The new Michael Mann movie Collateral began as a tagline so catchy it came with lint attached: A cold-blooded assassin-for-hire (Tom Cruise) enlists an honest-hearted cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to drive him on a long night of pre-assigned killings. The essentially trite, prefab shape of the story is, at the same time, what sold it on Wilshire Boulevard and what condemns the movie to banality. Today, a movie script is a factory-cut jigsaw of contrivances (serial assassins in silk suits), coincidences (our hero has only two fares in the largest city in the world, and they turn out to be criminally entwined), narrative plants that re-emerge later (Foxx’s preternatural knowledge of L.A. routes), and character predictability (no one behaves in a surprising way, ever), so slower viewers can play along without getting confused. Sit around the campfire, kids, and let me tell you a flowchart.
I’m riding rough, because Collateral is better than its central idea, and that makes the commercial clichés choke like hair balls. One of the most accomplished and idiosyncratic visualizers in Hollywood, Mann has an enormous amount to say about Los Angeles, and he simply hitches a ride on Stuart Beattie’s screenplay, savoring the travel. The film is best regarded as an heir to the Euro-film “city symphony,” and something like a climactic garnish on Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. Mann’s compositions are consistently disarming and packed with atmospheric information—even the stars’ close-ups are dominated by the deep-focus negative space of electrified nightscapes, ghostly urban corridors, and barren freeway overdevelopment. What’s more, shot largely on high-def digital video, the movie attains a spooky, sourceless late-night light, as if everything is glowing with the reflection of streetlights and neon off of the troposphere’s low, bronze-ish ceiling of smog. Rhyming at least visually with Mann’s Heat (the new film, in fact, looks and feels like a minor-key narrative thread edited out of the earlier epic), Collateral comes close to being a half-pint apocalyptic vision of the world’s premier post-industrial sprawl as it sleeps unaware of its own rancid dreams. Somehow, Mann avoids seeming in pursuit of slick beauty for its own sake; there’s more suspense and heartbreak in any one image than there is in all of Beattie’s big fish. Mann might be the man to film Ballard’s Concrete Island, or update The Day of the Locust.
It’ll never happen, because Mann, like Democrat politicians, has bought into a moneyed system that allows only for half-successes and paltry ambitions. The “daring” casting of Tom Cruise as a glib manhunter is a concise example of both; still, the chiseled demigod’s metallic stare—which has always lent his characters a sense of amoral emptiness—makes for a pleasing riff on sociopathy, at least as we know it from the movies. Stuck with the shucks-gee mensch role, Foxx demonstrates ample leading-man blandness—even as his big-dreamin’ hack obligatorily rises to the heroic occasion, his voice stays a scarified sotto. But because the two characters are cartoons, they never meet in the middle. When the movie slows down for a supporting splurge—jazz-club owner Barry Shabaka Henley’s wonderfully weary reminiscences about Miles Davis, say, or crime lord Javier Bardem’s low-boiling speech about Santa Claus and Black Peter—Collateral comes closer to a Mannic view of night and the city.
Mann’s formal tastes can be questionable: Several yowling soundtrack singles are more obtrusive than emphatic, and he is susceptible to the Industry’s de rigueur editing hyperactivity (something cannot be placed on the dashboard without the action being Avid-chopped into fifths). Collateral is a slim drink of thin beer, remarkable only as evidence that Mann might have a modern masterpiece in him if he were cut loose and allowed to roam around in his own obsessions.