Collateral is an ambitious film that delves into a noir-like world of late night Los Angeles and hitmen. It sounds like an unusual combination, but director Michael Mann brings something indescribable to the film that somehow makes it seem more than what it actually is. At its heart, it’s a story about a down-on-his-luck cab driver who’s night takes a turn for the worse when he unwittingly picks up a hitman as his next fare. It’s a ludicrous story when it comes down to it. Like, who thought that would make a good movie? But much to my surprise, it did. One thing that needs to be made perfectly clear though is that Collateral works on several levels, but none of the truly memorable elements really have that much to do with the story itself.
After all, film could easily be described as a narrative medium, although there are some exceptions to that rule, but first and foremost, film is recognized as a visual medium. Michael Mann toys with this in a number of ways with his vision of Los Angeles. Now, Los Angeles is a pretty common setting when it comes to movies, so Mann is already dealing with people’s pre-conceived notions of the city. Still, Mann finds a way to make the city uniquely his own. The easiest way to describe the setting is a sort of cinematic magical realism to the cityscape. It certainly has some of the recognizable traits of L.A. but it’s compounded with a number of different styles. The magical realism aspect comes into play when you see the city at its bare bones, stripped off the bustling crowd with several pieces you can’t really believe you’re seeing, but for the sake of the movie and its themes, you learn to accept. But this visual style is also met with a noir-like sensibility about the danger of the underground night life and the duplicity of others.
However, this idea of the deception of others is only realized when you have a force of good acting against it. This is, in my mind, where Collateral is at its best. There’s a definite supporting cast and they figure into different moments, but the bulk of the material relies on these two characters; one of them good and the other bad. It’s this simplistic, core dichotomy that Max’s struggle to make it through the night so effective. personally, I’ve never been a fan of Jamie Foxx <i.or Tom Cruise so the fact that the bulk of this movie is shared by the two and I still enjoyed it makes it quite a feat. Of course, Tom Cruise’s subsequent mental breakdown may make it difficult for some people to re-watch this one, but to me these two characters, particularly Tom Cruise’s Vincent, are what make the film.
I know it’s difficult to imagine a time when Tom Cruise wasn’t completely off the wall, but there once was a time where he was the very definition of leading man material. He was the guy women wanted to be with and men wanted to be. But taking on the role of a villain? Sure, Vincent has his charismatic and even sympathetic moments, but there are those other instances of such cold, calculating menace that make it damn near impossible for him to be redeemed. One of the things that makes Collateral most effective is its awareness of the world outside of the film. The systematic abuse of stardom by having one of Hollywood’s biggest good guys play a bad guy is a gimmick in many ways, but the payoff is so beautiful. I’ve never been one to praise Tom Cruise’s acting, primarily because I feel most of his roles are the same, but playing against the part in Collateral was an incredibly smart move. In many ways, it’s that extra baggage, the knowledge of the world outside of this movie, that we haul into the movies with us that makes Collateral such a memorable affair.
Like I said, the film’s premise sounds pretty ridiculous, but when watching Collateral, it’s hard to watch it just for the story. It’s about the characters, the never-ending struggle between two opposing forces, and yes, even the world outside of the movies that make Michael mann’s exercise in cinematic magical realism such a strong contribution to the world of film.