Mann’s Collateral propels characters into film-noir collision course
The new Michael Mann film has quite a lot to recommend it—Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in offbeat roles, the sleepless frenzies of Los Angeles at night, the slick, smart style of Mann’s best crime films, an outlandish storyline full of bizarre twists and surprisingly grave turns.
The basic premise is a unique twist on film-noir sensationalism—a hit man (Cruise) dragoons a tightly wound cab driver (Foxx) into chauffeuring him around L.A. in the course of a night in which he has five separate “executions” to perform. The cabbie’s moral predicament, as hostage-accomplice, becomes increasingly intense as the action proceeds, and that’s just one of the ways in which Collateral pushes itself beyond the merely routine senses of crime story suspense.
Part of Mann’s film is a police procedural in which cops played by Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg and others gradually begin to see a pattern in the night’s mounting murder toll but pay a heavy price for being closer to the truth than they are able to recognize in the midst of shrewd deductions and mistaken assumptions. Subplots with characters running on unwitting collision courses are among the dramatic strengths of the tale (scripted by Stuart Beattie), but the intriguing existential messes within various episodes eventually overload the conventional crime story structures to which the film remains bound.
Among other things, Foxx’s cabbie and Cruise’s hit man become embroiled in a quasi-philosophical confrontation, with questions of psychological identity, urban solitude and meaningful action being part of the stakes. Cruise seems perfectly cast for the hit man role—trim, smart, brutally efficient, lethal. Foxx is very good as a character who is the hit man’s opposite in most respects but eerily similar to him in ways that gradually emerge.
Jada Pinkett Smith has a fine scene early as a prosecuting attorney who flirts briefly and unexpectedly with the cabbie while on her way to an all-night session of pre-trial work. Her character comes back into the story in more formulaic fashion later on, but that early scene sets up a mixture of ironic intimacy and nascent melodrama that serves the film well for more than half its length.
Ruffalo is good as the grimly focused detective who crosses the main characters’ trails more than once. Javier Bardem is a ferociously ominous presence in a brief appearance as a key criminal figure, and Barry Shabaka Henley makes a memorable impression as a jazzman who is the focus of one of the film’s nightlife digressions and an unexpected pawn in the hit man’s game.