Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
One Night You'll Wake Up
According to a date visible at a subway stop during its last moments, Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL ends early on the morning of January 25, 2004. I imagine that this is an accidental reveal of when the scene was actually shot more than anything since that day was a Sunday, meaning Jada Pinkett Smith’s prosecuting attorney most likely wouldn’t have had to pull an all-nighter before court that morning. But the date does make a certain amount of sense regardless since, after all, January is the month where we all think about how far we haven’t come and the possibility of hope for the coming year, something I imagine might have been on the mind of the film’s lead character. And sometimes at the end of January we wish that we could start the whole thing over again. Over ten years on, COLLATERAL barely seems two years old even though so much has happened since it was released in August 2004, so much has changed both in the world and in the careers of the various people involved. And so much has changed regarding the concept of films being shot digitally, with this being an early example of that approach since it’s the first one shot on the Viper FilmStream HD and that alone makes it very much a product of when it was made—you could easily film more or less the same script (allowing for the existence of Uber, of course) but the look of the piece would never be the same. The technology has changed too fast and as much as I’m one of those hardcore film people even I have to admit the look that technology Michael Mann insisted on plays as perfect for COLLATERAL, it makes its view of Los Angeles that much more unique and catches this particular moment in time just right. Hell, the Michael Mann view of the city isn’t ever based in reality anyway, what with Amy Brennenman’s bookstore clerk in HEAT somehow able to afford the most spectacular view you’ve ever seen. Likewise, geography doesn’t always make sense in COLLATERAL and I still wonder about the magic pathway Jamie Foxx’s Max takes to Jada Pinkett Smith’s office that seems to remove all traffic from the Harbor Freeway. Even visually speaking Mann doesn’t go much for strict realism—the city at dusk here almost looks more like dawn to me and makes this particular view of the city which has appeared in so many other films that much more dreamlike. And within this Mann-infused metropolis is the test the lead character goes through, the one that reminds him the year has already started. That the clock is ticking, as it always does.
Immediately after L.A. cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) hits it off with justice department attorney Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) he picks up a new fare, a mysterious gentleman named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who offers Max a deal to drive him around all that night so he can take care of certain business dealings. Max quickly, and fatefully, learns that Vincent is actually an assassin, in town to make five stops to do his job before morning. Now he’s going to hold Max to the deal they’ve made and as the LAPD in the form of Detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) gets on the trail of the taxi Max finds it increasingly harder to escape whatever Vincent has planned for the rest of the night.
Almost no one saw Michael Mann’s latest film BLACKHAT, a box office disaster when it was released in January, but I did. And I even liked it. Actually, I know a few people who both saw it and liked it just as I did but there weren’t many of them and that’s the way it goes. For an early stretch of that film’s plot it takes us to Los Angeles, Koreatown more specifically, and of course for a few minutes it gives us that comfortable feeling of classic Mann territory, the sort of L.A. that only he knows how to put in front of the camera. It’s the first time I truly, genuinely responded to a Mann film since COLLATERAL and the director’s chucking over film for digital when he made that film which was so controversial then remains so now. I won’t claim that it’s hard not to want more of those jaw-droppingly beautiful anamorphic cityscapes of the masterwork that is HEAT but at least we got it that one time. As much as I’ll always prefer that film look what sets Mann apart is that unlike many other directors is how willing he was to dare to make COLLATERAL not look like film at all and it turns the movie into something else entirely, going far beyond a plot that, while enjoyable, might be a little too familiar at times in its genre tropes. Mann simply seems more interested in the vibe, the moments, the looks between the characters, the new images the digital cameras can capture, than all the plot stuff anyway.
Revisiting COLLATERAL over ten years on makes me pay attention to the mood of the city more than that plot, causing a flashback to how close to when it came out I worked for a period at a swing shift job down near the airport. Like Max and his skills at knowing how long it takes to get to certain places, knowing just how to get lucky with the lights, it was a job I was good at and hated. Hated it so much that when a more promising opportunity that actually paid less came up I leapt at it, leaving that period of staying up well past the early morning hours behind me. But for those several months I drove home in the post-midnight hour, the cityscape looming in front of me in the dark. I didn’t exactly linger in places but my memory of those endless drives home was that they seemed more like COLLATERAL than HEAT and there’s a feel that you get driving through certain parts of Los Angeles late at night that it nails better than any other film. Maybe I’d rather live in the anamorphic universe of HEAT but even so the Los Angeles of COLLATERAL falls somewhere in between reality (or as close as you ever get to reality in L.A.) and Mann-World, a place where the geography doesn’t always make perfect sense—looking up how Mann would sometimes combine multiple locations into one confirms this—and a hospital apparently has visiting hours that go beyond last call at a jazz club. If he says that’s the way it is in his vision, that’s the way it is.
