Michael Mann’s Collateral Cruises L.A.’s Dark Side

It’s a strange coincidence that Michael Mann’s Collateral , the current thriller par excellence, arrives on our screens at almost the same time as Thom Andersen’s muckraking documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself , a critical analysis of Hollywood’s distorted view of L.A. I recommend both films very strongly, though I have many more reservations about Mr. Andersen’s enterprise than Mr. Mann’s. Of course, Mr. Andersen hadn’t seen Mr. Mann’s film when Los Angeles Plays Itself was being made.

Still, I wonder what Mr. Andersen would have made of Collateral in terms of its portrayal of the city’s history, sociology and politics-subjects he’s so deeply concerned about in Los Angeles Plays Itself . I suspect that he would not be entirely pleased with the image of Los Angeles that Mr. Mann presents-a war zone between a Colombian drug cartel and the feds, serving as a backdrop for the tense relationship between a hit man, Vincent (Tom Cruise), and his cabdriver, Max (Jaime Foxx). Where are the city’s poor and disenfranchised, its African-American and Hispanic minorities, Mr. Andersen might complain?

I must confess at this point that I write about L.A. with the authority of almost complete ignorance, having visited its horizontal vastness on just a few brief occasions. But I know a little about movies, and it’s never occurred to me that the products of a capitalist, profit-seeking industry would dwell on the ills and injustices of society-except, perhaps, through subtextual metaphors, and even then only occasionally.

I am therefore perplexed that Mr. Andersen takes great film noirs like Double Indemnity and Chinatown to task for being too cynical about life in L.A. For all his knowledge of film-and it is considerable-Mr. Andersen fails to acknowledge how refreshing the “cynicism” of film noir has been as an alternative to the overbearing and overwhelming sentimentality of most Hollywood movies.

Mr. Mann’s Collateral is a case in point: It doesn’t illuminate important social issues. Rather, it represents the latest in a long line of contributions to the cause of multiracial harmony and hegemony in American cinema after more than a half-century of shameful racism. At the very least, Mr. Mann and Mr. Cruise are to be congratulated for holding the New York premier of Collateral in a Harlem theater with Mr. Cruise’s two talented African-American co-stars, Mr. Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Annie, a government attorney and the film’s lone love interest (though she only figures at the very beginning and end of the story-a modern damsel in distress who finds her chivalric rescuer in the miraculously inspired social inferior).

But the bulk of the adventure is devoted to the interplay of two male psyches, one casually and stylishly evil, the other dreamily unfulfilled but morally impregnable. Mr. Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie concentrate so much on these two characters that the full dimensions of the intrigue they’re involved in are tossed off in hurried scenes and offhand exposition. For long stretches, the two leads are confined within the private chamber of a taxi, the drama unfolding for what seems like an eternity.

Mr. Mann’s mania for detail has been much commented on throughout his directing and producing career in both television ( Miami Vice , Vega$ , Crime Story ) and such noirish movies as Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995). In all of these enterprises, the “where” and the “how” are at least as important as the “what.” Mr. Mann makes this point explicitly in an interview with Lynn Hirschberg in The New York Times Magazine (Aug. 5): “Making movies is a license to project yourself into all kinds of different cultures, lifestyles, value systems. I did Collateral because I was intent about seeing into the dark, and I wanted it to be set in L.A.”

In the production notes for Collateral , Mr. Mann is quoted in a fashion that seems to echo Mr. Andersen’s local-boy knowingness in Los Angeles Plays Itself : “For people who don’t live here or for some who do, it’s not the Los Angeles of palm trees and Malibu, but the city of Los Angeles-Commerce, Wilmington, South Central, East L.A., downtown … and there is a unique mood to the skies above L.A., at two or three a.m. Streetlights reflect off the bottom of clouds. Even in darkness, you can see into the distance; silhouetted palms against the sky … I had to figure out how we were going to evoke that three-dimensional night-how to see into the L.A. night.”

To further his painterly vision of his setting, Mr. Mann reportedly became one of the first directors to shoot a major motion picture almost entirely digitally, and the first to use a modified Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera (whatever that is) to capture the city in the hours between dusk and dawn with Walpurgisnacht frenzy. In the process of piercing the darkness, Collateral periodically explodes with flashes of nocturnal activity, of throbbing multitudes indifferent to the human drama unfolding in their midst. It’s not always clear what is happening or why, but the story never loses its inexorably forward momentum toward the final settling of accounts between Vincent and Max.

