Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Collateral (2004) A Film by Michael Mann
Michael Mann's Collateral is largely a compromised film, and for this it's all the more intriguing to excavate where Andrew Sarris' auteur theories prove to be true - that is, that it's through bankable Hollywood material imposed on a director (this being one of the few films Mann does not share a screenwriting for) that his/her particular shining traits manifest themselves most vividly. Not that this is not still quintessential Mann - after all, it's a straight-and-arrow crime movie much like his earlier, other one-word-title works like Thief and Manhunter - but it repeatedly struggles from common denominator tactics, like the stylistic jabs at contemporary pop-culture relevance (a groan-inducing inclusion of Audioslave's "Shadow on the Sun"), and several times threatens to become a boneheaded chase picture. The hammer-to-the-head Audioslave moment, for instance, which overpowers the mood of what is otherwise one of the film's most chilling, surrealistic moments, hints at a bigger clumsiness at work here, a trait that is partly intended (the gritty, textural digital video) and partly, I suspect, accidental. In particular, it is the incessant and sometimes laughable use of musical score (is that a Garage Band drum loop I hear?) that is damaging, undermining the film's seriousness as if to suggest it's all a campy romp. But it is only because Collateral's imagery is so luminous, its psychological inquiries and sociological commentaries so penetrating, that I am willing to push my selective attention to the brink and pretend the music's not there.
As usual, the substance of Mann's filmmaking is in his evocative visuals that capture in ways that are offhand and retrospectively powerful the complex wealth of emotions his films concern themselves with. Therefore, I'll focus on specific images that do justice to this facet of his skillset and demonstrate Collateral as a sharper film than it may superficially appear to be.
An average Los Angeles taxi driver named Max, played here with palpable verisimilitude by Jamie Foxx, is at the film's center, and he is the nexus onto which the audience projects its sympathies. He tends to his ho-hum job on a daily basis with a genuine drive for professionalism and an effortless approachability - the first ten minutes show him first buffering his cab and then carrying on a conversation with a lovely young lawyer named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) without making it too obvious that he's flirting. But it's only temporary, he insists, as his real goal is to run a successful limo business. Trouble is, there's no superhuman hustle in him, no spontaneity that would inspire a breaking of routine, so he's really been in denial, convincing himself he's capable of something without any plan to actually put it into practice. In establishing an easygoing, almost fairy-tale-like mood in this opening sequence, Mann hints at the kind of cruise control mindset towards life that will be painstakingly picked apart and shattered for remainder of the film. In the image below, which is part of a series of moody shots during Max's escort of Annie, Mann draws attention to this delusional, self-deceiving character by capturing life as a reflection, life as an illusion. Max wants to see behind the glass, but is stuck in forward motion in his taxi.
The film abruptly turns noir when Max proceeds to pick up a spiffy, seemingly pleasant guy who gradually reveals himself to be a cold and calculating hitman, Tom Cruise's Vincent. Max quickly finds himself unwillingly complicit in a succession of mysterious assassinations as Vincent offers up a hefty sum for the night's work, and since he's got a gun perpetually slung at his side, Max has no business saying no. Vincent maintains a rock-solid wall of inscrutability in terms of personal history; he simply kills because it's his job, and he does his job well. He also won't let someone as low on the totem pole as Max spoil the precision with which he goes about his work. It's a classic, archetypal meeting of two different "types": the morally questionable, thought-provoking outsider and the naive everyman. The struggles of values, codes, and worldviews between them is an endlessly revealing process, and to some extent, though Vincent is far more self-assured and unbreakable, each of them is backed into a wall, faced with a situation that will challenge their preconceptions in some way. Max lacks the charisma and willpower of Vincent, while Vincent is in serious need of Max's affability and reasoning. In one of Collateral's first climactic scenes of struggle, Mann stages the action in a narrow highway overpass, with fences surrounding the two central characters. As typical a noir touch as it is, it nonetheless works like a charm, making concrete the existential imprisonment they face.
Part of why Collateral works so well as a psychological study is because of the unlikely and unusual sense of camaraderie Max and Vincent develop over the course of the narrative, even as they debate and threaten each other on the surface. This is a complex relationship, one driven by disconnect and obligation but reminiscent of masculine bonding, or friendship, regardless. And since friends assist other friends by revealing their shortcomings, this is precisely what happens in Collateral (though the end result is less fulfilling than it is viciously cathartic). Foxx emits subtle signs in his face and body movements that gradually indicate a character transformation, an adoption of some of Vincent's strengths. In the scene below, in which Vincent sends Max into a shady situation to retrieve a special flash drive, Max's self-confidence finally makes itself known. The oddly cumulative visual progression of the scene - the notion of the style being in sync with the emotions in an uphill climb towards the payoff - begins by framing Max and the object of interest, Felix (Javier Bardem) in ways that break compositional rules to suggest a fundamental discomfort. It's like the two are not even in the same room. But Mann slowly builds towards a standard shot-reversal-shot setup, getting closer and closer and approximating Max's growing bravery.
As well as being a crime thriller, Collateral doubles as a road movie, sharing that genre's equalization of literal and figurative transportation. Almost the whole film takes place on the road, in the busy inner city streets and spacious freeways of LA, only stalling for brief episodes of action. Even when Max purposely crashes the taxi - a cathartic moment that signals an abandonment of his prior methods of self-actualization - the film simply shifts to a new means of passage: the metro line. It's where the edge-of-your-seat climax and resolution ensue, as Max and Vincent face one another, both with gun in hand, on either side of a conjoined subway car. The characteristic object of interest dividing them is of course a female. Coincidentally (and this is a spot where the film is weighed down by Hollywood contrivance), it's Annie from the beginning, and Vincent needs to murder her while Max wants to save her). I won't reveal what happens, and perhaps it's negligible anyway, because whatever the outcome, Max emerges a changed man. As the film winds to a close, Mann frames his protagonist beside a glass building where a vast power plant is reflected. It's nakedly indicative of progress and energy. The mechanical becomes the personal.
On a side note, Mann has pointed towards Dr. Strangelove as one of the key films to get him into cinema in his younger years for its simultaneous high-mindedness and box-office prosperity, so we know he's a Kubrick fan. Here he regurgitates to shocking effect a technically groundbreaking scene from A Clockwork Orange in which Kubrick dropped his camera inside a box from the third story window of a building to visualize a first person suicide attempt. This time Cruise's Vincent is on the other side of the window with a gun, and the repercussions are seen only from Max's unsuspecting vantage point.
What prevents Collateral from being a truly great Mann film is its frequently cheesy action movie stylings, and as much as they tend to line up with his prior work, they just don't feel necessary or justified in the context of this sparse, existential narrative. It's irritating because I can envision a film with even greater impact, with less bludgeoning musical choices and fewer serendipitous images of a menacing Cruise emerging laughably into frame. Still, what remains when you push aside the gloss is a luminous portrait of nighttime LA, a pair of raw, eye-opening performances, and the first-rate contemplation we've come to expect from the director.