by Mel Valentin
With "Collateral," what otherwise would have been a slight, predictable, and clichéd action/thriller, Michael Mann ("Thief," "Manhunter," "The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat," "The Insider," "Ali," "Robbery: Homicide Division") once again proves himself a filmmaker of indisputable talent, a visual stylist fully aware of, and responsive to the possibilities inherent in the medium. In less distinguished hands, superior cast notwithstanding, "Collateral" would be immediately dismissed by audiences and critics alike, easily becoming late-night cable fodder.Collateral can be described as a two-character drama between kidnapper, an assassin who identifies himself only as “Vincent” (Tom Cruise) visiting Los Angeles with a computer-generated hit list and his kidnap victim, an unsuspecting cab driver, Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), who becomes an unwilling accomplice in Vincent’s killing spree. Vincent is a typical example of the genre: coldly and dispassionately efficient, disconnected from social and cultural reality, in short an amoral, violence-prone sociopath. Max, the putative protagonist, is an everyman, whose mundane existence is a pale imitation of the life he dreams about (twelve years as a cabdriver indicates he’s more dreamer than the active protagonist of his own life). His dream is, at its center, the generic and escapist American Dream, success measured by money and consumerism.
"A routine crime/actioner elevated by Michael Mann's stylish direction."
Collateral opens with the arrival of the Vincent character in Los Angeles. Mann liberally uses tight steadicam shots, unbalanced medium shots to introduce us, almost claustrophobically, to the antagonist, suggesting the discomfort and unease implicit in his presence. Max is first introduced fastidiously cleaning his cab, preparing for work. His first fare, however, isn’t Vincent, but a federal prosecutor, Annie Ferrell (Jada Pinkett Smith). The scene unfolds with noticeable implausibility; their romantic connection (and later the connection of their encounter to the main plotline) is both underdeveloped and unlikely, given the obvious differences in social status between the two characters. Annie’s character serves to introduce both the romantic subplot and later to connect the subplot to the main plotline in the third act.
There would be no film, of course, without an apparently coincidental encounter between the two central characters. To Max, still high on his encounter with Annie, Vincent is just one more fare. He soon discovers, however, that Vincent’s desire to hire him for the night hides an ulterior motive: Vincent’s brief visit to and through Los Angeles involves the murder of five, apparently disconnected, individuals. The first-act climaxes with Max’s dramatic discovery of Vincent’s identity and his plans. Mann punctuates the end of the first act with a falling body literally separating the first from the second acts, wrenching Max violently from his insular existence. The ethical dilemma, no surprise, is a stark one for Max, between guilt-inducing participation in Vincent’s criminal actions, or simply put, his own death. Max is first compelled to act as Vincent’s getaway driver, his complicity and increasing uncertainty about the moral tradeoffs he’s made and continues to make, lead to an attempted escape, and later, impromptu attempts to frustrate Vincent’s plans.
The screenplay for Collateral by Stuart Beattie falters in several ways, however: first and foremost, Vincent’s decision to use a public cab, instead of simply renting or stealing a car strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The audience is expected to believe that meticulous, highly trained killer would risk discovery (or worse) to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with a second-rate cab driver. Second, the introduction of the romantic subplot in the prologue, matched by its re-introduction into the third-act (and into the main plotline), is flatly implausible. Third, the transformation of the protagonist from everyman to hero is overly schematic, undermotivated, and ultimately unconvincing. Max's heroics are driven more by the plot’s overarching requirements (and the need for a continuing series of reversals and complications) than his abilities or his growing self-awareness. Last, given how grounded the first and most of the second acts are, Vincent’s transformation into an uber-assassin/Terminator-like killing machine, who fearlessly and recklessly attempts an assassination inside a packed nightclub (contradicting his earlier stated comment that he prefers to work at the margins, unseen and unidentified) rings hollow.
The screenplay’s faults, however, can be overlooked, in comparison to Michael Mann’s mastery of camerawork, pacing, and his direction of the performances, both primary (Cruise and Foxx, both proving themselves capable of handling the occasionally nuanced material) and secondary (Jada Pinkett Smith, to a lesser extent, and Mark Rufalo, showing a chameleon-like ability to dissolve himself into an admittedly minor role). Mann chose to use high-definition video for most of the film (primarily for the exteriors). High definition is still noticeably inferior to film stock, but it offers a greater depth of field and visibility for the nighttime shots. It also adds “ghosting” or blurring at the edges of moving characters and objects. Audiences might find that ghosting distracting, but it also underscores the dislocation and heightened reality encountered by the hero/protagonist.
Stylistically, Mann avoids using establishing shots to open or close scenes. Instead, he chose tight, medium shots, with a shallow depth of field. For example, in the scenes inside the cab, he creates a sense of claustrophobia for both characters and audience by emphasizing the actors alone in each shot, pushed to the side of the frame, instead of relying on two shots of the characters in conversation. Mann also uses cutaways or inserts, fragmenting the characters from each other and from their own actions (and directing the audience to important information that will be connected to the main storyline).
Mann’s direction of the action set pieces is equally assured, from the nightclub scene mentioned above, to a confrontation inside a darkened, steel and glass office building. The interior of the darkened building is covered in eerie, indirect light streaming in from nearby commercial buildings and the highway. In addition to the multiple light sources, Mann shoots through a series of glass interiors to fragment and disrupt the audience’s perceptions of the action. The lighting, editing, and camera movements all heighten the suspense in the scene.By the film's third act, audience sympathy is clearly with the hero/protagonist, but it's not a zero-sum game. Like Hitchcock’s better work, Mann manages to end "Collateral" with a measure of audience sympathy for the antagonist by showing his vulnerability in one or two scenes, but here, audience sympathy may be more a function of Tom Cruise's performance and Michael Mann's directorial skills. Mann smartly also avoids an extended epilogue, instead ending the film with a brief denouement that leaves the characters and the audience with a sense of closure and release (not surprisingly, the film ends at dawn).
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originally posted: 05/25/05 06:22:13