Decoding Mann’s Magic

Collateral

Just to be clear, Michael Mann’s Collateral is a thriller, and an adept one at that. I say this up-front because that part of the movie isn’t of much interest to me. It doesn’t seem to captivate Mann, either.

As in Heat, the director (and uncredited writer) uses a rote crime-thriller plot as a structure and an opportunity for exploring character. His recent crime movies are distinctive in being intimate dramas as much as action showcases. What Mann recognizes better than other directors is that investment in characters makes the action more tense and suspenseful.

Collateral, like Mann’s The Insider before it, is a two-person drama with an uncertain, immensely compelling central character contrasted with and badgered by a more-peripheral character with a dominant personality and a clear sense of self. In The Insider, Al Pacino’s 60 Minutes producer circles around Russell Crowe’s volatile and unsteady whistleblower; here, a professional murderer essentially holds a cabbie hostage.

The result of this dynamic is that the secondary lead is a surrogate for the audience, staring at the primary character — unblinking, intense, and judgmental. But with Collateral, there’s something curious going on with this headstrong background character: His manner, surface, and actions radiate both confidence and competence, but the movie reveals considerable fault with him, not because he’s a killer but because in small yet cumulative ways he’s his own worst enemy.

The movie tracks a night shared between the cab driver Max and the contract killer Vincent, who has five people to off at different locations in Los Angeles. Yes, that’s the whole plot.

The film seems barely interested in Vincent; as played by Tom Cruise, he’s cool and demanding but vacuous and dull. Vincent we have seen before, and we know early exactly what he’s capable of.

Max, on the other hand, is a fascinating mystery. He is an excellent driver, able to say down to the minute how long it will take to get someplace, and he is as meticulous as his cab is spotless.

But Max, played by Jamie Foxx, is also a feeble creature, beaten down by his mother, his boss, his customers. He is most often seen looking down and to his left — cursing his bad luck, it seems — while never acknowledging that it’s not really luck at all, but his dogged unwillingness to stand up for himself.

He has dreams of owning a limousine company, but he comes up with every excuse for never having pulled the trigger. His driver job, he tells his fares, is temporary, but he’s been doing it for 12 years. Max is a creature of inaction, and while he doesn’t ever try to absolve himself of guilt, he doesn’t try to remedy the situation, either.

Vincent is amiable as a fare, and professional, efficient, prepared, and ruthless as a killer. Yet he has his own fragile system of denial. When Max accuses him — quite correctly — of killing a man, Vincent explains that he merely shot the guy, and that the bullets and the fall killed him.

A more damaging flaw is that Vincent thinks he reads people well, but he misjudges Max in minor ways that eventually catch up with him. He knows that $600 is enough to suck Max into a night that will almost certainly not be worth the cash, but he makes a major mistake by not offering more money as things go awry. Sending Max into a nightclub to get some information that was destroyed when he tried to escape Vincent? A bad idea, a situation with only two possible outcomes: Max getting killed, or Max finding some balls.

And Vincent mocks and goads Max throughout the night, calling him on his faults, so relentless that he pushes the cabbie to careless action. The unstated irony — characteristic of Mann’s much-noted existentialism — is that Vincent makes himself fallible with a series of minor lapses in judgment and people skills.

Cruise is the star here and capably carries the burden of villain. But Foxx’s Max is the focus, in nearly every scene, and his character is fascinating, tightly coiled, and ultimately rewarding. He’s not noble — he’s more rash than heroic — but he’s worth rooting for: decent, flawed, and desperately in need of Vincent’s regular prodding. Foxx is good in the role, although he overplays the mannerisms slightly; with his hanging head, he lays out the character rather than letting audiences discover it.

Mann remains one of cinema’s most stylish directors, having traded in the gaudiness of Miami Vice for elegant if unnatural palette, framing, and focus — with industrial greens and blues, characters often on the corners of the screen (in danger of falling off), and a very shallow depth of field. These directorial choices are striking, deliberate, and beautifully composed, and their artiness is an invitation to lean forward a little and pay closer attention. His rhythms, too, are meaningful, with a seemingly glacial pace (for an action thriller) that allows the audience to dig into the characters. Most everything Mann does has a purpose in mood and theme, and nothing is strictly utilitarian.

Some people find this style of filmmaking ponderous and pretentious — Tell the damn story! — but the world needs Michael Mann. His attention to tone and tension over plot and action is refreshing; instead of making chases or shoot-outs the meat of his movies, they serve as punctuation.

Yet they’re not afterthoughts, beautifully staged and executed. When feds, patrons, bodyguards, Vincent, one of his targets, and Max converge on an Asian nightclub, the scene is chaos. Because none of the characters knows about the presence of everybody else, Mann doesn’t give the audience the spatial context to orient itself; watching it, you’re as lost and confused and anxious as they are.

It’s so good as a thriller that my breathing was sporadic and labored in the last third of the film. I was so invested that I simultaneously feared and welcomed what would happen next, knowing that Max would emerge either dead or a changed man, and still hoping that he could somehow remain his reticent self.

Spartan

In terms of its feel, meticulousness, character development, and basic plot, David Mamet’s Spartan might as well be the same movie as Collateral. It’s not as good, but Mamet as a filmmaker (outside of House of Games) has always seemed overrated to me — stiff, unnatural, and cold, with little interest in the stories or characters.

Spartan, at least, is efficient and straightforward, effective if not exactly memorable. The plot twists that were expected in Heist and The Spanish Prisoner are gone, and the movie works better without such obvious crutches, and with some rooting interest in its lead character.

Val Kilmer plays Scott, a government agent who is charged with assisting in finding a prominent young woman who might or might not have been kidnapped for sexual slavery. Like Collateral’s Max, he’s good at what he does but is considerably less impressive the more you see of him. His problem is that he’s a worker bee, following orders thoughtlessly, even though the current situation calls for him to take decisive, unbidden individual action. Will he do the right thing?

Of course, you know the answer to that question, but the movie works in spite of being a bit too obvious at nearly every plot point. (The girl leaves a “signature” in windows wherever she goes, conveniently alerting our heroes that they’re on the right track.)

Still, surprising things keep happening, in part because Scott isn’t used to situations in which he doesn’t have the upper hand, and once he takes charge of his own behavior, the order of his universe crumbles.

Kilmer isn’t quite comfortable in the Mamet idiom — instead of giving a distinctive reading (as all the other actors in the movie do), he basically apes William H. Macy doing Mamet — but he’s by no means a disaster. And by crafting a story in which he seems to actually like his lead character, the famous playwright has written his best script since the similarly warm-to-its-subjects The Edge, and as a result made his most compelling movie in years.

My feelings exactly! You’ve captured my thoughts much more eloquently than I could’ve put it.

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