By John DeFore
Michael Mann makes movies to fit his name. Hollywood isn't shy about testosterone, of course, but Mann romanticizes manliness in a particularly potent and distinctive way, especially the manliness of those old movie mainstays, cops and robbers. His style infected the mainstream via the '80s TV show Miami Vice, and at the time it seemed more style than substance; his stories were draped in trendy glitz and clumsy acting. But over time, particularly in 1995's Heat (his best film to date) it became clear that Mann not only was one of the finest craftsmen in the movies, but his skill was matched by the kind of attitudes those French guys looked for back when they started calling studio directors auteurs.
Collateral revolves around two men: a paid killer (Vincent, played by Cruise) and a cabbie (Foxx, as Max). Both characters, like most inhabitants of Mannsville, do their jobs exceedingly well, taking a pride in their work that is more about self-satisfaction than outside approval. Vincent, we will learn, pegs his victims with three signature gun shots - two in the chest, one in the head - that are accurate to the millimeter; Max keeps his taxi cleaner than a kitchen, and can quote passengers exact travel times from one intersection to the other side of town.
Max's gifts are established a little too aggressively in the opening scenes, where he displays surprising insight into a female fare's career based on his intimate knowledge of high-fashion purse designers. The encyclopedic knowledge may be tough to swallow, but the interaction isn't; Max and the rider (Jada Pinkett Smith) share an easy, sexy moment that establishes this cab as a place where confidences come more easily than in the outside world.
Accepting that premise is essential, because Max's next fare will wind up becoming a full-blown therapy session over the course of many hours. Vincent, claiming he's a traveler needing to visit some clients and friends before a dawn flight out of Los Angeles, hires the cab for the night. He's actually on a killing spree, and when Vincent's first hit goes wrong, Max learns the truth. For the remaining hours Max is an imprisoned chauffeur, getting more entangled in Vincent's mission while looking for a way to stop it or escape.
The plot is satisfyingly tense, throwing into the mix some cops who quickly realize they have a killer on the loose. But Stuart Beattie's script is a bit too cute for its own good. In a crucial early scene, a man's life hangs in the balance over a debatable bit of trivia regarding Miles Davis' biography; the scene is alive, even poignant, up to this point, but the resolution rings false, like something made up by an undergrad who's just discovering jazz. A later nightclub confrontation suffers from a similarly tacked-on exchange - this one involving obscure Santa Claus lore - but is almost pulled off by Javier Bardem, who delivers the speech in a cameo.
On a visceral level, as usual, Mann transcends the flaws of his building blocks. The movie is gorgeous to look at - probably the most beautiful use of High Definition video cinematography to date, expertly manipulated to produce a more substantial feel than earlier HD experiments - and flows with cool rhythms through LA's concrete canyons. Even when the plot finally retreats to the most familiar suspense terrain - man rescuing woman from bogeyman in the dark - Mann finds a way to elevate it, steering his characters through walls of glass that reflect and refract the city lights outside. He isn't perfect: One iffy scene starts with the evocative image of a coyote patrolling an abandoned city street, then is weighted down by a generically crappy midtempo rock number. (The director sometimes displays a tin ear for pop music, even when he has hired unimpeachable composers to write scores.) But as usual with a Michael Mann film, style and technique go a long way, even when the movie itself isn't quite working. •
By John DeFore