Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Collateral Directed by Michael Mann

Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer, on a job to nix the lives of five key witnesses in a case against Felix, a man who appears to be the higher-up in a large drug cartel. Early in the film he tells Max (Jamie Foxx) the story of a man who died on the MTA - the metro system for the Los Angeles County area. The man made six trips round the MTA loop - people coming and going, sitting next to him even - without anyone noticing that he was dead. Vincent's point being that People Just Do Not Care Anymore. What to make of this alarming juxtaposition? Column A contains a killer-for-hire; talented at his job and ice cold in his heart. Column B contains a man lamenting the impersonality of modern society. The rub being that we are really dealing with only one column: the complex character of Vincent. This is the first sign that Michael Mann's Collateral is not merely another entertaining, American Action Picture.

The film is flawed - pulling cheap tension shots on the viewer and milking sympathy - but it props itself above the fray of the average Hollywood thriller by allowing the viewer some thought. Near the end of the film, Vincent (in a Hollywood earmark Mano y Mano) tells Max, "This is my job." That sentiment echoes throughout the film. Max is a cab driver that dreams of owning his own limo business while, in order to deal with the stress of his job, takes five-minute breaks during the day to stare at a picture of a tropical island. His first fare of the film, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), is a lawyer who dances around Max's question of, "Do you like your job?" And Vincent is the walking contradiction. He’s talented and efficient, but when, at one point, he gives a man the opportunity to evade death, and the man fails, the viewer can see how badly Vincent wanted the man to get away. He is a machine, slugging away at his own version of the 9 to 5, just as discontent as rest of the working stiffs he so gracefully ends. Mann's point is that the impersonal society we live in, the workplace in particular, is killing all of us – even the killers.

Marring the film is the entirety of the L.A. County Police force. They are a side-plot, adding only tension and drama. Of course Vincent's hits would spark the police into action, but their effect on the film is only of the will they/won't they variety. Collateral would work better without them (although a good performance by Mark Ruffalo would be lost.) It is this type of device that the Hollywood system is so good at disseminating, and one that Michael Mann would be smart to do rid of. The tension it adds feels great (especially for an O.G. White Bread like yours truly - born and raised on the stuff), but it panders to the audience saying, "Well, if you cannot comprehend all the good stuff going on, here's some suspense(!) for ya'!" For a movie this well made, the audience and the film deserve a little better.


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