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Why Collateral Is One of the Best Underrated Michael Mann, Tom Cruise Movies
In Michael Mann’s greatest movies, the good guys are never really all that different from the bad guys. And make no mistake, they are always guys. The heroes and antiheroes of his stylishly macho films are put through their cat-and-mouse paces in a decidedly grey moral world, rather than a black-and-white one. There’s no room for concepts like right and wrong, they are all lonely nocturnal ambiguity—modern-day Ronin sagas cloaked in a cool shades of gun-metal slate. Just think of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in 1995’s Heat, where these two acting heavyweights play two equally obsessive sides of the same coin. Watching their famous diner tete-a-tete with the sound off, you’d never know who was the cop and who was the criminal.
Heat is widely (and rightly) considered to be Mann’s masterpiece—the director’s grand meditation on all of his favorite pet themes: loyalty, honor, integrity, crime, compulsion, loneliness, and the point where good and evil bleed into one another until you’re no longer sure which side you’re meant to be rooting for. It’s a grab bag of leitmotifs that was there from the start in the director’s pair of ‘80s gems, Thief and Manhunter. But as undeniably lean and mean as both of those films are, I’d argue the movie that actually nips most closely at the heels of Heat in the top tier of Mann’s underworld classics is 2004’s Collateral—another violent, nihilism-drenched thriller that, if you squint just a little, seems to exist in the same spiritual universe as Heat. They’re two movements in an underworld symphony of L.A. after dark.
Just out in a flawless new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Collateral isn’t exactly what anyone who considers themselves to be an auteur buff would call a “deep cut.” Any movie that stars Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx and makes $220 million at the worldwide box office can hardly be called “overlooked.” And yet, well, it kind of is. The story of a lone-wolf contract killer (Cruise) who strongarms a hapless and meticulous cab driver (Foxx) into ferrying him on his nightly rounds to wipe out five targets involved in a grand-jury case, Collateral may not be the best Michael Mann film, but it certainly is the most Michael Mann film.
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When Collateral hit theaters 16 years ago, Mann was coming off a pair of well-received, Oscar-nominated dramas, 1999’s The Insider and 2001’s Ali. Both had the technical precision, live-wire performances, and high-IQ smarts we expect from Mann’s movies. And both were based on real life headlines and headline-makers. But let’s face it, real life isn’t what we’re looking for when we fork over ten bucks to see a new Michael Mann movie. We want crooks plying their crooked trades in the shadows, haunted men obsessed with their jobs to the point of mania, and the sort of gritty-but-gorgeous action set pieces that leave you breathless and spent. Collateral marked a return to stoic form.
Written by Australian Stuart Beattie, Collateral was originally called The Last Domino, a lousy title which was thankfully changed. And eventually, the script made its way into the hands of Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), who had a deal at the time to make low-budget genre movies for HBO. But HBO passed, clearing the way for DreamWorks to step in. The studio flirted with Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) to direct, but both would end up drifting away. As would Russell Crowe, who was itching to play the hitman-villain role of Vincent. But the one fortuitous thing that came from Crowe’s brief involvement was that he passed his enthusiasm onto the man who recently directed him in The Insider, Michael Mann.
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With Crowe out, Mann sparked to the idea of casting Tom Cruise against heroic type. Adam Sandler toyed with the idea of playing Max, the cabbie. But when Sandler bailed to star in Spanglish (just one of the countless puzzling, ‘What If’ choices Hollywood happens to be littered with), Mann offered the part to Jamie Foxx—a happy accident if ever there was one because he’s absolutely perfect. Something Mann suspected from working with the actor on Ali. As is Cruise, whose unexpected amorality and guiltless, hair-trigger sadism shows just how great the star can be when he fucks with our expectations and zigs when we expect him to zag.
Over the years, Mann has described Collateral as “only the third act” of a story. And that gambit works so well in the film that you have to wonder why more screenwriters and directors don’t try that sort of formal experimentation more often. At the opening of the film, we have no idea who Cruise’s Vincent is, what his backstory is, or what he’s doing in L.A. We just seeing him walking through LAX, presumably just off a plane from Chicago or some other metropolis that breeds cold-eyed killers dressed in sharp grey suits with sunglasses and a shock of silver-grey hair on his head that matches the close-cropped, salt-and-pepper beard on his face. If Tom Ford ever created an haute couture line for sociopaths, Vincent would be its posterboy.
Jamie Foxx and Michael Mann on set of Collateral.
While Cruise’s Vincent is a complete mystery, Foxx’s Max is less so thanks to an introductory scene in which he takes a prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith in the best ten minutes she’s ever had on screen) to the airport. Within seconds, he knows what she does for a living, what makes her tick, and even who makes her handbag. Because, for Max, his cab is a confessional booth on wheels. He sees so many people in his rearview mirror every day that he’s developed a sixth sense about them. It’s too bad he doesn’t size up Vincent a few beats longer before he becomes his next fare. Cruise starts off chatty and chummy with Max, offering him $600 to take him to five different spots around L.A. And if the offer seems to be too good to be true, that’s because it is. While parked in an alley during their first stop, a bullet-riddled body lands on the roof of Max’s cab with Cruise racing after it, suddenly forced to explain the new reality of the long, bloody evening that lays ahead. “You killed him!” Max says. To which Vincent matter-of-factly replies, “No, the bullets and the fall killed him….Now get in the fucking car.”
Collateral (4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital)
Watching Collateral again this week, the thing that surprised me the most about it was how amazing Cruise is playing a psycho grim reaper—and why, with the exception of 1999’s Magnolia, he didn’t venture into the dark more often. You could say that Collateral is the anti-Tom Cruise movie, an immersive, full-body deep dive into seductive sadism and remorseless evil where he gets to spout be-bop arias of unhinged lunacy that we rarely get to hear coming out his mouth like “We’ve got to make the best of it. Improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.” And yet, it’s also totally a Tom Cruise movie because, well, you can’t help but be a little charmed—seduced even—by this existential sicko no matter how depraved his five-item To Do list is.
Like every Michael Mann movie—even the not very good ones like Public Enemies and Blackhat—every single frame in Collateral is composed with a jeweler’s eye for detail. This was actually the first film in which Mann (or really any A-list Hollywood director actually) used high-def video instead of film stock. Mann has said that in order to capture the silhouettes of L.A. at night, celluloid wouldn’t have worked. I’ll take his word for it. But the film’s green-tinted graininess gives the Tinseltown of Collateral the haunted neo-noir glow of a ghost town that left the lights on before it was abandoned. In the movie’s greatest sustained spasm of suspense and violence, he shoots a chaotic gunfight inside a Koreatown dance club like something out of one of the higher rings of Dante’s Inferno. It may be the best seven minutes on his resume that don’t involve Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sitting in a diner booth. And watching it, you can’t help but think of what a mess it might have been had someone like Michael Bay or Joss Whedon directed it instead.
If Collateral wasn’t as great a film as it is, it would be worth checking out just for that sequence alone. But, of course, there’s so many more brilliant moments hiding in plain sight in the movie that jump out at you the more times you watch it: The way Foxx manages to flirt with Pinkett Smith without actually flirting; the way Cruise pop, pop, pops a bunch of drug-addled goons trying to make off with his briefcase and then delivers one final pop without looking as an exclamation point; the way Javier Bardem, in just one quick scene, manages to turn a story about Santa Claus into the cold-sweat nightmare fuel. But don’t take my word for it. Throw it on for yourself and, you know, “improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, roll with it….”
Chris Nashawaty is a writer, editor, critic, and author of books about Roger Corman & Caddyshack.
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