With a screenplay credited to Stuart Beattie (both Mann and Frank Darabont reportedly worked on it as well) COLLATERAL is the rare Michael Mann film that only exists in one version, no after the fact tinkering to be done by him for either video or TV. Whether this is because of any satisfaction Mann had with the film or not the film is tightly paced almost to the point of making the bulk of it an extended climax to a sprawling epic that we never got to see the first two-thirds of. It makes the rhythms exciting, unexpected, what we assume is a leisurely detour becoming tense within just a few seconds. All the talk of jazz makes it feel like Mann himself is riffing (“behind the notes”) in making this film, a down and dirty changeup as opposed to the concerto that is HEAT—in spite of it being known for early digital use there are sequences shot on film and because of this even the visual style is continually reenergizing itself, adapting to what the particular scene needs. It’s not his shortest film (let’s not forget THE KEEP, even if Mann wants to) but it does feel like he’s using the framework of the plot to deliberately go against the sprawling epic feel we expect from him to make something more compact, noirish even and it gives the film a tightness, a different kind of energy. There’s very little lingering in scenes like can often be found in his films--the nature of the narrative means there can’t be and it energizes things enormously. It offers a clarity to every single moment in Mann’s direction that continually holds to a point of view in individual moments and doesn’t stop. And it’s about these two guys caught up in the midst of all this, how the spectre of death that is Vincent is the catalyst to wake Max up from that endless drive in his taxi around the city. I never feel any sympathy or grudging fondness for Vincent but he knows the buttons he’s correctly pushing and in the moment when he tells Max that if they get out of this alive he should call her you can tell that he means it.
Maybe the parts of COLLATERAL have a greater effect than the whole but that feel of riffing is there even from the very start—except for the opening beat of Vincent, the first twelve minutes works as a short film unto itself and a pretty great short film at that. The connection Max and Annie quickly develop feels genuine, every inflection feels absolutely real. Maybe there’s a subtext in how the two actors are each the same color, placed up against the Great God Cruise in the climax, but maybe that doesn’t matter since that surge we feel in Jamie Foxx’s Max at the end of it is felt so strongly. It hasn’t even hit the fifteen minute mark and in some ways that’s all I really need. But since the film moves on from there it offers enough moments to more than justify continuing—the locations, that feel of the L.A. night, those long, narrow streets of the mid-city area, the lazy talk at a jazz club, that turns into something else without blinking, the unexpected confrontation Vincent has with a few muggers, the bridge going over one of the freeways that Vincent confronts Max on.
And even when the film works in the plot point of the Feds gearing up to move in on Max it feels like Mann is just as interested in exploring the surroundings of late night L.A., if not more so, with the evocative punch of what’s out there in the night. Bruce McGill’s line of “some are asleep, some are awake” lets us in on the full world surrounding all of this. Part of this section is almost a little too plot heavy but again I zero in on the mood it gives off, how the director makes this club allegedly somewhere down on Rodeo feel like it’s located on the outer rim of the free-floating planetoid that is Los Angeles as the music wafts through the air, never stopping. Mann seems to kick back and let us observe the machinations of all these pieces coming into play as they track Max’s cab and I’m not really sure if all the factions zeroing in on the Koreatown nightclub entirely works. Outside of Ruffalo we really don’t have that much of an investment of any of them but maybe that’s the point considering how they’re all rendered dead or irrelevant as we race off to the climax. As it is it’s a mesmerizing sequence just to watch and listen to, as if Mann is more into the pureness of the movement, the music, the confusion of the crowd, the reactions of the people closing in on each other than any interest getting the strict plot across. Just like when you leave a club, you still feel the daze after it ends.
