Judge Clark Douglas knows everything there is to know about jazz legend Kilometers Davis.
It started out like any other night.
"Most people—same job, same gig, doing the same thing 10 years from now. Us, we don't know what we're doing ten minutes from now."
Facts of the Case
Max (Jamie Foxx, Ray) is a Los Angeles cab driver with aspirations of one day starting his own island-themed limo service. One fateful evening, Max is hired by a well-dressed man named Vincent (Tom Cruise, Top Gun), who wishes to secure Max's services for the entire night. Max reluctantly agrees, and quickly begins to regret his decision when he discovers that Vincent is a contract killer on a violent mission. Will Max find a way to stop his new client without getting himself (or someone he loves) killed?
The defining film of Michael Mann's career is arguably Heat, the stylish cop vs. robber crime drama that explored a complicated relationship between two men on opposite sides of the law. His 2004 feature Collateral feels like a continuation of that theme, though in this case the contrasts are far sharper. The De Niro and Pacino characters in Heat were consummate professionals who operated in largely similar fashion with entirely different goals in mind. In Collateral, it's not just criminal vs. law abiding citizen, it's extrovert vs. introvert and jazz. vs. classical. It lacks the resonant weight of Heat (largely because it merely nods at most of its deeper themes rather than really exploring them), but it's nonetheless an excellent film and a terrific reminder of what a distinctive cinematic voice Michael Mann is.
It's hard not to love Mann's absorbing, multi-layered approach to characterization in the film, particularly the way he uses music to define these two characters and their evolving relationship. When we're getting to know Max during the film's opening moments (a splendid ten-minute sequence of little more than driving and conversation), we hear him listen to two different types of music: classic (a soulful number from The Roots) and classical (a bit of Bach on solo piano). He has chosen to pursue the American Dream in the traditional fashion; scrimping and saving as he works a mundane job in the hopes that he'll eventually be able to do what he really wants to do. His dream won't arrive overnight, but it gets a little bit closer every day.
Vincent, on the other hand, prefers jazz, a genre that emphasizes experimentation, intelligence, and adaptation. Sporting a gray suit, gray hair and a prickly gray goatee, he bears a distinct resemblance to a wolf (something Cruise emphasizes with his magnetically predatory personality and something Mann emphasizes with the heavily symbolic appearance of an actual wolf). He's fond of citing Darwin: if survival of the fittest is truly the world's standard operating procedure, his chances of thriving are exceptional. During a scene in a nightclub midway through the film, Cruise offers an exceptional monologue on the unpredictable nature of jazz; the manner in which it takes an unexpected journey around the notes. Mann then follows this monologue with a brilliant scene that does precisely that; an enjoyably unexpected detour actually circling something which should have been obvious.
That scene is one of several conversation set pieces which form the high points of the film. Mann (working from a literate screenplay by Stuart Beattie, who has yet to pen anything else approaching this level of quality) builds up to these momentous dialogue scenes like many thrillers might build up to action sequences; they're brimming with life and tension (particularly the opening conversation between Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, the chat between Cruise and Barry Shabaka Henley, the visit Foxx and Cruise pay to Irma P. Hall and the verbal showdown between Foxx and Javier Bardem). Cruise is the chattier of the actors ("You're one of those guys who do instead of talk," he tells Foxx admiringly), and as such is more likely to grab your attention during a first viewing. To be sure, it's a terrific performance (one of the most effective uses of Cruise's movie star poise, particularly in recent years), but Foxx is the one who impresses more and more with repeat viewings. He does so much with body language; nervously attempting to force his classical brain to think in jazz terms (observe the way the film quietly enhances his ability to adapt as it proceeds, from the embarrassingly clumsy car horn effort early on to his slick handling of Bardem's character later). It's arguably an even better performance than the Oscar-winning work he delivered the same year in Ray.
Collateral arrives on Blu-ray sporting a top-notch 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The film was primarily shot on digital; a format Mann's particular sensibilities are immensely well-suited to. This is a visually dark, moody film, and there is a good bit of noise present in many scenes, but it does bring a nice contrast to the slick, polished visuals of the film (incidentally, it looks considerably sharper in hi-def than Mann's follow-up digitally-shot crime flick, Miami Vice). Detail is superb throughout, blacks are inky and brighter colors have a lot of pop (Mann usually has something shiny to offset all the black and gray which dominates the palette). Audio is excellent overall, with a handful of louder scenes proving very immersive (the trio of club scenes in particular). Subtle pieces of sound design are well-captured and evenly distributed, while music manages to be robust. Dialogue is clean and clear. Supplements are ported over from the DVD, the highlights of which are the Michael Mann commentary track and the 41-minute making-of featurette "City of Night: The Making of Collateral. You also get a handful of much shorter pieces: "Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx Rehearse" (5 minutes), "Special Delivery" (1 minute), "Shooting on Location: Annie's Office" (3 minutes), "Visual Effects: MTA Train" (2 minutes), a deleted scene and some trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've seen so many thrillers that start out reasonably well but turn disappointingly conventional during their final moments. Alas, Collateral is yet another which falls into this trap, though it's operating on a higher-than-average level at all times. The final twenty minutes or so is a well-directed action sequence, but it has less personality than the rest of the film and it robs the characters of their richness. These have been fascinating individuals for over 90 minutes; why must they finally become a standard-issue hero and villain? The movie turns thoughtful again during its denouement, but in a way which is a bit too heavy-handed. It's an adequate final act to a film which is so much more than adequate otherwise.
Collateral is Mann's strongest effort of the 21st Century to date; a riveting crime thriller which goes admirably above and beyond the basic requirements of the genre. The Blu-ray release is worth an upgrade.
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