There are millions of stories in the City of Angels. As a teenager, crime novelist James Ellroy would get chills staring out at the endless stream of headlights passing along the freeway at night, wondering where they were going. It’s a morbid fixation, but a natural one. Especially in Los Angeles, where pedestrians are a minority.
Like Ellroy, writer/director Michael Mann has dealt with Los Angeles in his work. He tells moody but high-gloss stories about tough guys in crisis and, more than most noir stylists, manages to create characters with enough humanity to merit that melodramatic intensity.
Mann’s latest, Collateral, is a cat-and-mouse thriller accentuated by dark humor and his trademark themes. It’s enjoyable, but eventually undone by its own absurdity.
The film works like a cheap ’40s noir, updating the gritty classic Detour with big city angst and saturated neon glare. That’s a far cry from Mann’s cops-and-robbers epic Heat, although the two films have a bit in common. Instead of a thief and cop going head to head, it’s a taxi driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), and a professional hit man, Vincent (Tom Cruise), who employs the increasingly unwilling cabbie as his personal chauffeur for a night’s worth of assassinations.
Mann spends much of the film focused on the psychological conflict raging between the two men, and also within Max himself. Vincent is what you might expect from a Hollywood hit man: handsome, tragic, willing to excuse his livelihood with cunning rationales. Cruise, appearing here with gray hair and a refreshing world-weariness, succeeds with his clichéd role. Foxx’s low-key portrayal of a meek loner, first terrified and then morally appalled by Vincent’s crimes, is layered and convincing enough to avoid sentimental trappings. Both actors seem to have fun with their characters, even as the film around them gradually falls apart. Cruise is an actor who probably doesn’t play sociopaths often enough.
Being a film that takes place largely within an automobile at night in Los Angeles, Collateral at first seems broadly infused with Ellroy’s sinister romanticism and preoccupation with the urban unknown. It’s sad to watch it degenerate during the second half into knee-jerk suspense clichés. An interesting yet astoundingly stupid film, packed to bursting with obnoxious implausibilities, Collateral can at best be called a failed meditation on strangers lost in the Los Angeles night, and, at worst, a hard-boiled bubble gum.
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