As Max races through the empty downtown streets to get to Annie on time the James Newton Howard score—for once, overtaking the expected use of songs from Mann—seems to anticipate the Batman theme in the Christopher Nolan films, the first of which would arrive a year later. That climax of course is the big sticking point most people seem to have with the movie and, to be honest, I don’t have a very good argument for this but I can’t imagine another way I’d want to film to end either. It’s what the story has been naturally building to after all, it’s what the challenge Max is facing is building to. Plus, I’m not sure there’s any other city where such coincidences feel so natural. The movie isn’t about Max saving Annie and living happily ever after with her anyway, but instead facing down this guy who’s challenging him, making him want to accomplish something (“What the fuck are you still doing driving a cab?”) for once. Chasing down Vincent even means that Max actually winds up calling Annie, even if it wasn’t for the reason any of them would have expected. Yes, you feel the plot gears clicking along but it’s expertly done and the climactic action beats are actually more abrupt than you’d expect—the endless John Woo bullets flying doesn’t interest Mann. I mentioned earlier how I’d almost be happy if the film ended at the ten minute mark, right at the point where there’s a beat of hope for the first time in forever for Max, even if he has no idea what he’s going to do next. But by the end he’s managed to do something more, he’s done what seems like the most impossible thing in life—to say ‘Go fuck yourself’ to what’s crushing you deep down. The end of the film strands Max and Annie who knows where somewhere on a subway going to Long Beach, trying to flag down a ride. And they don’t know what’s going to happen next. Maybe that’s the best possible feeling you can have in the early morning hours of a new day in Los Angeles.
Looking at it now, this feels like a Tom Cruise performance that marks the end of a period when he seemed willing to take chances and work with strong directors that would push him (the whole Tom & Kate thing arrived about eight months later, marking the start of a new period in both his stardom and his film work). His portrayal of Vincent works with our own perception of his personality veering from being disarming to unnerving to total lack of comprehension of how normal people behave since he really does seem not quite human even as a few glimmers begin to poke through against his wishes. Jamie Foxx is flat-out great, playing a man who has made himself small, who has allowed himself to ignore any intelligence he has while repeating his same old boasts with just the right amount of puny bravado, forever convincing himself how temporary all this is. Jada Pinkett Smith does her best work ever during the first ten minutes as if Mann is letting her do something she’s never done before and it feels like the work of an actress that we never got to see again. As the plot gears that have to kick into place Mann lets the supporting cast do strong work making their parts into something with just a few minutes of screentime in some cases—Mark Ruffalo brings an energy to the plot beats that show the gears clicking in his head. Javier Bardem delivers exactly the right quiet menace as Felix, Barry Shabaka Henley brings unexpected depth to his one scene as Daniel indicating a life that didn’t quite happen and Bruce McGill nails his federal agent who doesn’t even know that the climax of the action movie he only thinks he’s the lead character of has already started. Jason Statham’s bit at the very start remains about as funny now as it did in 2004—he looks like he’s on his way to the first scene of another TRANSPORTER sequel. Or maybe it ties in with the chronology of the FAST/FURIOUS movies somehow.
Max closes the door of his cab and the whole world outside shuts off. That makes sense. I write in various places and if I have to I’ll bring the laptop down to Starbucks but I work best in my apartment. Shut off from the world. No chance of being disturbed. Just like his cab is Max’s own private, very small, domain where it’s just him and his private island, like the one Marion Crane spoke of long ago. Ten years from now, Vincent observes, most people know exactly where they’ll be. That’s part of why I left that job at the time. Now as I write this it’s over ten years later and I still feel a little stranded out there in my own version of Max’s taxi. All we know about ten years from now is that critical reappraisal on BLACKHAT will have happened. Early on Vincent tells Max the story of the guy on the L.A. subway who dies and no one notices so his body just keeps riding around the city. This would make more sense in New York where the film was originally set but never mind—is Max going to be a dead guy riding around L.A. and no one notices? Am I? Is one of the greatest fears that one day you’ll be doing nothing but talking about your one moment of glory, long after ‘the season had passed’? At the beginning of this piece I went on about what January does to you but I’m actually finishing writing this in February which means the year is already happening, the clock is already ticking. And it’s going to continue to, which maybe scares me more than anything right now.