Comfortable and Furious

Collateral (2004)

Collateral, or Terminator 4 as I like to call it, was a pleasure to sit through. Let me be honest upfront; not a great script. Fairly clichéd, a little too predictable, and ultimately and pointless. That said, Michael Mann is a fucking master. To take nominally standard material like this and craft a movie of such visual beauty, suspense, passion and most of all tension, is no small achievement. There are others out there who will lay on the requisite accolades in a much more straight-forward manner than I will. They’ll probably even mention “Oscar” or talk about Tom Cruise pushing the envelope by playing a bad guy. Yawn. My points are three:

  1. Collateral is the real sequel to The Terminator
  2. Jamie Foxx rules
  3. Michael Mann loves Los Angeles and rightly so.

The OG Terminator is one of my favorite films. I own it. Included on the DVD, along with one of the more preposterous “interviews” of all time (Arnold and James Cameron verbally sucking each other off), is the story of how the movie came to James Cameron during a fever dream he had in Rome. He woke up, sat down and wrote the script in a day. The initial idea was that the Terminator was not going to be an Übermensch hunk of Austrian Oak, but rather an everyman. A killer who could slip in and out of crowds and was totally indestructible. Sort of what Robert Patrick portrayed in T2 but without the CG orgy. In fact, Cameron initially wanted the great Lance Hendrickson to play the Terminator, and Arnold was to be cast as Michael Bean’s character; a hero sent from the future to protect the present.

While of course all instances of Sci-Fi trappings are absent (save for the indestructible taxicab computer), Collateral comes much closer to Cameron’s “vision” than any of the actual Terminator installments. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, the world’s most determined assassin, visiting LA to “terminate” five people that he has never met before. Vincent has superhuman skills. Er, superhuman murdering skills. He’s smart to a fault, insanely athletic, and as Ruthless as any screen killer ever has been.

My friend was telling me last night that one critic described Cruise’s entrances in Jerry McGuire as if Tom had been shot out of a canon. That is triple-true here. The most chilling scenes in Collateral are not when he is gunning down multiple people with cold efficiency, but rather (several) scenes where Vincent is running. Running really fast. Gun either in hand or tucked into his gray slacks, you know that Vincent simply must hunt down and kill whatever prey he is after. He will not stop. To quote Reese from The Terminator;

“Listen. And understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

This point is driven home in what was my favorite scene from the film; inside the jazz club. I’m making an effort not to give away the plots of films as much anymore because Readers are constantly writing in and bitching me out for doing so, but let me say this; Collateral is a film about a killer. He kills everyone he meets. So, suck it. Turns out that Vincent’s main passion–besides murder–is jazz. He loves it. Max (Foxx) drives him to a famous Leimert Park nightclub to watch Daniel (Henley) play trumpet.

Vincent is mesmerized by his performance. Afterwards, Vincent buys Daniel a drink and the three sit and talk Jazz late into the night. Mostly Miles Davis, and how years earlier Daniel had played for twenty minutes with the jazz great. Vincent is tickled pink and impressed with Daniel’s tale. But, alas, Vincent is only there to murder Daniel, and does so without hesitation. To me, this was the jumping off point from which it becomes apparent that Vincent truly is nothing but a killing machine. The Terminator, so to speak. Honestly, Collateral is the real sequel to The Terminator, not that kid-friendly dork-fest that was T2. Even the Dance club scene is replicated, only this time situated in Koreatown instead of Hollywood. But the gritty underbelly of LA is present at all times. All that was missing was a massacre at a police station.

And now I have to talk about Jamie Foxx. Man, is he a great actor. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a colossal and racist prick, but to quote Barack Obama, “[we must] eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” In other words, it was wonderful to see Foxx play Max as an actual individual, rather than as a collection of Hollywood stereotypes in regards to how a black man is supposed to behave (see Soulplane). He can’t stand his “momma,” when the insanely attractive (Annie) Jada Pinket Smith gives him her number, Max becomes flustered and indecisive instead of acting all “pimp,” and he doesn’t even know how to work a handgun. In other words, he’s an actual person, not a cartoon. Like, look at Will Smith.

The dude can fucking act, and if any of you have ever scene the overly-artsy but still enjoyable Six Degrees of Separation you know what I am saying. However, ever other character he plays (with the exception of Muhammad Ali in Mann’s Ali) is two seconds away from DMX’s “love my niggas but where’s my bitches?” Foxx though, never once slips into the really quite backwards stereotype of how Hollywood likes its “brothers” to behave. Except for one scene, inside the Mexican cowboy bar, but, well, watch for yourself. And trust me, I know that Foxx is as gully of perpetuating this stereotype as anybody.

Foxx actually steals the movie away from Tom Cruise. Look, I know Cruise can pump out shithouse cinema with the best of the pig-fuckers (the Mission Impossible series, anyone?), but he can do good. I will defend to the death his awesome performance in Eyes Wide Shut and I also really liked him in The Firm (though not as much as I liked Gene Hackman). My point is that Cruise, when he decides to be, can be an excellent actor. And there is no doubt in my mind that he was at the top of his game in Collateral. The trouble is, Foxx was also at the top of his game, and, well, Foxx is really something special. If he could just stop doing shit like Breakin’ All the Rules, well, the world would never be a perfect place, would it? Anyhow, Foxx is seriously impressive in this.

I mentioned above that Collateral, like The Terminator, took place in the grittier parts of LA; Pico Union, Downtown, K-Town, LAX. Mann’s Heat also excelled at showing the real underbelly of the city. Most of you reading this probably “hate LA.” It is very fashionable to think this way. Please continue to think this, as my rent is high enough already. In Collateral, Vincent hates LA. He laments that everyone is so disconnected, everything is so spread out, no one knows their neighbors (notably Vincent fails to mention the phony, plastic-ness of the Santa Monica Freeway corridor. Even I hate that part of Los Angeles. And not because of the freeway).

Mann knows that LA is a sleeping giant. What other city has the space for 17 million people to not live on top of each other like rats, yet is still mostly unexplored, especially cinematically? There is so much beauty here just waiting to be captured; all one needs to do is open up the shutter and shoot. And Mann does this, exactly this. Expertly. A good fifteen minutes of the film is a helicopter shot of Max’s cab with Vincent as fair/kidnapper just cruising the streets of LA at night. Beautiful. Collateral is a film to be watched on the biggest of screens.

Equal parts terrifying, beautiful, thrilling and fun, I really enjoyed Collateral. While not up to Mann’s masterworks, the aforementioned Heat and also Manhunter, Collateral is definitely a film you will not regret paying money to see. Which, these days seems to be a phenomenon that is getting rarer and rarer. The film did include Mann’s typical choice of excellent bit players as supporting cast (Henley, Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem and Peter Berg, most notably) and it includes several of his signature touches like “double-tap entry wounds” and music that in any other context would force me to stick chopsticks through my eardrums, but that somehow works perfectly within the context his films.

Again, the script (which Mann did not write) does have some clunk and cliché to it. Like, Vincent actually utters the old chestnut, “Take comfort in the fact that you never had a choice.” Also, some of the existential back and forth between Vincent and Max was pure high school-philosophy 101. And, while exciting, the ending could have been much darker. All in all, though, this is a fantastic film by a director at the top of his game.