Eschewing the sprawling narratives of every film previously helmed by Michael Mann, 2004’s Collateral is a spartan thriller in which a shadowy and silver-fox contract killer named Vincent (Tom Cruise) pours into a random cab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx), a good-hearted man and erstwhile dreamer. Vincent then forces Max to chauffeur him to his various destination points, a seemingly random person targeted for death at each stop. Two steps behind the taxi of doom is Ray Fanning, (Mark Ruffalo) streetwise LAPD detective who, upon a welfare check to a missing informant, is quick to catch on to the malfeasance afoot in the night air.

Collateral arrived a year after the unceremonious cancellation of Robbery Homicide Division, Mann’s first significant television project since Crime Story in 1986. And, much like The Last of the Mohicans was for him in 1992 after a stretch on the small screen, Collateral is a cinematic reset for Michael Mann. His first for-hire gig, Collateral had a long, pre-production gestation period before it rolled which included a whole other cast and about three other filmmakers attached to it at one time or another. This was not a story Michael Mann had been burning to tell nor was it a case of him sitting at a typewriter and banging out an adaptation of source material by another writer. But after the corporate noir of The Insider and the gargantuan bio epic that was Ali, Collateral saw Mann eagerly ease back in the world in which he’s always at his most comfortable.

Because it’s virtually impossible for the man to make anything lacking in identifiable distinction, Collateral can’t escape looking like a Michael Mann film despite its long pre-production and rocky start. Whatever the creative differences that caused original cinematographer Dion Bebe to be replaced with Paul Cameron three weeks into the shoot, the digital photography shows Michael Mann going all-in as he looked to chart new visual territory after wading slowly into the pool with Ali and Robbery Homicide Division. The choice gives the night skies real texture, reflecting the true colors that emerge in nocturnal cloud patterns that drift through areas with a healthy dose of light pollution. Additionally, it seems freer to pick up the truer rhythms and movements found under the cover of the evening stars epitomized by a beautiful, standstill image of a lone coyote as it wanders though an empty intersection, a wild animal in an even wilder wilderness.

Even when working from a script written solely by Stuart Beattie and without any of his usual co-assistance, Collateral is covered with Michael Mann’s thematic fingerprints just as much as they were all over Straight Time back in the nascent days of his career. Vincent is definitely a character out of Mann’s rogue gallery of philosophical, professional killers. When he shoots a couple of common thieves, he doesn’t just shoot them; he puts two in the chest and one in the head. But this kind of violence only occurs between many a cosmic rumination on chance, fate, imitative, and disconnection (he seems poised on the verge of giving the “time is luck” speech at any second).

And for his good-guy efforts, Max is what Thief’s Frank would call “a mark in time.” His limo company idea swims in the back of his head as he spends twelve years worth of days driving a cab revealing that he is not a man of action but a man “waiting for a bus that he hopes never comes because he doesn’t want to get on it anyway.” In his backseat is a man who is all action, a precision based killer who executes his job flawlessly and seriously. Where Michael Mann’s films usually work within the blurred line between cops and criminals, Collateral keeps these people at polar opposites but still mines a kinship. This strategy makes Collateral a little like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets After Hours where an all night cab ferry turns into a rolling spree of murder and mayhem in which the unwilling tag-along gets to dig deep within to learn something about himself and finally take decisive action.

There’s also a little of Robbery Homicide Division thrown in the stew with Ruffalo in the Tom Sizemore role of a sleepless shark or a detective, swimming around the stucco buildings and Korean-owned grocery stores of LA but in a story told from the vantage point of the criminals. But, ultimately, Collateral gives Mann a chance to stretch his legs and do some nice technical work. With the help of some Oscar-nominated editing work by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell, an early traffic stop turns into a nice masterclass in suspense filmmaking and, deep into the film’s second act, the film’s cross-cutting between Vincent and Max and the cops on their tail as they all move toward a violent confrontation in a nightclub feels tightly wound.

In a movie punctuated by shocking and swift violence, Collateral’s most violent moment is when Vincent and Max visit the latter’s mother (Irma P. Hall) in the hospital and she airs the fabulist portrait Max has been painting of himself as a success. As Vincent hears this and grins with a pitied deliciousness, we can watch Max’s manhood fold like a map. And this is where the film takes its most interesting and refreshing turn. Converging professionalism and character building, Vincent takes Max under his wing to bring more out of him. For in Max he senses something; a sense of self-stymied desperation; a guy wanting to be something, wanting to move forward, but unable due only to himself.

Due to it being just a hair less personal than Mann’s other woks involving high crime in Los Angeles, Collateral flags in its final twenty minutes by devolving into a more routine cat-and-mouse game that goes beyond heightened reality and into the ridiculous. And while the film’s final fifteen minutes are for the cheap seats only, the film in total is just so masterfully helmed. The nod to Hitchcock as Max tries to guide in-jeopardy attorney Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith) to safety by watching her through her office windows from atop a parking garage may be just this side of ludicrous but it works. Ditto the blacked-out climax which recalls Manhunter’s race against time while a woman is stalked within the confines of a choked off-interior by a sociopathic monster.

But, given Michael Mann is a total pro, the final moments between Max and Vincent find their way back to Hanna and McCauley territory; sort of a peaceful resignation of a game well-played with permanent and lasting effects. And this resonates as Collateral ends in the exact same location where Heat begins suggesting a Möbius strip of time where the entrance of bad guys can signal the later exits of good ones.

If there is any word that gets an overextended workout these days, it’s “auteur,” once more narrowly defined as a filmmaker with a distinctive style but now synonymous with anyone who writes and directs their own material. For the literal “auteur theory” was applied to films made within the studio system, a juggernaut of a machine that rolled out product by the fistful and one in which a director was not much more than a project manager. The auteur theory said that, despite the origin of the project or the studio constraints put on the production or the energies put forth by each team involved in its production, each film would be identifiable by its director through visual ideas, thematic concerns, or a combination of the two. And this is why, above all, 2004’s Collateral established director Michael Mann as an auteur in the truest sense of the word.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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