Sunday, 2 September 2012

Films of the Decade: "Collateral" (2004)

Collateral picture

This is a series of writings where I'll talk about some of the most fascinating films of the last decade.

The last time I did one of these I was writing about Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Now, I'm tackling a film from a director who has been a big influence on Nolan's work in the past, particularly in regards to The Dark Knight: Michael Mann. Someting I've noticed, in terms of Mann's crime films, is that he goess beyond the archetypes of good guy/bad guy, cop/criminal and finds the texture and humanity in his characters.

In his 1995 film Heat, Mann views Robert DeNiro's bank robber Neil McClusky and Al Pacino's detective Vincent Hanna as professionals above anything else, two men who do what they do. They learn to understand each other, which makes their dynamic more complex than cop/criminal. In his 2004 film, Collateral, it's easy to view Vincent (Tom Cruise), the hit man who forces cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around while he does his rounds, as the villain and Max as the protagonist. And the surface veneer of the film reinforces this. But it's a surface that is always on the verge of collapsing underneath these characters' and the audience's feet.

While the film begins with Vincent receiving the information he needs for the job via a briefcase exchange with Jason Statham (Yes, that Jason Statham), the character we first get to know is Max. Max has been a L.A. cabdriver for 12 years even though he calls it a "temporary" job. He wants to start his own limo service but makes up reasons why he can't start it up. He picks up Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a prosecutor, and they have a lovely scene where we learn about Max's dreams and Annie's fears about her new case. When he drops her off, she gives him her number to which he's very surprised and happy.

I love that the film allows this small interlude. It really allows you to get to know Max and connect with him before Vincent enters his life. It also makes Max's descent in to Vincent's world feel more real because it shows Max's life before Vincent enters it-Max is stuck in a rut but meets a woman who makes his day-and then life throws him a curveball in the form of Vincent. We can imagine the same thing happening to us. Fate doesn't care about what path we're already on, it'll inevitably send you down another. What's intriguing about Vincent's plan is that Max was never supposed to know what he was up to. Vincent then shoots a man out of a window and he falls on Max's cab. This is when things get more complicated-not only for Max, but for Vincent as well. Vincent is an efficient and calculating man and he'd no doubt prefer if Max was none the wiser.

Collateral was shot on digital rather than film and Mann said in an interview he tried to make a look out of digital video rather than try to make it look like film. You can definitely tell it's shot digitally and while you wouldn't want every film to have this look, particularly with more films being shot digitally, it really works for this film because it captures what L.A. must really feel like at night.

My favourite scene in the film is the one at a jazz club where Vincent will kill a jazz player named Daniel Baker (Barry Shabaka Henley). Daniel sits down with Vincent and Max before he knows who Vincent really is. Daniel tells a story about meeting Miles Davis in the very same jazz club and playing with him. Daniel, like Vincent's other targets, is a witness for the prosecution in the case to indict drug lord Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem). Daniel implies he made a deal to stay out of a prison and was never going back. While Daniel only plays a small part in this film, Henley's performance gives us the sense of an entire life in only a few short minutes, a man who never quite achieved his dreams but nevertheless was for one night able to feel alive. "I was born in 1945 but that night was the moment of my conception." Vincent offers Daniel the chance to answer a question about Davis. If he answers correctly he can walk away. "Where did Miles Davis learn music?" is the question. Daniel says it was Julliard  Vincent shoots him. Vincent then says Miles dropped out and was mentored by Charlie Parker. This scene simultaneously shows Vincent's cruelty as well as his appreciation for the arts. It's almost darkly comic that this small detail is how he decided Daniel's fate-though it's hard to believe Vincent would have let him live either way. Daniel was "born" in that jazz club- and that's where he died.

Collateral almost becomes a bizarre take on the buddy film  in instances where Vincent helps Max stand up to his boss as well as take him to visit Max's mother in the hospital. We realize Max isn't always the nicest guy since he hardly visits his mother. It's moments like this that shows Vincent does have some nobility despite his violent nature. Thanfully, the film never makes Vincent completely soft, which makes these flashes of humanity all the more tragic. We learn Vincent had an abusive father, which he may have killed, and we realize this is man who was always destined to be who he is. Despite his inherent humanity, he can't escape who he is. He's in much of a rut as Max except Max can change his own fate. If Max makes it through the night alive, he can end up like Daniel, a man who never achieved his dreams or he can start to get his limo service up and running. There's a scene near the end of the film where Max and Vincent deconstruct each other's lives in ways similar to what I've just described. It reveals the film as not only a crime thriller but an existential study about purpose in an often disconnected and cold universe. 

While there's this meme that actors like Cruise are too famous to completely disappear in to their roles, Cruise's performance is more convincing than even his heroic roles. The silver hair he sports is a great touch that does a lot for his transformation in to Vincent. Cruise does a fine job of conveying Vincent's cold-bloodedness while suggesting the deeper reservoirs of pain that made him who he is today. Foxx is really good as well, both charming but vulnerable- showing how out of his element Max is. His greatest moment in the film is when he has to pose as Vincent in a meeting with Felix in order to get the information about Vincent's last two targets. At first Max is scared of Felix but  he slowly regains his confidence and pursuades Felix to give him the information. In this scene Max, while pretending to be Vincent, reclaims the assertiveness and confidence we knew he had at the beginning of the film.

The finale of the film is where things do become a little too coincedential, with Annie being the prosecutor for the Felix case as well as Vincent's last target. But it works because Mann keeps the tension up instead of resorting to gunfights and explosions. The film ends with what on paper seems like a typical Hollywood ending: Max kills Vincent on a train and walks away with Annie in to the sunset (or in this case sunrise). But Mann ends the film on a melancholic and somber note. Vincent mentions the story he told Max when they first met about a man who died on a L.A. train and no one noticed for hours. Vincent wonders if anyone will notice him. In his final moments Vincent acknowledges that despite being a man who determined other peoples' fates even without knowing them, his death will ultimately be insignificent to everyone except the man who killed him. While Max killed Vincent in the heat of the moment, in the fight for survival, there's nothing triumphant about his victory. Max and Vincent weren't friends but they saw each other clearer than anyone ever did. And inspite of everything Vincent did to Max, in a cold and disconnected universe, that connection meant everything.