cross paths randomly. Within a short period time (the duration of a cab drive), the dynamics of their relationship change. With masterly strokes, Mann reveals how Annie’s attitude shifts from being polite to being friendly, from feeling that she might never see this cabbie again to giving him her card and expecting him to use it (which he does, but not in the way she anticipates).

Watching “Collateral” makes for an intense, extremely thrilling experience. The story is set over one night, during which the lives of two men, Vincent and Max, are irrevocably changed. The compression of time–the saga takes place between 6pm and 4am–and its immediate intensity, serve Mann well. Mann shows the collision of two lives under extreme circumstances, how philosophies of life, conditioned by personal and social forces, collide and then collapse.

Stuart Beattie’s screenplay breaks the convention of the standard three-act structure with a typical beginning, middle, and end. It’s as if there had been two acts prior to the beginning of the tale, and what’s shown is the denouement of the story, the third act of a thriller. All the prep work has been done offscreen, before Vincent’s first appearance in the film. The back-stories that lead to this fateful night become clear as the drama unfolds. What makes the scenario more complex are the tense, unforeseen circumstances that compel Vincent to improvise, beginning with his being forced to take an innocent cab driver as a hostage.

We have seen films about cabbies and their lifestyle, such as Scorsese’s seminal noir, “Taxi Driver.” But we have not observed in such detail the risks cabbies take when picking anonymous passengers that could range from simpatico types to homicidal maniacs. This point becomes clear in the dialectical juxtaposition of Annie and Vincent as passengers. Structured as a mano a mano game of cat and mouse, “Collateral” is a drama where two complete strangers sit, one with the back to the other, in an enclosed, claustrophobic space, totally alone. In one of the film’s greatest ironies, Max becomes a hostage in his own cab.

The chief challenge for both director and actor is to depict Vincent’s moral code as an absolute professional, proud of his mtier, and then shatter it completely. At the beginning of the picture, Vincent looks perfect, a silver fox coming into town. Every element in Vincent’s physical appearance is coordinated. The custom-tailored gray suit matches his steel gray hair and salt-and-pepper stubbed face. The crucial question then becomes, at what point to show the cracks in Vincent’s elegant and confident veneer.

Max does have an effect on Vincent. The first crack of a long-gone humanity appears midway, when things don’t exactly go according to Vincent’s pre-calculated scenario. Gradually, Vincent is losing grasp on his identity and reality. Though a cold-blooded hit man, Vincent also exerts tremendous influence on Max. Once Max gets over the initial shock of Vincent’s identity, there’s gradual shift in their relationship.

Max is even inspired by Vincent. It’s as if he’s been bursting at the seams for something different in his life, and when it finally happens, he embraces it. Max begins as an everyman character with conventional values and humanitarian impulses who believes in civic duty. Since he’s never seen a violent crime in his life, he’s utterly shocked when he winds up with a stone-cold sociopath in his back seat.

The encounter, like all encounters in Mann’s films, breaks through preconceived ideas, showing the uncertainty involved in chance meetings that turn out to be fatalistic. I may be reading too much into the Vincent-Max relationship, but it has echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, “Persona.” Here, it becomes clear that, under the right circumstances, Max could act as a hired killer as well, that he could assume Vincent’s personality that he could resort to the worst kind of violence.

The noir vocabulary comes natural to Mann, whose world vision is marked by fatalism, existentialism, and nihilism. Mann’s nihilistic view may be too much for some viewers. In his vision, Los Angeles is an urban jungle, where coyotes roam the streets–literally. It’s as if civilization has just arrived in town, as if humanity is just a new, temporary layer in an otherwise brutal world. Mann shot the film with digital video cameras, which capture the nocturnal urban jungle called Los Angeles in a concise way. Drawing on Mann’s customary methodical thoroughness, the film’s visual and sound designs reveal an incredibly precise and perceptive vision.

It’s therefore disappointing that the film’s last reel is reduced to a conventional chase scene, first at an office building where Annie works, then across the streets of L.A., culminating in a subway station. To be sure, to reassert its humanistic values and characters, the story needs a clear resolution. But while exquisitely shot, it’s too routine as a denouement for such a picture.

We detect all of the genre’s tricks–a woman in the dark fearing for her life, a cell phone that doesn’t work, a wounded villain who becomes more obsessive in his pursuit. In other words, the last act drags the movie down, tarnishing some of the wonderful elements that precede it.

Even so, Mann may be the most gifted and innovative director working in Hollywood today, and “Collateral,” coming out after two flops (one commercial, the other artistic) deserves our support.