I can’t actually say that I discovered Mr. Mann as an auteur, but the fact remains that I fell under his stylistic spell 20 years ago-long before I even knew his name-while I was surviving a life-threatening viral infection in a bed in New York Hospital. Miami Vice was the only television program that I regularly watched, simply for its ravishing mise-en-scène . Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on Mr. Mann’s baroque mannerisms. But there is a critical tendency to downgrade the work of action-genre directors as so much style over substance. Even today, critics are inclined to overpraise thematically meatier Mann enterprises like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001) at the expense of his shoot-’em-ups.

This distinction reminds me of Jean-Luc Godard’s early arguments with fellow cineastes over his simultaneous (though paradoxical) admiration for both Alfred Hitchcock and Roberto Rossellini. The official line at the time on these two filmmakers was that Hitchcock had nothing to say and said it beautifully, whereas Rossellini had a great deal to say but said it clumsily. Mr. Godard insisted-perverse as it seemed at the time-that beneath Hitchcock’s stylistic virtuosity there had to be significant content, and that Rossellini’s weighty content had to be served by a significant personal visual style. Godard was right, of course, and it would be foolish to make the same mistake with Mr. Mann.

Throughout the gruesome cat-and-mouse game being played by Vincent and Max in Collateral , there’s something psychologically, dramatically and even sociologically interesting going on. Mr. Cruise, with his neatly cut gray hair and stylishly fitted grayish suit, exudes the cool chic of a completely amoral hit man disguised as a fastidious business executive just passing through L.A. He is not a tempter, but a true terminator with a whimsical, leisurely modus operandi, coupled with a compulsive professional pride in his murderous work. Indeed, in two crowded encounters with persons on both sides of the law out to kill him, he displays almost superhuman capabilities in destroying his enemies. This makes the hitherto self-deceiving drifting-through-life Max an unlikely but mythologically heroic challenger to the flame-belching dragon that is Vincent.

There have been many cinematic meditations on the existential vulnerability and claustrophobia of the taxi-driving profession. But Collateral is truly unusual in transforming every cabdriver’s worst nightmare into the means of Max’s salvation-from a life not fully lived to one in which he realizes that nothing is gained without risk. Sound familiar? We are back in James’ Beast in the Jungle -only this time, as in Intimate Strangers , the beast is vanquished as Max and Annie head off together into the L.A. dawn.

As for Mr. Cruise, he’s taken something of a career risk here-almost but not quite the same risk that Tom Hanks took with his roles as the gay lawyer in Philadelphia (1993) and the mobster in Road to Perdition (2002). For one thing, Mr. Hanks has been overrated as a supposedly subtle character actor just as much as Mr. Cruise has been underrated. For another, Mr. Hanks has never played a role as unabashedly monstrous and menacing as Mr. Cruise’s Vincent.

As for Mr. Foxx’s Max, he displays a sufficiently observant gift of the gab to earn the interest and business card of a comparatively upscale government attorney, Ms. Pinkett Smith’s Annie, who also happens to be the last target that Vincent undertakes to eliminate for the Colombian drug cartel. Fortunately, Max and Annie have established enough verbal chemistry in their earlier brief encounter to sustain them through their final ordeal with Vincent. Even Mr. Andersen might approve of the fitting irony of staging the climactic chase scenes aboard the “ghetto” mass-transit line.

The confusion surrounding the too-little-and-too-late shenanigans of the narcotics agents played by Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg and Bruce McCall suggests Mr. Mann’s understandable skepticism about the unending war on drugs, but that’s no reason to denigrate the conviction that Mr. Ruffalo, in particular, brings to this and every other role he plays.

Meanwhile, Mr. Andersen’s nearly three-hour-long cinema essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself (which recently concluded a two-week run at Film Forum), is required DVD viewing for anyone interested in the cinema of L.A.-its “look,” its politics, its lies (both artistic and inartistic)-as well as for the director’s pervasively judgmental tone. In dealing with Los Angeles as a sacred subject, Mr. Andersen finds a betrayal on just about every movie set.

As a self-described “accidental auteurist,” I still firmly believe that I have stumbled on vast treasures of Hollywood’s subtextual glories-glories that most serious political writers would never imagine. It seems that every week in the Sunday entertainment section of every newspaper in the land, some academic expert will be on hand to expose the errors of fact in just about any movie on any subject, past or present. There is no point in arguing with these solemn, truth-seeking naysayers. If I am still reviewing movies at all, it’s because I’ve found something else in the cinema that’s made it such an important art form for the past century and beyond. And this is not in line with any presumed fidelity to a political program, however enlightened or just it may be. You may disagree with me, and if you do, please be kind to my escapist delusions: They’ve kept me going thus far.