The cult of film buff worship around director Michael Mann (Heat , The Insider ) has taken a long time to build. But he has used that time wisely and well: over twenty-five years he has honed his craft and established his reputation within the American system as a perfectionist.
With the stunning Collateral, one of the great movies of its year, Mann steps up to take the mantle left behind by Stanley Kubrick. Both are artists of detail and control, spinning tales of obsessed individuals on both sides of the law – the psychopathic genius, the zealously righteous crusader. And both filmmakers entertain, at moments, a coldly misanthropic view of the human animal roaming through the urban jungle.
One difference between then, however, is crucial. Whereas Kubrick began with an impeccable sense of urban geography and lived reality in Killer's Kiss (1955) only, over time, to withdraw to the hermetic environments of the sets built for The Shining (1980) or Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Mann stays on the pulse of the great American metropolises and their swiftly changing co-ordinates.
Collateral, scripted by Australian Stuart Beattie, is in essence a simple tale. A hired killer, Vince (Tom Cruise), picks taxi driver Max (Jamie Foxx) as his unwitting accomplice through a long, tense night. As Max struggles to find some way to intervene in the catastrophe that unfolds, various bands of cops get on their trail. And a lawyer, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), whom Max has met this very evening before things turned bad, turns out to have a central place in the puzzle.
Collateral is an ingenious variation on the classic film noir genre. It has long been a standard manoeuvre in discussions of film noir to claim that the city (especially when it is New York, Los Angeles or Chicago) becomes a character in itself. But more often than not, this is left at the level of a vague abstraction, the city figuring as a general symbol of personal and social malaise – and usually an 'extension of the characters', an attitude which tends to invite (or condone) an expressionistic free-for-all from filmmakers that pays little heed to urban particulars.
Collateral, on the other hand, is one of the most specific and precise essays on a material city that the cinema has ever given us. And as drama, it is less a story of crime or morality than a portrait of how citizens 'work' their city – by car, in a train, or on foot.
As Edward Dimendberg proposes in his extraordinary book Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Harvard University Press, 2004), the brooding crime films of the '40s and '50s had as their real subject the changeover, instituted by urban planning, between the classically centred, centripetal city and the increasingly fragmented, centrifugal space brought about by the push into the suburbs.
Mann begins Collateral in the midst of our current historical moment, when the centrifugal impetus has well and truly triumphed. Los Angeles, which he films in both a highly stylised and a scrupulously documentary fashion, is a city without a centre, a place of constant flight and disconnection. Lovingly mapped in stunning aerial shots that recall the geometric style of Fritz Lang or Brian De Palma, Mann conjures this city less as a pattern of streets than a tangle of highways.
For decades, architects and other urban theorists have fretted about the deadening, serial effect of the modern city – the endless, monotonous, imprisoning rows of identical housing, skyscrapers and other typical fixtures. Mann adds, as he has done in his previous urban dramas, an especially acute twist to this seriality, revelling in the transparent, 'overexposed' nature of a city that is everywhere filled with huge planes of glass and audiovisual screens. Indeed, Mann has spoken of using high-definition video (on which eighty percent of the film was shot) as a way of "seeing into the night" – shades of Philippe Grandrieux!
In a city like Los Angeles, individual identity is reduced to a fleeting trace – the meeting of a name, a number and an image somewhere on a surveillance monitor or in a computer databank. Much of Collateral hinges on the effort of police to pin down the identity of the killer stalking their city – an effort easily misled when Max is forced to pretend he is Vince.
But Mann is also able to find the secret intrigues lurking inside this serial city. When everything looks exactly the same, anonymous and featureless, two options present themselves. Bad guys like Vince can pass off their nefarious acts under the cloak of urban anonymity (as in the superb opening airport scene). And good guys like Max can learn how to read and play the city – skills he displays in everything from his ability to perfectly predict travelling times to his flair for guessing the social type that any random person is. Max's skills are echoed by the cop, Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), who is driven on by his intuition of what may be escaping the police networks of trace-detection.
Indeed, the (extremely systematic!) final shots of the film show one of the main characters overwhelmed by the very instance of seriality he has himself described (as in the earlier dance club scene, individuals will not be noticed as the mass comes and goes), while his opposite number hits the road – on foot, a movement begun in the plot turning point that launches its last section.
Besides, even in the most regimented of capitalist cities, chance will always play a part – and it is up to Mann's heroes and anti-heroes alike to seize those chances and make the most of them. Foxx has spoken lucidly in an interview of how the disconnection of urban life in the film is contradicted by sudden, decisive moments of connection – such as when a dead body falls onto Max's cab.
Mann's fine-grain work with actors continues to amaze: who could have guessed that Foxx or Smith were capable of such detail, authenticity and depth in their performances? And, again affirming the affinity with Kubrick, Mann proves himself one of the few directors who can bring out something great from Cruise's often superficial approach to a role.
There is an undoubtedly grandiloquent element in Mann's films that verges perilously on the cornball. His films frequently present larger-than-life tales of men duking it out beyond the law, meanwhile discovering the secret bond of brotherhood that unites their heroic and villainous selves. Collateral, while dramatising the table-turning power-play between Max and Vince with enormous verve, certainly risks simply reiterating Mann's familiar obsessions of this kind.
But if that is all we see in Collateral, then we are shortchanging Mann's achievement – and ourselves. Few films, in their depiction of a city as something more than a backdrop, so richly fulfil the prediction made by the cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer in 1960: that the cinema might "permit us, for the first time, to take away with us the objects and occurrences that comprise the flow of material life."
MORE Los Angeles: Los Angeles Plays Itself
© Adrian Martin October 2004