Artistic careers rarely have clearly delineated chapters, but Michael Mann’s discovery of HD video was an unambiguous turning point in his. Not only did it change the visual textures of his movies, but his editing and use of sound have gotten increasingly abstract, to the point where “a Michael Mann film” is now an almost purely sensorial experience. Collateral was the opening paragraph in this chapter.
Nevertheless, career-spanning trademarks abound: Unsmiling men, both literally and figuratively driven; violence skillfully executed by director and characters; Los Angeles at night; questionable soundtrack choices that end up working perfectly. Auteurists won’t sprain anything identifying the director’s signatures, even if he is atypically working with another writer’s script.
All the above elements make for a particularly fine showcase for two leading actors. Jamie Foxx, as cabbie protagonist Max, gives his best performance of 2004, more nuanced and less reliant on impersonation than his Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles. As Vincent, the villain, Tom Cruise delivers the best performance of his career, his imitable intensity (we could end our reliance on fossil fuels in five minutes by giving the actor a cup of coffee and an electrode) given a terrifying focus. Most impressively, and at Mann’s request, Cruise physically transformed himself into a specter, gray from his hair to his suit to his aura. He’s a nigh-unstoppable ghost putting two in his targets’ chests and one in their heads, time after time. Every last line reading is perfect.
There are other good performances, primarily by Javier Bardem and Barry Shabaka Henley, and the superficially conventional aspects of the script—in particular the ending—allow Mann to explore recurring preoccupations like control and its ultimate futility against chance. But the film is particularly delightful thanks to its tone, its images, and its sounds. From here, that trinity of qualities would become the flesh and blood of what makes a Michael Mann movie a Michael Mann movie. Collateral is a sensuous, sinuous ride through a night that both threatens and seduces. It is a dream from which its hero fears he won’t awake, extending to an eternity in every direction.
Availability: Collateral is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase through the major digital services.