Considering Michael Mann’s obvious love for the neo-noir crime genre (Thief, Heat) it was only a matter of time before he made a picture taking place entirely at night. With Collateral he went one step further, with the 2 hours chronicling the events of one night between a cab driver (Jamie Foxx) and a hitman (Tom Cruise). The cab driver, Max, picks up the hitman, Vincent, for a seemingly innocent fare and becomes entangled in a hostage situation, chauffeuring Vincent around nocturnal Los Angeles as the assassin carries out contracts. What results is a gorgeous, thrumming, fatalistic neo-noir.
Collateral was Mann’s first film to be shot almost entirely on digital, featuring stunning depth of field and capturing background activity and skylines with a crisp immediacy not offered by traditional film. Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe find angles of Los Angeles never before seen, giving the oft-filmed city a freshness and newness (the film moves from capturing downtown, its skyscrapers and winding highways, to cheap apartments and back alleys, to neon drenched night clubs). Mann’s eye for style is apparent here, blending colors, music, and framing to give inventive flair to the well-worn genre. This is one of the most visually interesting thrillers I have ever seen. Mann proves himself a master of impressionistic images, visual storytelling, atmosphere.
Mann is aided by both a great screenplay (from writer Stuart Beattie) and great acting. Cruise is superb, playing against type as the assassin Vincent, oozing cool. Collateral‘s textual brilliance is in the way Mann and Cruise perfectly balance Vincent, crafting the mood around him in such a way that we fear him, his evil apparent, but also consistently identify with him, and perhaps even empathize – Mann’s trademark humanism. Vincent stands, in part, as a twisted ideal for what Max needs (action over passivity), with striking visual parallels drawn consistently between the two. Max is unsure, uncertain, lacking motivation, lacking confidence – very much the opposite of Vincent. Both men, however, are very good at what they do, and watching the interplay between the two actors at the height of their powers, delivering Beattie’s jazzy thematic dialogue, is almost as thrilling as Mann’s impeccably staged action set pieces. Almost.
There is a recurring animal motif – one set piece stands as perhaps the greatest in Mann’s impressive oeuvre – in a night club, the digital camera focuses on hundreds of dancing conglomerated bodies as Vincent stalks like a wolf through them. Closing around Max and Vincent are the police and members of a gang. Mann crafts it all masterfully, creating evocative imagery, turning the club into a wilderness alive with various predators and prey inside. Mann understands that film is a visual medium, and he captures moments and images that linger. In a stunning moment a lone coyote slinks across a city road in the dead of night, with Vincent, Max, and the audience all staring on, mesmerized.