Stunning visuals, skimpy plot define 'Collateral'

by John Kim | 8/10/04 5:00am

Michael Mann has set the bar so high for himself that "Collateral," a top-notch film on its own merits, could actually be considered a misstep by his standards. After all, Mann might be the finest director working today.

Only Spielberg can match him in terms of pure visual storytelling prowess, but Spielberg is too often content with "safer" fare. Meanwhile, no one will accuse Mann of being safe, as his entire oeuvre consists of provocative tales of raging masculinity that are almost anti-Spielbergian in nature.

"Collateral" marks Mann's return to the criminal world nine years after delivering the masterpiece "Heat." This time, we follow Max (Jamie Foxx), a veteran cab driver who has big dreams but is too afraid to leave his set place in the world. One night, after a chance flirtation with high-powered prosecutor Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), Max picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise), who is dapper and charming, and also a ruthless contract killer.

Now an unwilling accomplice, Max must find a way to escape before Vincent inevitably turns the gun on him.

It's easy to be skeptical about the casting at first. Nothing in Foxx's resume indicates that he is capable of being the straight man, and Cruise seems too much of a pretty boy to portray a menacing sociopath. However, both deserve praise for effectively playing against type. Foxx especially manages to subdue his more irritating tendencies in order to infuse his character with emotional depth.

Cruise is somewhat less successful, as he is never able to fully escape the shadow of his own superstardom. Yet under Mann's watchful eye, he is actually credible as a cold-hearted killer, keeping the idiotic "Cruise-isms" to a minimum. At the very least, he's not playing a samurai.

The camera work is predictably flawless, as is the Mann way. Admittedly, the "gee-whiz" moments are not as prevalent as in other Mann films, since the inside of a taxicab can only be shown in so many angles. When given the opportunity, though, Mann provides some beautiful shots that cement his vision of Los Angeles as a place for the detached and weary.

Aided by cinematographer Dion Beebe, Mann creates the most fascinating portrayal of the City of Angels since Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential." Yet while Hanson showed L.A. as a glitzy cesspool of loose ethics, Mann instead shoots Los Angeles as a haven for loners, a sprawling land of disconnectedness in which, as Vincent notes, a man can die on the metro and can go unnoticed for hours.

Directors do not become great on the basis of visuals alone, and far from being low-brow, Mann has earned acclaim because of the substance that buttresses his images.

In particular, Mann loves playing with conflicted moralities, with Vincent another in a line of "Mann villains" who aren't sympathetic but nonetheless have a very disturbing charisma about them. His bad guys are not pure monsters. They are human above all else with motivations of their own, likely to have a conversation with you before blowing you to smithereens.

Max and Vincent never become friends. There are no hints of a Stockholm syndrome developing between captor and hostage, and we never doubt that Vincent is a bastard who will eliminate Max if necessary. Yet in some ways, Max is actually painted as semi-pathetic, needing Vincent's example to finally realize his own potential. It's this willingness to fool around with the ideas of right and wrong that sets Mann apart from the rest.

Of course, Mann has his fair share of snazzy tricks. The man has almost no peer when it comes to shooting action scenes, and one set piece in a seedy nightclub is a stunning example of his genius. However, "Collateral" is actually less thrilling than his previous works, and does not even possess the best action scene of the summer. That honor belongs to "The Bourne Supremacy," which is a better film altogether.

Indeed, as in "I, Robot," "Collateral" showcases a master director limited by his material. The script isn't exactly awful, though one particular contrivance can be seen coming from a mile away.

Rather, the entire premise of "Collateral" is surprisingly flimsy. Mann works best with extremely tight plots -- a la "The Insider" -- or in the absence of that, extremely broad narratives that allow Mann to delve into the depths of his imagination, as with "The Last of the Mohicans." Sadly, "Collateral" falls somewhere in the middle: it's just too limited in scope to make up for the deficiencies in its story.

Ultimately, "Collateral" is the equivalent of Emeril Lagasse taking a job as a McDonald's fry cook. He's going to make the best damn Big Mac ever, and you'll enjoy it while it lasts. However, you're eventually going to ask, "What the hell is Emeril Lagasse doing in McDonald's, and why isn't he making me some filet mignon?"