Chambers, Samuel A., Film & History
(dir. Michael Mann, 2OO4)
Audiences probably think they know what they are going to get from Collateral. The Hollywood one-phrase pitches come easily: "Tom Cruise as an older villain" or "Die Hard in a cab." Here we see examples of the formula for producing a hit: take an established megastar and cast him in a "new role" but one that still lets him be his thoroughly recognizable (star) self; or, work in a familiar and popular genre and modify it in only the tiniest manner. In either case, for good measure, throw in a famous and commercially successful director (e.g. Michael Mann). No wonder then, that both the trailers for the film and the early press reports made Collateral out to be nothing more than another Tom Cruise film-"but this time he has gray hair!"
Thankfully, someone forgot to tell Michael Mann to follow the textbook. Almost always working outside of the syllabus, Mann turns Collateral against genre and star expectations at every turn, producing along the way a subtle and sophisticated movie about the human condition-about relationships, meaning, and potential. In what might be read as an effort to tap into the very audience expectations described above, Mann opens the film on Cruise (though at a distance, through the crowds), with a brief scene that shows Vincent exchanging bags with a stranger in the airport. The movie then makes the most important turn of all: it simply leaves Tom Cruise behind. For the next twelve minutes of screen time the viewer is transferred into the taxicab of Max (Jamie Foxx), as he meticulously goes about his work as cab driver, and eventually carries a fare, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) downtown from the airport. Mann's direction all but screams to the viewer: Tom Cruise is not the star of this film; Jamie Foxx is. Indeed, Cruise's work in Collateral is nothing short of brilliant, precisely because he plays the supporting role so well. In Vincent, Tom Cruise the movie star becomes illegible, and this despite the fact that Vincent is not Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise's extremely un-Cruiselike character in Magnolia) but rather a charming, likeable, sexy guy (i.e. very Cruiselike, and yet, somehow, utterly not Cruise).
Collateral opens with no credits, using the opening scene of Vincent as an Elizabethan device: an unimportant (45 second) shot that gets the audience's attention and quiets them before the significant events begin to unfold. Mann, who re-set the film in Los Angeles when the script had placed the action in New York, shoots the city of Los Angeles at dusk (and mostly on digital video, so as to convey the night), turning the sprawl and smog of southern California into scenes of rich and haunting beauty. The camera alternates from shots of the city, shots of the cab from the air, and internal scenes of the dialogue between Max and Annie. The viewer is likely to experience a dialectic of reactions/emotions, from losing oneself entirely within the texture Mann has created, to emerging from that context long enough to ask, "wasn't this supposed to be a Tom Cruise action movie?"
There is no need to summarize the substance of Annie and Max's conversation, yet across the distance that marks all strangers in large metropolitan areas, and particularly across the class divide, Annie and Max make a deep and meaningful connection to one another. …