The best case for Michael Mann's visual genius can be made by comparing his depictions of Los Angeles in Heat, his most well-known and best-received film, and Collateral, his first foray into digital video (indeed the first major use of digital high-definition cameras in feature filmmaking). The L.A. of Heat was gigantic and shimmering, large enough to contain the Wagnerian scope of its epic take on the cops-and-robbers genre. Music, too, informs the aesthetic of the Los Angeles of Collateral, but it exchanges the opera of Heat for jazz.
As such, Collateral is intimate, improvisational, its alternately crisp and blurry landscapes reminiscent of the smoky haze of a hip dive. It shifts tempos and keys and dynamics, as terrifying as it is seductive. Vincent (Tom Cruise), a suave hitman, loves jazz, to the point that he takes the time out from his assignments to enjoy a performance in the same club where giants like Chet Baker and Charles Mingus used to play. As a jazzophile, he loves improvisation and expresses a reverence for the unpredictability of life.
These are traits largely absent in Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver who finds himself Vincent's courier and hostage during a five-stop killing spree. Max is the perfect cabbie: he knows all the back routes in the city and is honest enough to take them rather than deliberately seek out traffic. He has big plans for life, and he insists to his other passengers that he's just driving part-time to save up the cash to start a limo company. Vincent, however, learns that Max has been driving for 12 years. Where the hitman appreciates the constancy of variability, Max cannot act unless has accounts for every detail.
Let's be honest: Collateral isn't revolutionary storytelling. It's blunt. It's contrived. But damn it, i works, precisely because the digital cameras add an air of immediacy and breathlessness. Mann does not strive for a feeling of cheap realism, but he does make the audience a part of the action. His ability to convey intricate details through to-the-point dialogue and fast-paced editing takes Stuart Beattle's script and streamlines it. Furthermore, the digital photography, with its low-light capability, introduces a spontaneity to the strict linearity of the narrative: as the cameras can pick up action in dimly lit conditions, Mann could film scenes without worrying about meticulous lighting, allowing for memorable moments such as the shot of a coyote running across the street in front of Max's cab.
The dramatic weight of the story naturally concerns Max's fear and moral crisis in reaction to ferrying around a killer, and the action -- as is befitting a Michael Mann thriller -- is visceral and gripping (why do people even bother putting gunfire in their movies in a year featuring that contains a Michael Mann film?). Mann and editors Jim Miller and Paul Rubell maintain a constant level of tension between its storylines -- Vincent's engagements, Max's attempts to escape, the joint investigation of Vincent's murders by LAPD detectives (led by Mark Ruffalo) and the FBI (headed by Bruce McGill) -- never quite reaching the masterful level Mann and Rubell exhibited with The Insider but never losing any momentum. Mann can even cut to completely ancillary asides without breaking the flow, such as a humorous trip to the hospital to visit Max's mother (the always funny Irma P. Hall) and an unnecessary but gripping scene in which Max must pose as Vincent to obtain replacement dossiers for the ones he destroyed from Vincent's employer (Javier Bardem).
Below the surface, however, is a battle between ideologies. The clashing outlooks of the two main characters fits each character's occupation: Max takes the shortest, best-planned route not simply because he's a nice man but because he can't accept an imperfection, while Vincent accepts the unpredictability of life because he has to know how to adapt to any situation. Beattle envisioned Robert De Niro in Foxx's role, but that smacks too much of an excuse to have De Niro play the role of a taxi driver again. For once, the producers were right to insist on someone young: by casting in Foxx's age range -- then in his late '30s -- Max can believably cling to his dream of owning a limo company. A man his age is nearing the point of no return for his dreams but, unlike someone in De Niro's age group, he can still fulfill them. Thus, Vincent's influence, vile and twisted as it might be, can actually improve his life, and Collateral is as much about Max's maturation as it is the thriller plot.
When he first gets into Max's cab, Vincent comments upon his distaste for Los Angeles, finding its disjointed structure and dense population confusing and impersonal. Collateral's jazzy style and frenetic pacing reflects the disorienting layout of the city, but Mann uses the story to disprove Vincent's assertion of L.A.'s soullessness. It may be a place that crushes dreams and barely registers its dead, but Mann finds some nugget of worth in there, just as Scorsese did with New York (that Taxi Driver connection is more revealing than it lets on). Tom Cruise, the megastar with eternally youthful looks, frosts his hair to age himself and plays the villain, albeit one who imparts wisdom and perspective onto Foxx, then still easing his way into a film career. By the next year, he'd become the first actor to receive two Oscar nominations in the same year, for this and Ray. I would not fully align Collateral with the cinema, not in the way I would Public Enemies, but it's interesting to note Mann's love for Los Angeles -- inexorably tied to Hollywood even if Collateral never comes anywhere near it or the feel it evokes -- buried beneath the thrills.