Michael Mann’s Collateral is a film of many small virtues, notably its modesty. For a Tom Cruise vehicle, it’s surprisingly free of affectation. Cruise’s own performance as the heavy is quite disciplined — despite the character’s built-in potential for over-the-top hamminess. Cruise also deserves praise for making room for Jamie Foxx’s fine turn as the reluctant, didn’t-know-he-had-it-in-him hero. (If it had been up to me, Foxx would have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in addition to the Best Actor one he did win).
Michael Mann is content (like Clint Eastwood) to work within genre formulas, rather than hyperbolizing and hybridizing them as Tarantino does. Mann turns the familiarity of the form to his advantage by basically letting the plot take care of itself, the better to focus on character and on character interactions. This includes both revealing facets of the characters that are unknown to themselves as well as to others; but it also includes impersonation and fabulation, the putting on of masks, the becoming somebody utterly different than oneself. The ostensibly realistic character development of a film like Collateral is also a self-reflexive meditation upon acting. (Foxx’s taxi driver constantly has to figure out what he can and cannot get away with, faced with Cruise’s killer for hire; and then, at one point, he is even compelled to impersonate Cruise’s character itself). The banter between Cruise and Foxx itself becomes sort of philosophical, as it reflects on the existential and ontological dimensions of the characters’ roles and actions. And it’s precisely because of the unpretentious genre framework of the film that Mann, Cruise, and Foxx are able to get away with this.
Collateral is also distinguished by Mann’s visual poetry. He’s always been a master of depicting urban landscapes, usually being glided through by car: this goes back to Thief, his first major feature, as well as, of course, to Miami Vice. Here, nocturnal Los Angeles is ghostly and beautiful, by turns open and closed, free and deadly. Mann’s Los Angeles is a postmodern landscape of lateral motion, anonymous architecture, middles without beginnings or ends, hubs of intense activity where everyone is in your face (the hospital, the disco) surrounded by vast spaces that are never inhabited but only moved through at speed by drivers invisible to one another from within the protected coccoons of their cars. Mann’s LA, like Johnnie To’s Hong Kong, is one of those phantasmic, yet all-too-real, future (postmodern) spaces that are altering our very notion of landscape, changing our sense of what it means to inhabit a space.