Michael Mann rebounded from 2001's slack Ali with a film that - though you might not think it at first - is probably the most experimental and innovative of his career. 2004's Collateral, though in some narrative respects a rather common thing, was one of the few films of the Age of Digital Filmmaking (maybe even the first) in which the use of a digital camera was fully embraced by the director and cinematographers, rather than hidden away in an attempt to make the video look as film-like as possible. God knows I'm no shill for digital photography, but anything can be done right, and it's hard if not impossible to imagine Collateral being as effective if it had been shot on film; its bleak vision of Los Angeles at night could not have been remotely as haunting or grimy without the low-light shooting permitted by video. Even today, five years later, there aren't many films that have used the possibilities of the medium with quite the same imaginative glee - Inland Empire certainly, perhaps Zodiac.
The film's story is quintessentially Mann, making it a bit odd that Mann didn't originate the story, nor does he receive an onscreen writing credit (though it is said that he did extensive re-writing prior to his shoot). The writer of this film is one Stuart Beattie, who concocted the idea as a teenager and developed it into a polished feature form over the years, before co-writing the story for the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and the screenplays for 30 Days of Night and this summer's impending G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. So I guess I'm saying that I think it likely and good that Mann helped to whip the script into shape. Either way, the story focuses on a cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), who has spent the last twelve years behind the wheel, all the while promising himself that he's going to get out of this shit pretty soon now, to start his own company running limos. Along the way, Max has developed the ability always useful to a member of a service industry, to make friends with every one of his customers instantly: we see this first when he flirts with Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a state prosecutor, and manages to get her number without even asking. We see it as well when he picks up a grey-haired man named Vincent (Tom Cruise), who has a likable way about him, but a certain menace that we see before Max does: for he wasn't privy to the very conspiracy-esque bag exchange that Vincent carried off immediately after landing at LAX.
We were right and Max was wrong, something he learns after cutting a deal to be Vincent's driver all night. At their first stop, Max waits patiently for his passenger to come back, when all of a sudden a body falls on his cab, shattering the windshield. Vincent reappears. "I think he's dead", stammers Max. "Good guess," Vincent smoothly replies." "You killed him?" "No, I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him." And thus begins one of the decade's better "long night of the soul" type of movies, as Max drives the hitman from one victim to another, growing increasingly paranoid of being caught by the cops or murdered by his fare, slowly building up the inner strength to do something about it.
Once again, we have Michael Mann's fascination with dual protagonists, although I'm certainly asking too much of the word "protagonist" in this context. Max is clearly our lead, Vincent is clearly his antithesis - not the antagonist or villain of the piece, I don't think. Vincent's function in the drama is to demonstrate a kind of life, driven by self-knowledge and confidence, and morality is not really at issue. If there is a moral argument to be made, it is that Vincent pushes Max to become a better man, not because he has to fight to stop this evil killer, but because he will not allow Max to continue dwelling in comforting fantasies about some time in the indefinite future. He forces Max to instead confront the Now, to make choices in the moment that will determine the course of his future instead of deferring constantly. If the one constant of Mann's cinema is that a man with a certain code is placed into a situation where that code is in crisis - and it seems perfectly easy to me to apply that theme to each and every one of his features, from the TV movie The Jericho Mile through the otherwise uncharacteristic period films The Keep and The Last of the Mohicans, all the way up to Ali's story of a man who gives up success for his beliefs - we find in Collateral a variation on that theme that gives it added interest, coming so far into his career: in this movie, we have a man with a code who is a bad man, and a man with no particular code being forced, at long last, to develop such a code.
Though Tom Cruise got all of the attention in the pre-release marketing and has first billing, the script gives Foxx much more to work with, and he rises to the occasion, becoming yet another person to give a career-best performance in a Michael Mann film (Cruise himself does not; though he makes a good stone-cold bastard, he does not and likely will never surpass his work in Magnolia). Max gets one of the most compelling arcs in any of Mann's films, in fact, going from easy-going but somewhat callow, to terrified and cowardly, to self-assure and active. Maybe it is a stereotypically masculine transformation, but in none of his work does Mann shy from masculinity. At any rate, the Foxx who won an undistinguished Oscar the same year for Ray and has been far too happy playing tough wiseasses in action and war movies since then is like a completely different actor from the man who gives life to Max. It is a subtle and sensitive performance, the kind that it's nearly impossible not to sympathise with, because the actor makes the character seem like such an Everyman.
That said, Max's arc does end up taking the movie straight into the thickets where it gets tangled up for nearly the last quarter of its two-hour running time. When he does finally decide to become a Mann's Man, and stop Vincent from his assassination spree, the film becomes a completely routine '80s-style action thriller. One with its fair share of contrivance, at that; without giving away the ending of a movie still new enough that I think that everyone who will see it someday still hasn't, the movie's climax hinges on a whopper of a coincidence that is given a wholly unconvincing justification. I have heard it said that it is a great thing to begin a story with a coincidence but a terrible thing to end one that way, and while I'm never inclined to notice screenwriting rules very much, this particular film is a strong argument for why that particular rule perhaps has some merit.
But then, there's the other thing I've kept noticing throughout this marathon, that Mann is not terribly interested in plot so much as momentum, and as long as the moments all work individually, that is of greater importance than tying everything off well. For the most part, the moments in Collateral do work individually, although its episodic nature means almost by default that some will work better than others.
Besides, the real point of the movie isn't any of that stuff about characters or manhood or momentum: like Heat, this is primarily a film about Los Angeles, captured wonderfully by cinematographers Paul Cameron (who was let go after a short while, clashing with the director) and Dion Beebe (very much his career-best work) on that video camera that never wants to be anything but a video camera. Collateral simply doesn't look like other movies about night in the city; it is darker and harsher and the texture is altogether different - not sharper, but more pronounced, if that makes sense. If anyone is ever to mount an argument for the superiority of video over film, this movie would of necessity be very near to the center of that argument.
In a career where style and substance never seem that easy to pull apart, Collateral might well be the most stylistically interesting film Mann has yet directed. This led to a certain weakness in the narrative, perhaps, but you can't have everything; and by this point, I think that Mann had stopped entirely having anything he wanted to say as a storyteller; he had maybe reached that point nine full years earlier, with Heat. By this point he was a filmmaker mostly concerned with experimentation in representation and film language, and Collateral is his most successfully sustained experiment in that direction.