Night Cruise

Michael Manns nerve-rattling Collateral

Late in the new thriller Collateral, a coyote ambles across an intersection in downtown Los Angeles, stopping only to stare at the movie's two protagonists parked at a red light, as if to emphasize it owns the place. One way or another, in every Michael Mann movie, there's a moment like this, when civilization knocks up against its feral underbelly and gives way. Collateral is no exception, but Mann means to make us wait.

As the movie opens, a poised young woman in a power suit gets into a taxicab at LAX and starts laying down the law about which is the best route to downtown. The driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), is amused and relaxed; their banter is funny and sweet. But this is a Michael Mann movie: their faces loom huge on the screen, the night air throbs with quiet menace, and we tense, waiting for a shoe to drop. It doesn't, at least not yet, but Mann stops to toy wickedly with our everyday fears about stepping into a cab driven by someone we don't know—not to mention white paranoia about black men—before he skitters on to full-court dread. The woman, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), is also black, and encouraged by Max's sympathy and his openness about his own life, she lets down her guard and confides her insecurity about her competence as a U.S. attorney. After some hesitation, she gives him her business card and leaves, and in short order, we discover that Mann and his screenwriter, Stuart Beattie, have been softening us up for more macho terrors. Back at the airport, another kind of control freak—a hit man devoted to nothing but his head count—flags Max down. Bound by chance and a director's lifelong fascination with pathogenic male symbiosis, the two embark on the night ride of their lives.

For all its out-there violence, Collateral, which is set fair to recoup in billions the box office losses of Mann's high-minded 2001 bomb about Muhammad Ali, has all the hallmarks of a safe bet. In style and substance, this sleek thriller is a throwback to Mann's 1995 crime thriller Heat, which also turned on a twisted relationship between two men, apparent opposites trapped in that hoary old noir clichť, the city as jungle. The edgy, fluid camera work that Mann pioneered while working on Miami Vice and Crime Story in the 1980s has by now become standard practice in the dozens of television crime series that dot the prime-time schedules, not to mention in scores of independent neo-noirs. Still, no one working in the genre—certainly no one who shoots digitally, as Mann does here—makes urban ennui and unease look more romantic or more intimately threatening. This is a movie that could only have been shot in LA, with its traffic signals switching blindly above indifferent empty streets, the city painted in deep blue and black, its bone-deep loneliness relieved only by the glittering lights of downtown office buildings and the endless suburban deserts beyond. Collateral covers the same barren downtown landscape we saw in Heat, only minus the small comforts of bright sunlight. (Minus, too—thank heavens—Al Pacino at his grimacing, overcompensating worst playing obsessive cop to Robert De Niro's sphinx-like psychopathic robber.)

Max's new fare, Vincent (Tom Cruise), a suave player in silver hair, salt-and-pepper beard and a crisp gray suit, offers the initially reluctant cabbie $600 to shuttle him from one business appointment to the next. Max accepts, and only when a dead body crashes onto the taxicab roof while he waits for his passenger in a dark alley does he realize that he's made a deal with the devil and there's no going back. Vincent, it turns out, is a hit man for an offshore drug cartel that's about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, and his task for the night is to take out five key witnesses in the case. Little things go wrong, and the two men end up being pursued through the back streets by the FBI, a persistent LAPD cop (Mark Ruffalo) whose suspicions are aroused by similarities between the damage done to the corpses piling up in a hospital morgue and, finally, by the drug-trade goons themselves.

This joy ride, of course, is nothing more than a fine excuse for Mann to blow us away with a string of exquisitely orchestrated shootouts in seedy apartments, in a run-down hospital, among the swaying, packed-together bodies in LA's ethnic nightclubs—black, Latino, Asian—that Other city of angels that so enthralls white Westsiders, if only from a safe distance. Mann, who clearly knows the Other city as well as he does his own, strategically removes that distance. Declaring himself ahead of schedule, Vincent insists Max take them to a South-Central jazz club "for a break." There, he listens, rapt, while the black owner riffs happily on a long-ago encounter with Miles Davis. But what we imagine to be a self-indulgent grace note characteristic of liberal white directors in love with black musicality turns into something else altogether, a quiet bloodbath at the end of which a victim's head is lovingly lowered to the table by his attacker—for greater neatness.

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