Friday, November 12, 2004


i'm an unabashed michael mann fan. stupidly i'd seen only two of his films before 'collateral' came along - 'heat' & 'the insider' - but they alone were enough to confirm him in my mind as a kind of latter-day kubrick. actually, let me rephrase. i think i appreciate mann's films in the same way i appreciate kubrick films. both provide enigmatic, indefensible pleasures. i doubt you'd ever catch me 'reviewing' a kubrick film on this blog - far too hard to encapsulate what on earth i'm feeling during his most extraordinary sequences: barry lyndon's first encounter with lady lyndon, 2001's space dance, pretty much all of 'eyes wide shut' etc. too difficult to separate irrational love & distanced critique.

i would say mann is as assured in his sensibilities as kubrick. he knows what he's good at - (primarily) male character study, supplemented by the most well-honed visual sense of the city in modern cinema - & he'll happily repeat himself until he can get it spot-on every time. let's extend on these two points. unlike kubrick, who more often than not focussed his films around a sole lead male, mann enjoys the dual character study: pacino/de niro (heat), pacino/crowe (the insider), tom cruise/some guy i don't know (collateral). 'heat' is a study of male conflict - its mildly over-heated epic ending hints at subtle similarities between the warring parties. in 'the insider' a war is fought along moral lines - journalist pacino bringing corporation-man crowe up to speed with issues of modern-day moral courage.

& so we come to 'collateral', in which we 'get to know' cruise & his taxi driver over the course of one evening. a very violent evening at that. which is where the problems begin. this is, at least to my knowledge, the first film in which mann works within a really limited time frame. it desperately restricts the amount of time we get to spend with the individual characters - the majority of the 'character study' takes place between the two men inside the taxi. in 'heat' & 'the insider' we got to know the respective leads by way of their behaviour within their own spheres - pacino as brilliant detective, de niro as brilliant criminal; pacino as wide-awake, savvy journo, crowe as anguished family man. in 'collateral' we have two somewhat ambiguous chaps (cruise plays the most mysterious, unlikely character mann has given us) thrown together for the whole film. kudos, certainly, to mann for setting himself a new character-challenge - a more direct, face-to-face, intense encounter than we've come to expect. but the writing (not done by mann) just ain't up to the challenge (at least i don't think so; another viewing & i might change my tune). some mild tension is created in certain exchanges - cruise challenging the taxi driver's lifestyle & dreams, the taxi driver defying & denying cruise's fundamental inhumanity - but all this proves subservient to what is a very un-mann-ish plot. it's a plot more typical of unmeditative, impatient, fast-paced & character-less action-thrillers, a plot dependent on a climactic, out-of-nowhere revelation-device, a plot that requires mann pack more style into cruise's execution-moves than the aesthetic sprawl he truly loves: the american city.

how sad it is to see mann's delicious urban-neon-high-rise-power-line-at-night-time sensibility drowned out by the demands of an action plot. i love what he loves about the urban: the artificial lustre of a city at night, the cold mass of colour as seen from a cowardly omniscient distance - i've no idea of the intimacies being played out within that high-rise sprawl, but such mystery just adds to the technological spectacle. surely part of the attraction of 'collateral's' script was that it was set over one night in L.A. plenty of visual material, mann must've thought - & sure enough, early in the film, things are looking up. gorgeous helicopter shots, shots of random night-time traffic, as always backed by a somewhat prim electronic score ('the insider's' soundtrack is just a masterpiece of visual affiliation). but this whole aesthetic premise seems to get lost along the way. jammed in from time to time are a few meditative camera-pans - not only do they seem extraneous to the violent narrative, they are accompanied by some of the worst backing-score choices of mann's career. what on earth audioslave's 'shadow on the sun' is doing in this film i'll never know.

i'll watch it again, no doubt, but first impressions are of a disappointing misfire.
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